David Sweat was sentenced to life without parole for 2002 murder of sheriff's deputy Kevin Tarsia, 36

By Megan Kuharich and Jeff Truesdell
Updated June 17, 2015 06:00 PM
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Credit: News10

The upcoming Independence Day anniversary of his son’s murder already is a hard one for Phillip Tarsia, the father of Broome County, New York, Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia, who was shot in the line of duty on July 4, 2002.

Now, with the deputy’s convicted killer David Sweat on the loose in a New York prison break allegedly aided by prison employee Joyce Mitchell, Tarsia is confronted anew with the painful memory of his son’s loss.

“They said he had life without parole, and then this happens,” Tarsia, 78, of Windsor, New York, tells PEOPLE, “so it doesn’t mean much for the system, right?”

Sweat, 35, is on the run along with fellow escapee Richard Matt, 48, while Mitchell is in jail, accused of smuggling in the hacksaw and other tools the men used to break free of the Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6. Mitchell, 51, worked in the prison tailor shop; she has pleaded not guilty to charges that she promoted prison contraband and facilitated the escape.

Tarsia says he learned of the break when sheriff’s deputies came to his home.

He says he was “devastated.”

Deputy Kevin Tarsia, 36, was working an overnight shift on July 4, 2002, in Kirkwood, New York, when he encountered Sweat and two other suspects from a burglary at a Pennsylvania firearms store who were transferring guns from one vehicle to another. Two of the suspects opened fire.

Tarsia was hit more than 12 times, then run over with a car.

Sweat was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. But it’s a sentence that now carries little weight for the father of Sweat’s victim.

“When we have our parties and stuff, he was there,” Phillip Tarsia says of his son, who served with the sheriff’s office for 13 years. “That’s where it’s all brought back. … The Fourth of July, we have it at the park every year, so it’s a memory.”

As the manhunt for the escaped killer continues, “I’m actually not even thinking about it,” he says, “because to think about it, it just brings up the worst things.”

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