On Saturday morning, the fugitive who had escaped Chester County Prison and eluded authorities for more than a week was apparently surrounded, hemmed in by a sprawling law enforcement operation in the Philadelphia suburbs. But that night, the man showed up miles away, freshly shaven, in possession of a van and still very much at large.
As the search has grown and shifted across the county, it has become ever more clear that Danelo Cavalcante, a Brazilian national who has been convicted of murder, is an incredibly elusive target.
Roughly 10 days after his jailbreak, Mr. Cavalcante somehow slipped out of a ring formed by nearly 400 federal, state and local officers and appeared on a doorbell camera at the house of a former co-worker in East Pikeland Township, more than 25 miles away. He had driven there, said Lt. Col. George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police, in a refrigerated van stolen on Saturday from a dairy farm outside the perimeter that authorities had set up to catch him.
That night, Mr. Cavalcante stopped at the houses of two people he had once worked with, Colonel Bivens said, though neither was home. Then, he drove west, into the Pennsylvania countryside. The van was found on Sunday morning behind a barn in East Nantmeal Township, a small village about 12 miles from East Pikeland, amid cornfields and thick woods. It had apparently run out of gas.
“We will continue aggressively proceeding on this search and this investigation and we will eventually capture him,” said Colonel Bivens in a news briefing on Sunday. “I’m not prepared to say that will be today or tomorrow, I don’t know. But I hope sooner rather than later.”
Colonel Bivens was not sure how Mr. Cavalcante managed to get past the perimeter, though he said the area, which was focused around a 1,000-acre botanical garden, included tunnels and drainage ditches that “could not be secured.”
The home where Mr. Cavalcante was seen on the doorbell camera is not far from the place where he murdered his ex-girlfriend, Deborah Brandão, in April 2021. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder just days before he escaped. According to testimony at his trial, reported in the Daily Local News of West Chester, Mr. Cavalcante had a sister living in Phoenixville, which is next to East Pikeland Township, and he had called on friends there after the murder to help him flee. Authorities believe he was trying to make his way back to Brazil, but he was arrested in Virginia.
The former co-worker whose house Mr. Cavalcante visited on Saturday night notified the police, which was how the authorities learned that he had made it away from the search area, Colonel Bivens said. Mr. Cavalcante went to the house of another former co-worker about 10 minutes later; there, a woman saw him and called a friend, who called the police.
Colonel Bivens declined to comment as to whether anyone was suspected of helping Mr. Cavalcante in his escape. He did confirm a report that Mr. Cavalcante’s sister had been recently arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though he gave no further details.
Ms. Brandão’s sister and children still live in the Phoenixville area. Last Thursday, Deborah Ryan, the Chester County district attorney, said that they were “terrified” of Mr. Cavalcante and had not left their home since he broke out of jail.
“They’re barricaded inside and very concerned about their safety,” Ms. Ryan said, adding that they were under 24-hour police protection.
Mr. Cavalcante is also wanted in Brazil for allegedly killing a man in 2017 in Figueirópolis, a small town in a rural part of the country. That time, too, he managed to evade authorities.
On the morning of Aug. 31, Mr. Cavalcante clambered up a wall outside the exercise yard at Chester County Prison, pushing through razor wire, running across a roof and scaling a fence to escape. The officer on duty in a watchtower at the time, who did not notice the jailbreak, has been fired.
In the small communities near the jail, Mr. Cavalcante was seen several times, either spotted by local residents and or picked up on security cameras. Baily’s Dairy at Pocopson Meadow Farm, which reported the stolen van, lies between the botanical garden and Chester County Prison.
In a message on Facebook, the owners of Baily’s Dairy acknowledged the theft and said they were “just as disappointed as everyone that he broke through the perimeter.”
Colonel Bivens said the keys had been left in the van. He did not know what other supplies Mr. Cavalcante may have picked up in his days on the run.
As the search has grown, residents of Chester County, a wealthy and picturesque suburb of Philadelphia, have watched with a mix of dread, frustration and curiosity.
“It’s the most excitement we’ve had,” said Mike Holowis, 63, who was among a small crowd that had gathered in front of the Nantmeal United Methodist Church on Sunday morning as the police searched the area where the van had been abandoned. “I mean, nothing happens here.”