POTTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A murderer who brazenly escaped from a Pennsylvania jail was captured Wednesday in the woods by a team of tactical officers, bringing an end to an intensive search that terrified residents as the fugitive broke into homes for food, changed his appearance and stole a van and rifle during two weeks on the run.
Law enforcement's big break came overnight as a plane fitted with a thermal imaging camera picked up Danelo Souza Cavalcante's heat signal, allowing teams on the ground to secure the area, surround him and move in with search dogs.
“They were able to move in very quietly. They had the element of surprise,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said at a news conference. “Cavalcante did not realize he was surrounded until that had occurred.”
Still armed with the rifle he stole from a homeowner's garage, the fugitive tried to escape by crawling through underbrush. But a search dog subdued him, Bivens said, adding that he continued to resist as he was taken into custody after 8 a.m.
Cavalcante, 34, was bitten on the scalp and suffered a minor wound, Bivens said. A dog also latched onto his thigh, Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Clark told The Associated Press, “at which time, Cavalcante submitted."
“I think he was in pain at that point,” Clark said. “He was probably in excruciating pain.”
Aerial news footage showed an officer wiping Cavalcante’s bloody head and face with a towel.
No shots were fired. About two dozen officers in tactical gear posed for a group photo with Cavalcante, drawing criticism from policing reform advocates and some members of the public who called it inappropriate.
“Our nightmare is finally over, and the good guys won,” Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan said.
Cavalcante was taken to a nearby state police barracks in an armored vehicle surrounded by a convoy with lights flashing and sirens blaring as it traveled down the highway. Two police helicopters followed above.
Some residents watched the convoy pass. Kathleen Brady, who lives near where Cavalcante stole the gun Monday night, did so as she and her young daughter returned home after staying elsewhere Tuesday night.
“The streets are quiet once again. There were no checkpoints. The sun is coming out. The heat has dropped,” Brady said, describing the community's elation. “Poetic justice, and justice, all at the same time.”
Cavalcante was arraigned at the Avondale barracks on an escape charge, according to the office of Judge Matthew Seavey. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 27. He was led out with his hands and bare feet shackled, wearing what appeared to be a hospital gown. Cavalcante was driven to a state prison outside Philadelphia to continue serving the life sentence he received last month for killing his ex-girlfriend.
The endgame for Cavalcante unfolded in southeastern Pennsylvania just beyond Philadelphia's heavily populated western suburbs, in an area of woods, rolling farmland and a county park. Police brought in hundreds of law enforcement personnel with dogs, armored carriers, horses and helicopters that circled overhead.
The long search led to school closures right at the start of the academic year, warnings for homeowners to lock their doors and blocked roads over the busy Labor Day weekend. Overnight into Wednesday, heavily armed officers searched through downpours and thunder.
A Drug Enforcement Administration plane picked up Cavalcante's heat signature around 1 a.m., but the storms grounded the aircraft for a time, delaying his capture by several hours, Bivens said.
Cavalcante escaped from the Chester County jail in southeastern Pennsylvania on Aug. 31 by crab-walking up between two walls that were topped with razor wire, then jumping from the roof.
Authorities said over the weekend that Cavalcante had slipped out of the initial search area, shaved and changed his clothing, stole a vehicle to travel miles to seek aid from former co-workers in the northern part of the county, and then abandoned the vehicle, at least in part because it was low on fuel.
Authorities have declined to say how they think Cavalcante escaped the first search area, and officials have pushed back against questions about whether they blew a chance at that time to catch him.
Late Monday, a motorist alerted police to a man matching Cavalcante’s description crouching in the darkness along a line of trees near a road in northern Chester County. Police found footprints and tracked them to prison shoes identical to those he had been wearing. A pair of work boots was reported stolen from a porch nearby.
State police said they believe he was looking for a place to hide when he saw an open garage. There, he stole a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition, and fled when the homeowner, who was in the garage, drew a pistol and shot at him several times, state police said.
That led hundreds of law enforcement personnel to search an area of about 8 to 10 square miles (21 to 26 square kilometers) near South Coventry Township, roughly 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia. Cavalcante was captured just inside the search perimeter.
“He was desperate, and it was just a matter of time,” Gov. Josh Shapiro said at the news conference.
People had the “intent and intended to assist” Cavalcante during his time on the run, Bivens said Wednesday, but authorities thwarted those attempts. He did not elaborate or say anyone had been charged criminally.
Clark, the deputy U.S. marshal, said Cavalcante's sister was evasive and gave police conflicting information during his time on the loose, leading authorities to detain her and take steps to start her deportation.
“We believe that she was trying to mislead law enforcement. And she quite possibly had the resources to aid her brother should he be able to get in contact,” Clark told AP. “We thought she needed to be taken out of the equation.”
It wasn't immediately clear where the sister lives. Authorities do not have evidence that Cavalcante obtained a cellphone or had any direct conversations with friends and family, Clark said, and they are not aware of anyone offering him material aid.
Cavalcante’s escape and capture were big news in Brazil, where prosecutors in Tocantins state say he is accused of “double qualified homicide” in the 2017 slaying of Válter Júnior Moreira dos Reis. Authorities say it was over a vehicle-repair debt the victim owed him.
Pennsylvania authorities even broadcast a recording of Cavalcante’s mother speaking in Portuguese imploring him to surrender peacefully.
Cavalcante was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Deborah Brandao, in front of her children in 2021. Prosecutors say he wanted to stop her from telling police he was wanted in the Brazil killing. He was arrested in Virginia, and authorities say they believe he was trying to return to Brazil.
The jail tower guard on duty when Cavalcante escaped was fired. The escape went undetected for more than an hour until guards took a headcount.
Cavalcante was captured in a gray Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt that he either found or stole. Aerial footage showed an officer cutting it off as he was loaded into a police truck.
The governor promised the owner a new one.
“Whoever had their Eagles hoodie stolen, if you could let us know," Shapiro said, “I’ll do my best to get you one of those new kelly green ones.”
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Rubinkam from northeastern Pennsylvania.