By Tassanee Vejpongsa and Maryclaire Dale
As the hunt for an elusive murderer stretches into a second week, residents of suburban southeast Pennsylvania say they're unsettled and perhaps frustrated — but not panicked — as hundreds of heavily armed searchers scour through roads, neighborhoods and dense woodlands.
Danilo Souza Cavalcante, a 34-year-old from Brazil, escaped from the Chester County Prison on Aug. 31 by scaling a wall, climbing over razor wire and jumping from a roof. The breakout mirrored an earlier escape there in May and wasn’t detected by guards for a full hour, authorities say.
“This is an outrage. It never should have happened,” said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ran at a news conference Thursday.
Cavalcante has been spotted at least eight times since he escaped, said state police Lt. Col. George Bivens. The most recent was at around noon, when a civilian saw someone who looked like Cavalcante running through an area near Longwood Gardens, one of the nation’s premier botanical gardens. A trail surveillance video had captured Cavalcante walking through the garden’s grounds on Monday night.
“I don't feel scared, but it’s unsettling,” said Wendy Hughes, 60, who lives about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from Longwood Gardens. “You don’t want to have to think about it anymore.”
Hughes has resumed her morning walks but now carries pepper spray with her, and had the added comfort of seeing a state trooper in the neighborhood Thursday morning.
She works from her home in Chadds Ford, and hasn't needed to go out much. But other residents have dealt with roadblocks, intermittent lockdowns and school closures as sightings are reported.
“There’s some frustration, but it’s amazing on social media how critical people are. I'm thankful for the law enforcement officers. It's a tough job, in this heat, in the terrain around here,” said Hughes, who heard a flurry of helicopter activity nearby just before midnight Wednesday. “Those conditions are probably wearing them down.”
Cavalcante received a life sentence last month for killing his ex-girlfriend in front of her children in 2021. He escaped while awaiting transfer to state prison. Prosecutors say he killed her to prevent her from telling police that he’s wanted in a 2017 killing back in Brazil.
He had been captured in Virginia after the ex-girlfriend’s murder, and authorities believe he was trying to return to Brazil.
The slain woman's family is under police protection, said Ran, the county attorney general. “And they are terrified. They are barricaded inside their home.”
The escape and search have attracted international attention and became big news in Cavalcante’s native Brazil. The main newspaper in Rio de Janeiro ran a lengthy story Wednesday with the headline “Dangerous hide-and-seek.”
Howard Holland, the acting warden of the Chester County Prison, said the prison had brought in a consultant after the first escape in May and added razor wire to that area.
“They probably did what made sense, to consult an expert, but obviously it was inadequate. Hindsight is 20/20,” Hughes said.
Ryan Drummond, 42, had a harrowing encounter with the man believed to be Cavalcante when his home in Pocopson was broken into late Friday.
After awaking to a noise in the kitchen at about 11:40 p.m., he checked on his young kids, grabbed a framed picture of his family as armor, then flickered the hall lights from upstairs several times — and felt fear pulse through him when the intruder flicked them back.
“That was kind of the terrifying moment, where I like, looked at (my wife) quickly and said, ‘He is in the house, call 911 right now,’” Drummond said Wednesday.
“I saw him methodically, not panicked, walk out of the kitchen, in the living room toward that French door and walk out,” he said.
Police came within a minute, but not before Cavalcante — if it was him — was on the run again, with a few pieces of fruit from Drummond’s kitchen in hand.
Dale reported from Philadelphia.