Inside the bizarre love triangle that spawned the N.Y. prison break

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated June 17, 2015 11:00 AM
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Credit: G.N. Miller/Pool/Getty

In Dickinson Center, N.Y., Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell was the proud military mom and devoted fireman’s wife – someone her neighbors believed to be so trustworthy the whole town twice elected her tax collector.

“She’s very responsible,” neighbor Sharon Currier says in an interview for the new issue of PEOPLE. “She’s a hard worker. Always took her boy to church.”

But according to prosecutors investigating the June 6 escape of two convicted murderers from the maximum-security prison, Clinton Correctional Facility, where Mitchell works, the 51-year-old woman with a knack for sewing (she’s a training supervisor in the prison tailor shop) also flirted with danger.

Mitchell, who is now in jail and charged with helping Richard W. Matt and David Sweat pull off their brazen prison break, got too close to the inmates, Clinton County D.A. Andrew Wylie tells PEOPLE.

Suspected some time ago of “having a personal relationship” with Sweat, Mitchell “gave [him and Matt] the tools that helped them break out. Then she was going to drive both escapees in the getaway car,” Wylie says.

While Mitchell has pleaded not guilty, friends like Currier are dumbfounded – “I can’t figure out why she would do something so stupid,” she says – but experts and fellow prison workers say falling for an inmate is not so uncommon.

“We’re human,” explains one retiree from nearby Franklin Correctional Facility. “And the inmates are around you enough on a daily basis to know your weak spots and use that to their gain.”

Terry Pelz, a former Texas prison warden, says the seduction is more common with female workers and starts out simply. “Usually it’s doing a small favor for the inmate, then it boils into bigger favors, and then the inmate has the employee hooked.”

For the full story on Mitchell’s role in the prison break, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday. And for breaking news in the manhunt for Matt and Sweat, keep checking People.com.

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