Despite the swampy, early September heat, Ryan Davis sat for hours in the parking lot of a Wawa in northern Chester County on Sunday.
The 45-year-old Maryland native was manning a drone, a remote-controlled hovering camera that soared hundreds of feet above the ground, allowing him to scan the cornfields and thickets of trees below.
The search for escaped inmate and convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante was entering its 11th day. Davis, traversing state lines to be there, wanted to help.
“You’re just looking for movement,” Davis said, describing his flyover search near East Nantmeal Township, where police discovered a white dairy van they believe Cavalcante stole over the weekend. “A path through a cornfield, or a shirt. Contrasts, that’s what I was looking for, to see if this guy was just hiding around a corner.”
Davis is one of a handful of private citizens taking the search into their own hands.
Police are less than pleased.
Lt. Col. George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police has denounced any form of vigilantism or involvement from amateur sleuths, saying citizens participating in the search had no authority and could face consequences.
“They’re not helping us in anyway, and in fact, they become a hindrance,” Bivens said at a news conference Monday. “Some of our resources have to be diverted at times when they insert themselves into a scene. It’s not helpful, I wish they wouldn’t do it, I’ve asked that they not. But I can’t stop them, in some cases, from doing it.”
Davis, who works as an electrical lab specialist for a Virginia aerospace company, insisted he isn’t a vigilante.
“It’s more of a search and rescue,” Davis said. “First thing I would say to (Cavalcante) is ‘Stop.’ “
Until Saturday, state police were confident that they had contained Cavalcante within an eight-square-mile perimeter encircling Longwood Gardens, a popular botanical attraction in the southern part of the county.
Citizens like Davis sped to the scene for the latest bit of spectacle and neighbors have been caught gawking, gasping, and even taking selfies as the cat-and-mouse with the two-time killer ensues.
A $25,000 reward for information that leads police to Cavalcante’s arrest, announced at Monday’s news conference, has only heightened intrigue.
“I just went out to see what was going on,” said Chuck Walcott, a 46-year-old who drove in from West Sadsbury Township. “I was basically sitting back and watching the police, seeing what they were doing, and talking to some officers.”
Davis wasn’t just on a manhunt: He was also there to supply footage to the small band of true crime YouTubers, podcasters, and self-proclaimed independent journalists who have swarmed at the slightest flash of a siren throughout the investigation.
Like some other onlookers, Davis carried a firearm. Still, he said he’d first alert police if he found Cavalcante.
“I’m not there to go shooting people — you could have the totally wrong person. The whole idea of having a weapon is to be sure to keep yourself safe and the people around you.”
Others, like Debbie Shaw, were more expectant of conflict.
Shaw, 66, lives minutes from the East Nantmeal cornfield where armed officers descended Sunday. That morning, she prowled around while her outsize mastiff, Bubba, tugged at the leash in her hand.
Shaw’s sleuthing wasn’t wasted. She claims she found tracks leading through the cornfield she believed had to be Cavalcante’s — “People don’t do that around here, because that’s farmer’s gold,” Shaw said of the produce.
When Shaw went to tell a nearby state trooper, she said her tip fell on deaf ears. Shaw wasn’t surprised, saying trust in law enforcement among locals is low. Response times in rural East Nantmeal are often in the hours, she said, and residents are used to solving conflict themselves.
Shaw was confident that Bubba could protect her from harm. But she carried a concealed firearm, her husband’s 9mm subcompact pistol, just in case.
In the small township of around 1,846, Shaw said it’s more common than not for neighbors to own guns. She suggested she’d be open to using her firearm to injure Cavalcante — non-fatally, she reiterated — should the situation present itself.
Despite that sentiment, police have yet to note any conflicts involving private citizens that have turned violent.
“They’re doing their best, they really are,” said Walcott of the police he chatted up this weekend. Last week, he milled around the Longwood Gardens scene, too. “It’s not easy for them, especially during a heat wave wearing all that gear. Me just being out there, I lost weight.”
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