Residents press stakeholders for answers in Cavalcante escape09/27/2023 03:17PM ● By Richard Gaw
From the moment the news broke announcing that 34-year-old convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante had escaped from Chester County Prison on the late morning of Aug. 31, the magnitude of the incident began to reverberate around a county not used to having a dangerous criminal seeking freedom throughout its towns, municipalities, homes and backyards.
Cavalcante’s capture on Sept. 13 may have served to quell the immediate fear of county residents, but over the last few weeks, the reverberation of their voices, their anger and their adamant wish to understand how this happened has only multiplied.
After more than three weeks of confining their opinions to social media, submitting letters to local newspapers and sharing their opinions at kitchen tables, they were recently invited to share their concerns in public. On Sept. 18 and 20, the Chester County Commissioners held two town hall meetings at the Pocopson Elementary School that drew nearly 500 residents and cumulatively lasted more than five hours.
At the initial meeting, the Chester County Commissioners and other stakeholders acknowledged their role in not providing adequate security measures at the prison, and that lingering community tensions about Cavalcante’s escape are justified. They invited representatives from Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems to both town hall meetings in case anyone in attendance wished to obtain personal counseling services in the aftermath of the Cavalcante prison escape.
‘The systems that were in place failed’
Just as he did two days before, Acting Warden Howard Holland offered his apologies again on Sept. 20, saying that even though he had only begun his position one day before Cavalcante’s escape, he takes full responsibility for the security inefficiencies at the prison.
“The systems that were in place failed,” said Holland, who introduced several new initiatives the prison will soon undergo, including improvements in security, technology and operations, and the roof enclosure of its eight exercise areas. “We’re going to correct them. I am going to have to make sure that this community is safer.”
After Holland’s presentation, several members of the audience fired questions and comments at the Commissioners, Holland, District Attorney Deb Ryan and Bill Messerschmidt, director of the Chester County Department of Emergency Services. One resident called for the prison to fill the 58 current correctional officer vacancies, while another criticized ReadyChesCo.org. for its ineffectiveness in providing timely updates during the time of Cavalcante’s escape.
“Do you understand that this is not an issue that will be fixed with incremental additions, incremental layers of razor wire or incremental alert systems?” one resident said. “It’s a fundamental problem of public safety being seriously compromised by the failure of the state and the county’s administrative and strategic programming to keep this under control.”
‘You failed us’
The general tone of the Sept. 20 town hall meeting reflected the topics and emotions expressed by residents who attended the Prison Board’s meeting earlier that day in West Chester, when the board gave approval to the construction of a roof enclosure on the eight exercise yards at the prison. They broached several topics that have served as the general narrative of the last two weeks, as well as shared their frustrations that proper measures at the prison would have prevented Cavalcante from escaping.
Recalling the effective use of a canine known as Yoda in helping to capture Cavalcante on Sept. 13, a Tredyffrin Township resident said that if the county had reinstated its canine program – one that was abandoned in 1986 – the capture “would have ended much sooner and probably saved million dollars, and perhaps border patrol would not have been necessary,” she said. “I have learned a lot about future plans at this meeting, but in spite of all the very costly renovations, currently today I do not feel safe anywhere in this county.
“If we had appropriate security, staffing, upkeep and oversight by the Prison Board, perhaps [these planned upgrades] wouldn’t be needed.”
“I am livid,” a Westtown Township resident told the board. “I appreciate your starting out and acknowledging the mistakes that were made and the bad judgement that was involved, but it’s a really long list. You had one job to do – which was to ensure the safety of the citizens and manage the prison properly – and you failed to do so.
“We can’t afford another mistake like this. The havoc that wreaked its way across the whole community is not acceptable.”
Perhaps the most pointed criticism levied against the Prison Board was articulated by local business leader and Treddyffrin Township resident Guy Ciarrochi, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022 against U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.
“Allow me to cut to the chase. You failed us,” Ciarrochi told the board. “You failed us in your duties to protect us – to keep the bad guys away from the good guys. My comments aren’t personal. I am sad to be here. I am disappointed to have to come with so many other citizens to point out the obvious.”
While thanking law enforcement for their work in apprehending Cavalcante, Ciarrochi said that the prison should refuse to “accept murderers and rapists” until the renovations of the prison are completed in six to nine months.
“If you are forced to take them, will you guard them 24-7?” Ciarrochi said. “Deny them outdoor exercise? What are you going to do about the now staffing shortage emergency? What are the steps you are taking? Are you reaching out to the [Fraternal Order of Police], to retired military, to retired prison guards? Have you talked to private security firms? Are you treating it like an emergency? Will you adopt the policy to make sure citizens are notified ASAP and that the picture of the escapee is given to us immediately?
“Your promises are making small steps forward, but frankly, they are too little and unfortunately, too late. Respectfully, one gets the sense that you’re making these changes because Cavalcante got out. If he had not, would you be doing the things the warden has asked?”
As they had done throughout the two-week manhunt for Cavalcante, community leaders continued to adopt a conciliatory tone in an effort to regain the trust of the public.
“I just want to express on behalf of the county how deeply sorry we are for everything that happened to the community,” said Commissioner Michele Kichline at the Sept. 20 town hall meeting. “To know that that the citizens I was elected to serve felt unsafe and traumatized is fairly and deeply unsettling. The county is committed to bringing you better security in the future. I know it will not be easy to get over this, and we’re going to do what we can to provide common sense, good solutions.”
County Commissioner Josh Maxwell addressed “what the communities in Chester County have been going through for the last three-and-a-half weeks, something we never expected to happen here in Chester County, a place where people moved to be and feel safe.”
“We all share our deepest sympathy for what the community went through during that time,” Maxwell said.
It was announced that town hall meetings will soon be held in northern Chester County, near the area where Cavalcante was captured.
To obtain free emergency notifications from the Chester County Department of Emergency Services, visit www.ReadyChesCo.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].