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Chester County Press

District judge orders all charges against Cavalcante to be moved to county court trial

02/07/2024 02:56PM ● By Richard Gaw
Six months after his Aug. 31, 2023 escape from Chester County Prison held thousands of area residents in a two-week grip of fear and concern, convicted murderer Danilo Cavalcante emerged from a white van beside law enforcement officers at the rear of the District Court in New Garden on Feb. 2 at about 9:30 a.m.

Dressed in the orange jumpsuit prison attire that he has worn nearly from the time he was captured last Sept. 13 in South Coventry Township, Cavalcante was then led into the courtroom at 10:02 a.m., and for the next two-and-a-half hours of his preliminary trial, his eyes, nearly completely obscured behind an unruly mop of hair, saw the testimonies of eight witnesses whose lives and careers were interrupted and impacted during his two-week escape last fall.

After a meticulous presentation by Deputy Attorney General Christopher Phillips introduced more than 20 exhibits into evidence, District Judge Matthew Seavey ordered that all 20 charges against Cavalcante be bound over for a trial that will take place in a West Chester courthouse at a date to be announced. 

Cavalcante’s attorney, Susanna DeWese, entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of her client.

Cavalcante was charged last November for escaping the Chester County Prison, burglarizing residences, and stealing items that ranged from a refrigerated dairy van from Baily’s Dairy, clothing, a sleeping bag and a camera bag to a knife and a .22-gauge shotgun and its ammunition.  

For those gathered in the packed courtroom, the preliminary trial served as a blow-by-blow retelling of Cavalcante’s clandestine scramble through southern Chester County, told by some of those whose actions and confrontations with the escapee were well documented by local, regional and national media.

Correctional officers recall prison escape

The preliminary trial began with the testimony of two of the prison’s correctional officers who through exhibit photos and video replayed the circumstances on the morning of Aug. 31 that led to Cavalcante’s escape, including the now viral video that showed him scaling up the narrow hallway near the prison’s exercise yard, as well as new video that showed him jumping off the prison roof, scaling a fence and escaping from prison grounds. 

In his testimony, which referred to several videos that documented Cavalcante’s escape, Lt. Miles Pettiford said that he was informed in central control that of the nine prisoners that were led to the exercise area that morning, one inmate was brought in from the yard earlier than the others, but at the time the remaining eight prisoners were being led back into their holding cells, “one was missing,” he said. “Nine went out, but one didn’t come in.” 

Phillips then called for the testimony of Ryan Drummond, a resident of the 1600 block of Water Glen Road, located just a half-mile from the prison, who shared the moments when Cavalcante broke into his home at about 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 31. Drummond said that while he and his family were asleep, he was awoken by a noise in the home and noticed that one of his home’s doors had been opened about two inches. The door’s lock was not functional at the time, he told Cavalcante’s attorneys.

He described the noise he heard as a “shuffling movement in the kitchen.”

“Knowing that there was a prisoner on the loose, I quickly ran down the hall to check on our children,” he said. “At that point, I woke my wife up and let her know that there might be someone in the house.”

While his wife called 9-1-1, Drummond found a picture frame to use in his defense and began to flick the light switch from the hallway “to let whoever was in the house know that I knew he was in the house.” 

He then saw the light in the kitchen flick on and off, indicating that Cavalcante was in the home.

Following Cavalcante’s capture, Drummond identified several items that were stolen from the basement of his home and recovered by authorities. They included a sleeping bag, a camera backpack, a men’s shirt, a shaving razor and a small steak knife that had been taken from the family kitchen. 

After testimony by area resident James Hertz, whose home’s sensory video captured an image of Cavalcante walking through his property on Sept. 2, Phillips continued to call witnesses whose testimonies merged with the escapee’s 14-day trek through the county. After eluding authorities in the area of Longwood Gardens, Cavalcante punctured through a perimeter in the area of investigation and stole a refrigerated van whose key had been left in its ignition and proceeded to drive about 40 miles north to East Nantmeal Township. On Sept. 9, he rang the doorbell of the home of Robinson Conegero on Bonnie Brae Road, who was at a nearby restaurant with his wife and family who were visiting from Brazil.

Speaking through an interpreter, Conegero said that while he was unable to identify the visitor on his phone or decipher what he was saying, his wife said she was certain that it was Cavalcante, whom he said was a friend of his brother-in-law, and only “an acquaintance” who had visited the home two or three times.

Conegero told Phillips that he then called police, who arrived at his home after Cavalcante had left in the stolen van, but the image of the escapee caught in the ring camera was used as evidence that tracked his whereabouts to northern Chester County.

‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’

Perhaps the most compelling testimony came from Horace Daniel Hammond of South Coventry Township, who encountered Cavalcante on Sept. 11 at about 10 p.m., when the escaped prisoner entered Hammond’s garage, where the homeowner was cleaning up from his job as a welder. 

Pointing to Cavalcante on the other side of the courtroom, Hammond said, “That man over there came into my garage and took a .22 caliber rifle (later described as a Ruger “varmint” gun, which was fully loaded at the time with a ten-shot magazine) with a scope on it with flashlights. I got up, got out of my chair and went over. He was crouched down trying to grab the gun. As I got up, I had another pistol in my pocket because I was out working earlier in one of my sheds, and I put it in there because I knew this man could possibly be in the area.”

Hammond continued to follow Phillips’ request to provide further details of the incident.

“I went after him,” Hammond continued. “I told [Cavalcante] ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it! and that’s when I started going after him. He turned and he ran. He went around the corner, and he tucked himself in between the fence and my walk. I said something to him, but I can’t remember what I said, and then he said something. 

“I put up my pistol and he was cornered back there, and he ran up the hill and I fired four shots at him, probably from here to the back of the courtroom (a distance of about 20 feet). I thought I had hit him but obviously I didn’t.”

While Cavalcante managed to elude Hammond’s pursuit, the report of the stolen rifle enabled authorities to tighten their search perimeter, and on the morning of Sept. 13, a heat-detecting radar device on an aircraft hovering above the scene tracked Cavalcante to an area located behind a tractor dealership. According to testimony given by border patrol officer Chris Holter and Lt. John Prisker -- who was assigned as the lead investigator in the mission to find Cavalcante – special agent Ed Clark led a foot patrol through a thick brush that found Cavalcante laying on his stomach with his hands and the stolen rifle beneath him. After a short and futile escape – and with the assistance of Yoda, a four-year-old Belgian Malinois who is part of the BORTAC K9 unit with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- Cavalcante was captured, taken into custody and later formally arrested at the State Police in Avondale.

The 34-year-old Cavalcante is one of 3,830 inmates at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montogomery County, where he is serving a mandatory life sentence for the first-degree murder of his girlfriend Deborah Brandao in Schuykill Township in 2021, in order to prevent her from telling police that he was wanted from a murder he committed in his native country of Brazil in 2017. 

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].