Editor’s Note: Read the latest on the capture of Danilo Cavalcante here.
The convicted murderer who escaped a Pennsylvania prison nearly two weeks ago was taken into custody on Wednesday morning, Pennsylvania State Police announced, ending a manhunt that drew hundreds of law enforcement officials to the area and left the surrounding community gripped with fear.
“Our nightmare is finally over,” Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan declared Wednesday morning.
The dramatic capture of Danilo Cavalcante around 8 a.m. Wednesday in Chester County involved an aircraft, a lightning storm, a police dog and more than 20 tactical officers, authorities said.
At around 1 a.m. Wednesday, an aircraft flying above the search area picked up on a heat signal on the ground, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said in a news conference. A storm rolled in and lightning forced the aircraft out, and a tactical team of 20 to 25 officers secured the area and waited out the storm until morning.
Cavalcante was sleeping when police found him, lying on top of a rifle he had stolen from a nearby resident late Monday night. Officers took Cavalcante by surprise, and he tried to flee by crawling through thick underbrush with the rifle in hand, Bivens said. A police dog was released and bit him, preventing him from using the rifle, and police then took him into custody.
Bivens described Cavalcante as “defiant and still resisting arrest” and noted that the dog left him with a scalp wound.
“When the dog got to him, he then went flat with the dog on him – the dog was able to detain him there,” Bivens said. “I was told the rifle was within arm’s length.”
Video from CNN affiliate KYW of the aftermath of his capture shows Cavalcante in handcuffs and being escorted by more than a dozen heavily armed officers into the back of an armored Special Response Team vehicle.
Cavalcante had blood on his face and was wearing dark pants and a Philadelphia Eagles hoodie, which was cut off his body before he was placed into the vehicle. A number of officers also posed for a group photo with the fugitive and the rifle.
No one else was injured during the capture, Bivens said.
“For me, the biggest sense of relief is no one in the community was harmed and no law enforcement officer was harmed either,” Bivens said.
Cavalcante was a “desperate man” during his nearly two weeks on the lam, surviving in part on a watermelon he found at a farm and drinking stream water, Robert Clark, supervisory deputy US marshal for Pennsylvania’s eastern district, said Wednesday.
Clark cited what deputy marshals told him about an interview that Cavalcante had with law enforcement officials after the fugitive’s capture.
“He was actively avoiding apprehension, and 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, who did not speak with Cavalcante, said.
Cavalcante also told law enforcement he planned to carjack someone by Thursday and drive to Canada to continue evading authorities, Clark told CNN.
“He said the law enforcement presence where he was, was immense, and he felt that he needed to leave,” Clark said.
Nearly two weeks of fear
The capture ended a nearly two-week manhunt that began when Cavalcante, 34, escaped from Chester County Prison in a rural area some 30 miles west of Philadelphia on August 31. Video of the escape shows him placing his arms on a fence and his legs on a wall and “crab-walking” up to the roof, where he then slipped through razor wire and fled the compound.
He was convicted last month of first-degree murder for the killing of his former girlfriend, 33-year-old Deborah Brandão, and sentenced to life in prison.
According to prosecutors, Cavalcante stabbed Brandão 38 times in front of her two young children in Pennsylvania in April 2021. He was arrested several hours after the killing in Virginia, and authorities said he was attempting to flee to Mexico and intended to later head to Brazil, his native country.
In addition, Cavalcante is wanted in a 2017 homicide case in Brazil, a US Marshals Service official said.
The sister of Brandão, Sarah Brandão, said in a statement after Cavalcante’s capture that her family is “profoundly grateful for the support and hard work performed” by law enforcement.
Sarah said the escape and days that followed evoked the feeling of losing her sister again.
“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,” she said in her statement, which was translated into English. “At this moment, me and my family need to regroup and focus on processing everything that has happened as we take care of each other.”
The prison escape upended lives in South Coventry Township, which has a population of just over 2,600. 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 the wooded area.
During his two weeks on the run, Cavalcante was spotted inside homes, managed to slip through police search perimeters, stole a van, changed his appearance, showed up at the doorsteps of people he knew years ago and stole a firearm.
Pursuing law enforcement officials almost stepped on a hiding Cavalcante – or came within yards of him – three times during the search, the prisoner claimed after he was caught, according to Clark of the US Marshals Service.
Clark, citing what he was told about Cavalcante’s interview with law enforcement officials, did not say when these near-encounters are alleged to have happened.
“But that just proves to you how thick the vegetation and the foliage was,” Clark said. “It was just an immense area to search. I don’t think the public understands how hard it was, in extreme heat and extreme conditions, to locate him.”View this interactive content on CNN.com
Police sent out several Reverse 911 calls to residents warning them of the danger and advising people to lock their doors. Some schools and businesses closed due to police activity or simply fear.
Yet on Wednesday, residents got a Reverse 911 call of a different nature.
“This is a message from Pennsylvania State Police. The search for Danilo Cavalcante is over. The subject is now in custody,” said a Reverse 911 call sent to area residents Wednesday morning.
Catherine Evans, who lives near the area where Cavalcante was captured, had been working from home with the doors locked, keeping close watch of her surroundings from a window overlooking her backyard.
“I am in shock that he was this close,” Evans told CNN after Cavalcante’s capture was announced.
“I’m very relieved to get back to normal. The normal grind that I don’t look forward to, I am very much looking forward to it,” she added.
What’s next for Cavalcante
Following his capture, Cavalcante was driven to the state police barracks in Avondale, where he was escorted by a handful of police officers.
As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, he was in the State Correctional Institution - Phoenix – a Pennsylvania state prison located in Montgomery County – where he will serve his mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder, the state’s Department of Corrections confirmed.
SCI Phoenix is a maximum-security prison and has a capacity for 3,830 inmates, according to the prison’s website.
In addition to the first-degree murder conviction, Cavalcante has been charged with felony escape and his bail was denied after his court appearance on Wednesday, according to court records.
He was arraigned at 10:30 a.m. and is expected to be in court again for a preliminary hearing on September 27, the 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.
Cavalcante was expected to be arraigned on a felony escape charge and will then be transferred to a state correctional institution, Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry said.
“This was an exhaustive search for an extremely violent and dangerous man that ended with the best possible outcome – the escapee’s capture without physical harm to residents or the brave officers who tracked him down,” Henry said in a statement. “I commend the hundreds of searchers who were laser-focused in their mission, and did not flinch at the challenges they endured along the way.”
Bivens said Cavalcante had the appearance of someone who was in the woods for an extended period of time – that he was stressed.
“Which is exactly what we were trying to do all along,” he said. “The whole point was to keep him stressed, keep him moving, and keep him off his game.”
The escapee’s sister, Eleni Cavalcante, was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is now in the process of being deported after failing to cooperate with the investigation, Bivens said.
“There were people who were intent and intended to assist him,” he said, confirming she was one of them. “To the best of my knowledge, we have been successful in preventing that assistance from reaching him.”
Ryan, the district attorney, said one of the first calls she made after his capture was to Brandão’s family. They had been “barricaded inside their homes not feeling safe anywhere,” she said, and the news spurred an emotional reaction.
“They were shrieking with joy and happiness that he’s incarcerated,” Ryan said. “They have lived their own personal nightmare.”
CNN’s Nouran Salahieh, Dakin Andone, Aditi Sangal, Sabrina Shulman, Jessica Xing, Kristina Sgueglia, Celina Tebor, Brian Todd, Caroll Alvarado and Aaron Cooper contributed to this report.