The convicted murderer who escaped a Pennsylvania prison late last month is once again behind bars, now facing additional charges, after a nearly two-week manhunt that captured national attention and put the surrounding community on edge.
Danilo Cavalcante, 34, was sleeping when police found him in the woods of South Coventry Township on Wednesday morning, lying on top of a rifle he had stolen from a nearby resident days earlier, a law enforcement source told CNN.
A helicopter flying above the search area had picked up on a heat signal on the ground, and a tactical team swooped in after a storm cleared out. Cavalcante tried to flee by crawling through thick underbrush with the rifle in hand, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said.
A police dog was released on him, biting him and preventing him from using the rifle before police took him into custody, capping a dramatic dayslong manhunt, according to Bivens.
Cavalcante is now being held in a Pennsylvania maximum security prison, State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, in Montgomery County, where he’s to serve a life sentence for his previous murder conviction.
He now also has been charged with felony escape, and is due to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on September 27, court records show.
An attorney has not been listed on court documents for Cavalcante and the public defender’s office declined to comment at this time. Pennsylvania authorities updated the spelling of Cavalcante’s first name to Danilo in court documents Wednesday.
The inmate, who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for the killing of his former girlfriend and sentenced to life in prison, escaped from Chester County Prison in a rural area some 30 miles west of Philadelphia on August 31.
He managed to evade authorities for 13 days, hunkering down in wooded areas, moving at night, and in the early days, surviving off stream water and a watermelon he found at a farm, authorities said.
During his time on the run, Cavalcante slipped through search perimeters, was spotted inside homes, stole a dairy van, changed his appearance, showed up at the doorsteps of people he knew years ago, stole a firearm and got shot at by a homeowner.
When he was captured in South Coventry Township – roughly 20 miles from the facility he escaped from – Cavalcante had the appearance of someone who was in the woods for an extended period of time, and looked to have been stressed, Bivens said Wednesday.
“Which is exactly what we were trying to do all along,” Bivens said. “The whole point was to keep him stressed, keep him moving, and keep him off his game.”
Cavalcante’s escape was unnerving for many throughout Chester County, said David Sassa, chief county detective.
Sassa, who was one of the detectives to respond to the scene of the murder Cavalcante was convicted of, told CNN’s Laura Coates Wednesday night he was shocked when he learned Cavalcante escaped after his sentencing for the “horrific” killing.
“I was in that trial. I watched him, he showed no emotion. He did not apologize … To see a week later, him escape the way he did was shocking to me,” Sassa said.
Cavalcante’s plan was to drive to Canada, official says
More than 20 officers in tactical gear and camouflage uniforms took Cavalcante into custody Wednesday, escorting him to an armored vehicle. He was handcuffed with blood on his face and wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hoodie, video showed.
His capture came as he planned to leave the country, according to Robert Clark, supervisory deputy US marshal for Pennsylvania’s eastern district.
“His endgame was to carjack somebody and to head north up to Canada and he intended to do that in the next 24 hours,” Clark told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Wednesday.
Clark, who did not speak with Cavalcante, cited what deputy marshals told him about an interview that the prisoner had with law enforcement officials after his capture.
“He said the law enforcement presence where he was, was immense and he felt that he needed to leave,” Clark said.
About 500 law enforcement officers – including members of the Pennsylvania State Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and US marshals – had set up a perimeter in South Coventry Township this week to search for Cavalcante from the ground and the air.
Clark told CNN Cavalcante was forthcoming with investigators after his capture, and “answered everything that was given to him” and “had no hesitation.”
“Everything we thought about Cavalcante in his flight, was true,” Clark said. “He was a desperate man, he was actively avoiding apprehension.”
Nearly 2 weeks on the run
Cavalcante left the prison by “crab-walking” between two walls, scaling a fence and traversing across razor wire and then disappeared into the forest.
“This person had high capabilities that maybe a municipal prison isn’t always set up for but now we know we have to be set up for these things,” Josh Maxwell, chair of the Chester County prison board, told CNN Wednesday night.
Investments are being planned to shore up prison security, including added fencing around prisons, Maxwell said.
“There’s still 600 folks in the prison and we’re making investments right now to ensure that there isn’t any way that someone can follow this route ever again,” he said.
Police faced challenges finding Cavalcante within the initial search perimeter in the densely wooded area, even after he was sighted several times in the area of a botanical garden and elsewhere in Chester County.
“Shortly after he escaped from the prison, he had hunkered down in an area that was very, very secluded, very, very wooded and he didn’t move for the first couple days,” Clark said, citing Cavalcante’s post-capture interview with investigators. “He survived on a watermelon that he found at a farm, he drank stream water, he was hiding his fecal matter under leaves and foliage so that law enforcement couldn’t track him.”
But officers came close to him several times.
Cavalcante told investigators that officers searching for him nearly stepped on him three times – or came within yards of him – as he hid in the woods, Clark said without indicating when these near-encounters happened.
“Three times, he described that law enforcement officials almost stepped on him within 7 or 8 yards,” Clark said. “That just proves to you how thick the vegetation and the foliage was.”
Members of the tactical team at times searched for Cavalcante in brush so thick, they couldn’t even see each other walking through it five feet apart, Sassa told CNN.
“He told our investigators that at some points he stayed still for a day, a day and a half,” Sassa said. “He told us at some points, the tactical teams walked past him.”
Cavalcante decided to leave that area when he saw the increasing law enforcement activity there, Clark said.
He had been surveilling the locations where he stole a truck from a dairy farm on Saturday, as well as a property where he stole the rifle this week, Clark said.
The rifle Cavalcante took from an open garage Monday night added a heightened sense of danger to the search, and prompted authorities to urge residents to stay inside and lock their doors.
“Our nightmare is finally over,” Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan said Wednesday morning.
Ryan said one of the first calls she made after Cavalcante’s capture was to the family of the woman he killed, 33-year-old Deborah Brandão. Prosecutors say Cavalcante stabbed Brandão 38 times in front of her two young children in Pennsylvania in April 2021.
Her family had been “barricaded inside their homes not feeling safe anywhere” since his escape, Ryan said.
“They were shrieking with joy and happiness that he’s incarcerated,” Ryan said. “They have lived their own personal nightmare.”
Brandão’s sister, Sarah Brandão, said in a typed statement after Cavalcante’s capture that her family is “profoundly grateful for the support and hard work performed” by law enforcement.
The escape and days that followed evoked the feeling of losing her sister again, Sarah said.
“The past two weeks were extremely painful and terrifying, as they brought back all the feelings of losing my sister and the idea that this criminal could hurt us again,” the statement, which was translated into English, reads.
CNN’s Danny Freeman, Lauren Mascarenhas, Rob Frehse, Alessandra Freitas, Kristina Sgueglia and John Miller contributed to this report.