A roadblock keeping people from driving into the search area during the hunt for an escaped Pennsylvania convict on September 12, 2023
A roadblock keeping people from driving into the search area during the hunt for an escaped Pennsylvania convict on September 12, 2023 / Stephen Gutowski

My Time at the Center of a Manhunt for an Escaped Murderer

On Tuesday night, the illumination of the motion light mounted over my grandparents’ garage signaled a possibility it never had before: that an escaped murderer may be approaching.

Bryce Harper was coming up to bat in the bottom of the eight against the Atlanta Braves. He’d hit a home run, but I wouldn’t see it. Instead, I was outside with my AR-15 pressed to my cheek, flashlight on as I pied the corner of the small ranch home that sits across the street from my mother’s horse farm.

My grandmother was outwardly unconcerned, which made me all the more concerned. Her house and the farm were technically outside the area police claimed Danelo Cavalcante, the convicted killer who’d escaped from a Pennsylvania prison nearly two weeks prior, was cornered in. But the four helicopters and airplanes we’d just seen overflying us made that claim seem less than certain.

It was those same overflights that kept my mom and stepdad from sleeping the night before after Cavalcante suddenly ended very close to home. He’d ditched a van he stole from a dairy near the prison he broke out of. The Chester County Prison is south of West Chester, close to the town I grew up in, but about an hour’s drive from the farm.

So, I was initially a bit worried about my close friends who still live in West Chester. Not too worried, though, because I figured he’d get caught in a few days and wouldn’t venture near the populated areas where my friends and their families actually live. And, while he was clearly depraved and dangerous, he only had the clothes on his back to work with.

It was a hell of a shock when, 12 days later, the van he stole was found abandoned a few miles from the farm. There was never any reason to think he’d end up there. It’s all horse farms and woods. No transportation hubs or train yards or anything else needed to skip town. But it’s also not necessarily remote enough to hide out in for weeks or months.

Shock turned to terror when reports came in that shots had been fired, and he’d stolen a rifle from an elderly couple’s garage that’s even closer to the farm than where the van was recovered. He’d now ended up on the backroad I use on the last leg of my drive up the farm. He was just a few doors down from our friend’s farm, who graciously lets me host my charity shooting events on his private range.

I suggested to my mom that it might be a good idea for me to come up while the ordeal unfolded. My grandfather still has his service revolver from his career as a cop, but he’s 90 years old now and can’t patrol like he used to. My stepdad had military training and a lone .22lr rifle of questionable reliability, putting him in a similar boat.

It just made sense for me to come up and help out, at least. I’m a certified firearms instructor who has taken a bunch of specialized active shooter and gun defense classes. I also have a bunch of guns much better suited for defending a farm from an armed escape.

But what worried me more than the fact Cavalcante was armed was that he was armed with a rifle. Yes, it was a relatively modest .22lr rifle, but a rifle nonetheless. That means he had range on his side.

I still brought a selection of self-defense guns because the more backups, the better. My 12-gauge pump-action shotgun would still provide a huge advantage if he managed to get close or inside one of the houses without being spotted. I gave my mom and stepdad a refresher on the gun safety rules and basics of using a shotgun for home defense.

I loaded my 9mm carry pistol, an older Springfield XDs since my new Sig Sauer P3650 X-Macro was down and out at the worst moment, as soon as I crossed into Pennsylvania, where I’m licensed to carry. It sat next to me in my car in case he tried to stop me and take my car–something that was a very real threat.

But my AR-15 was the only gun I had available that offered the capability most likely to matter. Since he could reach 0ut and touch us with his rifle, I needed to be able to do the same but better. A shotgun and a handgun, even chambered in more powerful calibers, are a bad matchup against a rifle at a distance.

My AR-15 equipped with a red-dot sight, sling, and light
My AR-15 equipped with a red-dot sight, sling, and light / Stephen Gutowski

While running into Cavalecante as I drove around during the day was possible, it seemed far more likely he’d show up on the back edge of our horse pasture coming out of the gameland woods. Those woods connect to the woods where he was spotted on Tuesday.

If he ended up a few hundred yards behind the farm shooting at me and mine, I wanted to be able to shoot back with something that could not only reach that far with accuracy but also stopping power. And, since I would need to lug the gun around the property to check whatever unknowns popped up, it had to be relatively light. With a chaotic shootout a likely outcome of any confrontation between me and Cavalcante, the capacity to get off rounds quickly was paramount.

There just isn’t a better firearm suited for that task than the AR-15.

My grandparents’ motion light coming on seemed it could mean I was about to test that theory. After all, everyone assumed Cavalcante was probably sleeping and hiding during the day while traveling around at night. And, as I made the last slice around the corner staring through my red-dot sight with my cheek pressed to the stock, it felt like I might end up staring down a man who stabbed his girlfriend to death in front of her kids as he tried to break into my grandparents’ home.

Thankfully, instead, the only thing inside the halo of the garage light was my Jeep. No sign of what motion caused it to go off. The pitch black outside the splash of illumination wasn’t reassuring. But the flashlight mounted on the foregrip of my gun helped me quickly figure out the rest of the yard and tree line were empty too.

It was a false alarm.

As Harper’s home run only briefly boosted the hope that the Phillies could pull off a comeback, the empty yard only provided some momentary piece of mind. The farm and two houses aren’t huge, but they are a substantial challenge for one person to cover. And the motion light on the barn ended up as sensitive as the one on the side of my grandparents’ house.

The helicopters and false alarms kept me up and busy most of the night. The stress was immense. I didn’t know how many days I could keep doing all that.

Luckily, the police turned out to be correct. They really did have Cavalcante bottled up inside the perimeter. And, with the help of a police dog, they finally tracked him down and captured him without a shot fired around eight on Wednesday morning.

I was relieved the ordeal was over. The police got their guy before he could hurt anyone else. I never had to confront him.

I may have lost some sleep and gained some gray hair, but I was also able to provide enough reassurance to my mom that she was able to sleep on Tuesday night. So, that certainly made the trip worth it.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

Comments From Reload Members

One Response

  1. This is one of the aspects of DGU (Defensive Gun Use) that is rarely discussed. Or in fact, actively avoided by the opposition — either out of lack of awareness, or logically disingenuous active refusal to:

    Overwhelmingly often, successful DGU are completed without firing a single shot. Either scaring away the perp from a hard-target once drawn; or the mere thought of it deterring the crime itself in the first place.

    You will never read the account of a victim of inability to defend themselves, since they aren’t as media worthy once deceased, or are politically inconvenient to amplify. At best, they are stood on as a talking point by those with an agenda.

    The obvious glaring outlier I’m citing had private security that failed them; and now lends their name to render countless others victims for their own *personal* furthered surety.

    Not everyone has a taxpayer-funded private military security detail for themselves and their families. For almost all Americans: they are their own first responders. Police are only retributive: to punish the crime *after* it has been committed, and the victim already harmed. Another aspect completely glossed over.

    Thanks for your anecdote; and proof to have backups in case primary (Macro) goes down. Highlights the importance of training and readiness; rather than simple “rifle on the fireplace of the republic”.

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