Manhunt for escaped murderer keeps Pennsylvania residents on alert

Danelo Cavalcante, who was convicted for killing his ex-girlfriend, has been on the run for nearly two weeks and is known to be armed. Nearly 500 officers have been sent out to catch him

Escaped convict Danelo Cavalcante spotted near Phoenixville on Saturday.Photo: PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE (via REUTERS) | Video: EPV
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A convicted murderer is on the loose in Pennsylvania. His name is Danelo Souza Cavalcante. He is a 34-year-old Brazilian national who escaped last Thursday from the Chester County State Prison, west of Philadelphia. He was serving a life sentence for the April 2021 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Déborah Evangelista Brandão, whom he stabbed to death in front of their two children, ages seven and three. It was later learned that authorities of the Brazilian state of Tocantins were also looking for him for the 2017 shooting death of Valter Júnior Moreira dos Reis. The victim owed Cavalcante money for a car repair.

In the latest turn of events, the police reported on Tuesday that the night before, the fugitive obtained a .22 caliber rifle with a scope and flashlight, which he stole from the garage of a single-family home. The homeowner discovered him and shot at him several times with another pistol in his arsenal, but he was not hit.

“We have always considered him to be a risk. We just now absolutely know that he has a weapon,” said State Police Lt. Colonel George Bivens at a press conference on Tuesday. “Cavalcante is considered armed and extremely dangerous.”

Early Tuesday morning, Pennsylvania police warned residents to stay inside. “Residents in the area are asked to lock all doors and windows, secure vehicles and remain indoors. Do not approach. Call 911 if seen,” they said in a message on X, formerly known as Twitter. The reward for any information leading to his arrest has risen from $10,000 to $25,000.

The fugitive learned of his sentence in August. On August 31, a few days before beginning his life sentence, he escaped from prison by climbing up a wall. Security video footage captured the moment. In it, he is seen wearing a T-shirt and white sneakers, distractedly approaching a narrow passageway made of exposed brick. He places his hands on one of the walls and his feet on the opposite wall, then starts to climb horizontally up, without taking his eyes off the prison courtyard. Within seconds, he disappears from view. The recording, worthy of a Buster Keaton film, is hypnotic. Cavalcante is only five-feet tall, but makes the feat look easy. Guards described it as “crab walking.”

The convicted murderer then managed to make his way past the razor wire, which had been installed after another inmate scaled the same wall and escaped. Cavalcante ran across the roof, scaled another fence, got through more razor wire and since then, the police have not been able to find him.

As of Thursday, he will have been on the run for two weeks — two weeks in which residents of the area surrounding the prison, a semi-residential area with large swathes of forest, have been living in fear. Meanwhile, police officers appear helpless against the fugitive’s cunning. Lieutenant Colonel Bivens has appeared every day on television, no longer knowing what excuses to make to explain how Cavalcante has been able to avoid capture. The case has transcended Pennsylvania and caught the attention of the entire country.

Outside the perimeter

At first, the police spokesman tried to reassure residents by saying that authorities had cordoned off a perimeter of about 35 square kilometers, cut off roads, combed the area with hundreds of officers and enlisted helicopters to scope the area. Even classes at a nearby university were cancelled. On September 2, the Saturday after the escape, a security camera caught him 1.5 miles from the prison. That Monday, authorities played an audio message from Cavalcante’s mother over loudspeakers. In the message, she begs her son to surrender and says she fears that he will be shot to death if he is found by police.

The following week, Cavalcante had more encounters with locals in the area, who alerted the authorities. Last Saturday, on September 9, he appeared again in home surveillance video. It was proof that the murderer had breached the security perimeter. He also looked different. In the photo of his arrest, he is seen with long hair and a beard. The new Cavalcante was shaved and wearing a baseball visor and a green hooded sweatshirt. It also emerged that he had stolen a delivery van, which he abandoned when it ran out of gas, and that he tried to contact two old acquaintances.

Heavily armed troops mobilized to search for Danelo Cavalcante in Pocopson Township, Pennsylvania, on September 3.
Heavily armed troops mobilized to search for Danelo Cavalcante in Pocopson Township, Pennsylvania, on September 3.David Maialetti (AP)

In response to the incident on Monday — when Cavalcante stole a rifle and was confronted by the armed homeowner —, authorities have stepped up efforts to find and capture the fugitive. Around 500 officers from the Pennsylvania State Police, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Marshalls have been enlisted to help with the manhunt.

“It is a large, wooded and hilly terrain,” said Bivens of the search area, adding that he believes Cavalcante is capable of shooting at officers or locals if he is cornered. Bidens cautioned that it will take a “long time” to search the area, but said he didn’t believe that the fugitive “has the resources to get out of Pennsylvania.”

Given Cavalcante’s track record, however, he shouldn’t be underestimated. The Brazilian is a veteran fugitive. After killing his girlfriend in Pennsylvania, he also fled. He was found a couple of states further south, in Virginia. What’s more, he entered the United States illegally. While the exact date is not known, it had to be after the 2017 killing of Moreira dos Reis, which was not on the radar of U.S. authorities.

In the wake of Cavalcante’s jailbreak, questions have been raised about why he was not deported to Brazil after the murder of his ex-partner. America’s immigration system allows undocumented migrants (11 million people, according to calculations by the Migration Policy Institute) to be deported when they commit minor crimes. Studies show that, regardless of the severity, undocumented migrants commit crimes at a lower percentage than U.S. nationals. In Cavalcante’s case, the law dictates that if he is convicted, he must serve his sentence in the United States. In other words, if he is captured, he will be faced with a good many years behind bars in the Pennsylvania prison that he escaped from 13 days ago.

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