News and Updates

A Strong Endorsement for NYS Forest Rangers from Former State Police Commander Major Charles Guess

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Former State Police Commander Major Charles Guess speaks to reporters on June 26, 2015 in Malone about the search for Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. He commended Forest Ranger Captain John Strieff for his great work during the search. Please read the full article from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise below.

Article written by Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

State police Maj. Charles Guess, who recently retired, speaks to reporters on June 26, 2015 in Malone about the search for Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Matt was shot and killed several hours after this picture was taken. Sweat was shot and captured two days later.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

Guess, 55, sat down with the Enterprise this week to reflect on the manhunt, his career and his retirement plans. He and his wife now live in Saranac Lake, and Guess said they plan to spend the next few years enjoying and exploring the Adirondacks.


6:06 a.m.

Guess led the Albany-based state police aviation unit before taking over as Troop B commander in December 2014. He replaced Maj. Rick Smith, who spent nine years with Troop B before he took a position as head of training for the state police academy in Albany.

In January 2015, a month after Guess arrived, Matt and Sweat began plotting their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, according to a report issued in June by the state Inspector General's Office.

The convicted murderers enlisted the help of prison tailor shop worker Joyce Mitchell, who smuggled hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools into the facility. Matt and Sweat cut holes in their cell walls, climbed into the bowels of the prison and, after months of work, scampered out a manhole into the street on the night of June 5 - the first escape from the prison's high-security section in more than 100 years.

A correction officer conducting the morning count discovered their empty cells at 5:17 a.m. the next day. They were declared missing an hour later.

"I became involved at 6:06 a.m. on June 6, the day of the escape," Guess said.

A massive, three-week manhunt ensued, with up to 1,300 state, federal and local law enforcement personnel. It cost the state $22.8 million in overtime pay.

Matt was shot dead by searchers June 26 in a wooded area in the town of Malone, 30 miles west of the prison. Sweat was shot and captured two days later in the town of Constable, near the Canadian border.


Experience, connections

Guess said the fact that he was here seven months before the escape was "fortuitous" because it gave him time to get to know his staff and other law enforcement partners.

"I had just enough time to prepare myself professionally in the region with the right contacts before this thing happened," he said.

The major also said he drew from his experience in specialized units and assignments with the state police during the search. He's been a SWAT team member, an emergency manager, a SCUBA diver and oversaw state police aviation operations. He also served as an infantryman and helicopter pilot for the Army Rangers.

"Once you get involved in a manhunt, all of those specialized units come to bear," Guess said.

He credited state Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff, who he knew before coming to Ray Brook, for helping establish the incident command structure and teaming his rangers with other law enforcement personnel during the search.

"He was probably singularly the most important resource I had when we got into the manhunt," Guess said. "I knew we had the eyes of the nation on us, and that we were going to have a lot of external resources - the FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals. I knew I would need an incident command system to properly sequence all these resources, and the rangers are ICS experts. So I turned to John within the first few hours."

Within a few days of the escape, many pundits and observers said the inmates may already be in Mexico or Canada. Guess said he heard that chatter, but he said his investigators had nothing leading them to believe Matt and Sweat had left the area, so they kept up the ground search and expanded their search perimeter over time.

"We had no stolen vehicles. We had no money transfers. We had authorized wiretaps listening to a lot of their associates, and we had no conversations going back and forth with anybody who was assisting them overtly, that we could determine," Guess said. "We had to focus as if they were still in the area."


Too many chefs?

Since more than a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were involved, Guess said there was an appearance that "there were a lot of chefs in the kitchen," but when the incident command structure was applied, those resources worked well together, he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to the North Country several times during the search, prompting some criticism that his presence was a distraction to the search. Guess, who stood beside Cuomo at several nationally televised press conferences as the manhunt was going on, said he never felt that was the case.

"From my point of view, he needed to be here," he said. "We needed to have that state-level interaction and dialogue to ensure we had all the resources necessary the state could bring to bear. Operations on the ground continued unabated even when the governor was here."

Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott's report about the breakout found chronic staff complacency, complicit employees and failures of basic security procedures at the prison were to blame for the escape. Guess said he couldn't speak to Scott's report. He said state police's interactions with DOCCS personnel were "all first-rate, top-notch, no obstructionism and a unified goal of furthering the investigation and apprehending the fugitives," although he noted that all those interactions came after the escape.

Asked if the manhunt was the biggest thing he's been involved in during his career, Guess said "probably yes," but mentioned several other incidents. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Guess helped with recovery operations at Ground Zero as a sergeant in charge of a state police SWAT team. As a SCUBA diver, he responded to the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off of Long Island, which killed 230 people. He was also a lieutenant and officer in charge of a SWAT team during the last four weeks of the 2006 search for, and the eventual capture of, Bucky Phillips, who was wanted for the shooting of three police officers, one of whom died. Phillips is currently serving a life sentence at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone.

"I've been involved in some other substantive division operations during my career, but this was the first time I was the incident commander for something of this size, scale and scope," Guess said.



What else will he remember about his time here? The first thing Guess mentioned was his troop's staffing of the Lake Placid Ironman triathlon, which Guess has also competed in several times. He was scheduled to race in the Ironman again this year until he was forced out by a back injury.

Covering events like the Ironman takes a lot of police personnel. Some individual state troopers have told the Enterprise that their numbers are stretched to do their regular jobs, but Guess said that's the case across New York, not just in Troop B.

"We have enough to get the mission done, and the state police has always been praised for doing more with less," he said. "I presume it will be that way in the future, too, but the fact of the matter is we could always use more troopers."

Guess said tight staffing levels is something that stresses the importance of state police working well with local and county police agencies. At the same time, however, some of those municipalities are not replacing officers who leave their departments or are looking to cut their police forces, in the hope that state police can cover their municipalities.

"The short answer is we can never fill the void or the quality of service you might get out of your local village officers," Guess said. "We would do what we have to do, but you're not going to have a trooper there in two minutes, like you might have a village police officer. You're not going to have a trooper walking the sidewalks on a daily basis. We're better when we're working collectively with other agencies to ensure the safety of the public."



The heroin epidemic and amount of drug-related crime in the North Country remains his biggest concern as he retires, Guess said.

"Heroin is tearing apart families of every socioeconomic structure here, and it's always tragic when it results in an overdose death," he said. "We've had a fair number of naloxone saves as have our partners in EMS and law enforcement. It's a terrible addiction, and it just seems to be something that as a society we've got to get our minds wrapped around."

Guess said most of the heroin is coming from the south, primarily from downstate gangs that are trying to "extend their tentacles" here through local dealers and suppliers.

Much of the property crime troopers deal with in the North Country now stems from drug addiction, he said, in particular burglaries and larcenies.

"They will steal something. They will sell it as quickly as they can to try to find money - because that's a very expensive habit over time - to feed their addictions," Guess said. "At the same time, that gives us an opportunity to begin intelligence gathering and interdiction efforts at the grassroots level. When we're picking up a shoplifter, we're trying to take those investigations a step further, if warranted, to see what's behind the theft."


Retirement plans

Guess said he would have stayed on longer as Troop B commander but he took advantage of a military time buyback incentive approved by Cuomo that allowed him to retire now. His wife, who most recently worked at Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook, has also retired. They previously lived in the Saratoga area but bought a house in Saranac Lake in September of last year.

"This is truly where we want to be," Guess said. "Monday I was whitewater rafting in North Creek. Prior to that, motorcycle touring the region, doing the Pat Stratton Memorial Bike ride. We have one more of the Saranac Lake 6ers to go, then we want to start hiking the (Adirondack) 46 (High Peaks). We're living the dream up here."

Now that he's retired, Guess said some of his family members and colleagues have suggested he write a book about his law enforcement and military career.

"I don't know," he said. "If the mood strikes me, maybe. Even if I just write something down so my kids and grandkids can look back and say, 'This is what dad or grandpa did back in the day.'"

How about a book on the manhunt, he was asked.

"That probably would be a chapter," Guess said.


Next commander?

Tibbitts, 51, is now serving as acting Troop B commander. The 31-year state police veteran, who's been in Troop B for the last 11 years, said he hopes to get the job permanently but said that depends on "other positions they have to fill in the Albany area." Originally from the Albany area, he now lives in Essex County.

Tibbitts had nothing but praise for Guess, his former boss.

"I've had about 15 majors on this job, including some real good ones and some pretty not-so-good ones, and he's definitely on the top of the list," Tibbitts said. "Big shoes to fill. You talk about the consummate quiet professional; he was actually that.

"He led us through what we can arguably say was one of the biggest events we've had to do, and that was the manhunt last year. The successful conclusion of that is due to his tenacity and the fact that every day he'd walk in and say, 'Today's the day. We're going to get them today.' And by golly, we did."