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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A fugitive’s capture brings relief to a corner of Pennsylvania

Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania speaks to reporters in Kennett Square, Pa., after the arrest of Danelo Cavalcante on Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, 2023.

By Campbell Robertson

After nearly two weeks of combing the cornfields and forests of Chester County, Pennsylvania, with hundreds of law enforcement officers and a battery of drones, dogs and helicopters, the capture itself took about five minutes.

A little after 8 a.m. Wednesday, in a densely wooded area of South Coventry Township, a team of officers quietly surrounded Danelo Cavalcante, 34, who had broken out of Chester County Prison, where he was being held after he was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend. He was taken by surprise, officials said, and tried to crawl away through the underbrush, but a search dog caught him.

“Subject is in custody,” an officer radioed to dispatchers at 8:16 a.m. “Confirmed, subject is in custody.”

So ended a search that had unnerved communities all over Chester County, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, and even rattled people back in Cavalcante’s home country of Brazil, where he is wanted in connection with a 2017 killing.

In the days after Cavalcante’s escape from the jail Aug. 31 — by crab-walking up two walls and pushing through the razor wire on the roof — he had steadily eluded a search that came to include around 500 federal, state and local officers. He had been spotted multiple times, and more than once officials believed they had hemmed him in — only to be caught by surprise when he showed up somewhere else.

“We had confidence it was going to be Cavalcante,” Robert Clark, a supervisory deputy U.S. marshal, said shortly after the capture. “However, over the course of the past 14 days, we’ve had confidence at other times when we thought we were going to apprehend him.”

Officials had believed that Cavalcante was in the area since Sunday morning, when they found a delivery van he stole from a dairy farm and apparently abandoned when it ran out of gas. After more than a week of focusing on an area south of the county jail, the search moved about 30 miles to the north, to a bucolic stretch of stone barns and thick woods south of Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Late Monday night, the search took on frightening new urgency after Cavalcante stole a .22-caliber rifle from an open garage not far from where the van was found. He fled with the gun as the homeowner fired at him with a pistol, and the search immediately intensified, focusing on an 8- to 10-square-mile area of woods and farmland.

A little after midnight, the burglar alarm at a home within the perimeter was triggered, Lt. Col. George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police said at a news briefing Wednesday. Search teams found nothing when they responded to the alarm, but they began combing the surrounding area.

Around 1 a.m., Bivens said, an aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, one of the federal agencies involved in the search, picked up a nearby “heat signature,” an indication of something giving off more heat than its surroundings. The way it was moving, officials said, suggested that it might be a person.

Tactical teams began tracking the signal but were stymied by a thunderstorm that rolled through the area overnight, forcing the aircraft to leave. Officers waited out the storm and resumed the search when the aircraft returned.

When they closed in on Cavalcante, he still had the rifle, but he was arrested with no shots fired. Bivens said that Cavalcante had a “minor bite wound” from the search dog, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois named Yoda. Other than that, there were no injuries.

Cavalcante’s elusiveness over the previous 13 days had been unsettling and exhausting for residents in the area, but officials said it was not entirely surprising.

“I don’t know that he was particularly skilled — he was desperate,” Bivens said. “You have an individual whose choice is go back to prison and spend the rest of your life in a place you don’t want to be, or continue to try and evade capture. He chose to evade capture.”

But Bivens added: “I was confident all along, that he would eventually be captured.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the state’s Department of Corrections said Cavalcante had been placed in the agency’s custody and transferred to SCI Phoenix, a maximum-security prison in Montgomery County, west of Philadelphia.

The escape last month from Chester County was not Cavalcante’s first. After the killing in 2017, in the northern Brazilian town of Figueirópolis, he apparently hid from authorities among the cattle ranches of the Brazilian savanna, and then fled to the United States with a false identity.

Living outside of Philadelphia, he had a relationship with Deborah Brandao, a mother of two who was also Brazilian. He turned threatening and abusive, people testified at his U.S. murder trial, and in April 2021 he stabbed her 38 times, killing her in front of her young children.

He tried to flee then, too, but was arrested the next day in Virginia and brought back to Pennsylvania to stand trial. In August, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Nine days later, he escaped.

In his brief attempt to flee before his arrest in 2021, Cavalcante had been helped by acquaintances, including a man living with his sister. On Saturday, after stealing the van, Cavalcante went to the houses of two of his former co-workers looking for help, but no one met him. Instead, they notified the police.

Still, Bivens said Wednesday that “there were people who were intent and intended to assist him,” in his flight, but that authorities were able to prevent these potential abettors from getting in contact with him. Bivens included Cavalcante’s sister among them; she was recently detained by immigration authorities for overstaying a visa and is in the process of being deported.

Authorities said that Cavalcante would soon be taken to a Pennsylvania state prison to serve out his life sentence. Prosecutors in the Brazilian state of Tocantins, where Cavalcante has been charged in connection with the 2017 killing, said in a statement that they would hold the first hearing in that case next month, and that Cavalcante would be required to join the hearing via video call.

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