Danelo Cavalcante killed his girlfriend in front of her children. Then his prison escape sparked a two-week manhunt

Danelo Cavalcante was sentenced to life behind bars for the April 2021 murder of Deborah Brandao. He broke free from jail days later, sparking a manhunt that lasted almost two weeks, Faiza Saqib and Andrea Blanco report

Thursday 14 September 2023 06:05 EDT

Danelo Cavalcante was convicted of murder charges in August for brutally stabbing his former girlfriend to death in front of her children.

Less than two weeks after receiving a life sentence, the 34-year-old sparked fresh terror as he broke free from a Pennsylvania jail.

For the next two weeks, communities across Pennsylvania lived in fear – with schools shuttered and residents told to stay indoors as the convicted killer managed to evade capture and steal a firearm.

The massive manhunt finally came to an end on 13 September when Cavalcante – who is considered “extremely dangerous” – was finally captured.

Here is everything we know about Cavalcante and his escape:

The escape

Cavalcante escaped from the Chester County Prison in Pocopson Township, Pennsylvania, at around 8.50am on 31 August.

At the time, other inmates in the exercise yard were playing basketball. Video of the incident showed him crab-walking up a wall and pushing through razor wire in order to gain access to the prison’s roof.

He then jumped down into another area of the prison and left on foot. The unconventional method is exactly the same that was used by another inmate back in May, Chester County Prison acting Warden Howard Holland said.

During that incident, the inmate was captured within minutes after a tower officer reported the break to prison staff. In Cavalcante’s case, the tower officer tasked with surveilling the escape route failed to report the jailbreak, which went unnoticed for nearly an hour.

CCTV footage shows Danelo Calvacante's prison escape

Cavalcante’s absence was only noticed during a head count when his block returned back inside around 9.50am after the basketball game. The jail was then put into lockdown and the 911 centre was notified 10 minutes later.

The tower officer who failed to report the escape has since been fired.

“We can confirm that the corrections officer on duty when Danelo Cavalcante escaped was terminated yesterday afternoon,” a source told CNN in a statement. “He was an 18-year veteran of the prison.”

The acting warden said that an investigation into the escape was being conducted by the state attorney’s office.

Mr Holland said that following the escape attempt in May, the prison had brought consultants in to increase security at the facility. Razor wire — which Cavalcante pushed through — was placed to prevent access to the roof, but officials didn’t expect “the human element” to fail, Mr Holland said.

“While we believed that the security measures we had in place were sufficient, they have proven otherwise,” Mr Holland said. “And we will work to enhance our security ... One key difference in [this] escape is the role of the tower officer whose primary responsibility is to oversee the inmate in the exercise yard.”

Mr Holland declined to say what the prison officer was believed to be doing during the escape, only noting that he was at the post.

Sightings of Cavalcante

On 4 September, a surveillance camera on a trail had captured him walking in an area of Longwood Gardens in East Marlborough Township.

The images show that Cavalcante has obtained a backpack and a hooded sweatshirt during his escape.

Cavalcante captured on a trail camera at Longwood Garden

Cavalcante has been seen at the intersection of Routes 926 and 52, north on Route 52 to Parkersville Road, southeast to Route 926 and west to the intersection of Routes 926 and 52 in Pocopson Township, police said.

There were also two reported burglaries in the area that police have investigated, but these are not currently confirmed to be linked to the escaped prisoner.

However, Lt Colonel George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police said that the incidents “are of interest to us”.

West Chester resident Ryan Drummond claimed in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer that one of Cavalcante’s confirmed sightings occurred at his home. Mr Drummond said that he woke up to noises downstairs on 1 September and realised that there was an intruder.

“I decided not to confront him and thought it was a better move to flick the light switch,” Mr Drummond, whose wife and children were also in the home, told the Inquirer. “And he flicked it back at me, which was terrifying, so I told my wife to call 911.”

Mr Drummond said that Cavalcante entered the home through an old French door that couldn’t lock properly.

He said his nine-year-old daughter had raised fears about Cavalcante being able to gain access to the home through the door, but he tried to reassure her that the murder convict was likely far away.

“The last few days have been surreal. It’s tough,” Mr Drummond said. “We’re all jumpy, and I could see this has taken a psychological toll on my kids. If they’re in the room by themselves, they’re calling for us.”

Cavalcante was last seen on surveillance footage about one and a half miles from the prison at around 12.30pm on 31 August

Cavalcante was then spotted near Phoenixville in northern Chester County on 9 September.

Earlier that day, he stole a white 2020 Ford Transit van that he used to drive from Longwood Gardens to Phoenixville.

The fugitive showed up at an old associate’s home around 9.50pm that day and requested through the doorbell camera to meet with him.

The individual was out having dinner and later alerted local police of the sighting.

Doorbell video images showed Cavalcante to be now clean-shaven and wearing a green hooded sweatshirt, black baseball cap, green prison pants and white shoes.

The fugitive then travelled to the home of another former coworker’s home in Phoenixville. A female who was at the home when Cavalcante rang the bell called a friend, who eventually informed law enforcement about the sighting.

Then, around 10.40am on 10 September, police found the van that Cavalcant had stolen in a field behind a barn in East Nantmeal Township, about 15 miles from Phoenixville. Lt Col Bivens said he believed Cavalcante abandoned the vehicle at least in part because it was low on fuel.

Authorities are concerned that he would attempt to obtain another vehicle or has already done so.

Around 8pm on 11 September, a motorist told 911 dispatchers that a male figure had crouched near the woodline near Route 100.

Troopers responding to the scene investigated the sighting and found footprints on the mud consistent with Cavalcante’s prison shoes, which were also found in the area.

Mr Bivens said that although authorities arrived at the scene within minutes, Cavalcante managed to travel a significant distance during that time.

“Just because they found a footprint doesn’t mean that we know what direction he travelled,” Mr Bivens said during a press conference on 12 September.

A resident of the area called shortly after to report that a pair of workboots on her porch had been stolen.

Then at 10.10pm, a homeowner reported that a “short Hispanic man” broke inside his garage.

Mr Bivens said that Cavalcante stole a .22 rifle with a scope and a flashlight on it. The homeowner opened fire on Cavalcante with his pistol but the fugitive is not believed to have been injured.

Cavalcante fled before Pennsylvania State Police arrived at the scene.

Near the edge of the driveway, authorities found clothes that Cavalcante had been spotted wearing over the weekend.

The manhunt has been repeatedly expanded as Cavalcante has managed to sneak past the search perimeter several times.

The area where Cavalcante abandoned the van is roughly a 40-minute drive from the previous eight-mile perimeter police had established near the popular Longwood Gardens botanical park.

“No perimeter is 100 per cent secure. We do the best we can. Most times we’re able to secure it adequately,” Mr Bivens said on 10 September.

Escaped killer Danelo Cavlacante has changed his appearance, police say

This image provided by the Pennsylvania State Police shows Danelo Cavalcante.

The manhunt

Police put out a poster with images of Cavalcante, both caught on the CCTV footage and a picture of him from prison.

Authorities said in a “case outline” that there would be a “combined reward” of $5,000 from the US Marshals Service and $5,000 from Chester County. Crime Stoppers is offering an additional $15,000, bringing the reward total to $25,000.

Authorities said law enforcement teams, including the US Marshals, SWAT and other federal agencies, have joined the search to find Cavalcante.

The marshals had initially employed helicopters, drones and other resources to search for Cavalcante in the heavily wooded areas near the prison.

Law enforcement also blasted a message from his mother, speaking in Portuguese, into his hiding place from police helicopters and patrol cars.

Robert Clark, supervisory deputy US Marshal for the Easter District of Pennsylvania spoke at a conference explaining why these tactics were being deployed.

“As desperate as he is, maybe he has a change of thought and hears his mother telling him to surrender, and his family cares about him,” Mr Clark said.

Pennsylvania State Police Lt Col George Bivens provides and update to the press

PA State Troopers, US Border Patrol, Chester County Emergency Management, and FBI collaborate on the intergovernmental manhunt for Danelo Cavalcante

Pennsylvania State police search the woods and a creek in Pennsbury Township, Pa

“Perhaps this is what puts him over the edge where we can get a peaceful surrender.”

Pennsylvania State Police are facing growing scrutiny after it was confirmed on 10 September that Cavalcante had managed, yet again, to sneak past the search perimeter.

US Marshals Service supervising deputy Robert Clark said he believed Cavalcante’s mobilization to more urban East Nantmeal Township would work to the advantage of law enforcement looking for him.

“I think the advantage switched to law enforcement. Before it was advantageous to Cavalcante while he was playing tactical hide and seek in the woods,” Mr Clark said. “Now it’s an advantage to law enforcement because he’s in an urban area and that’s what the US Marshalls do best and we’re forced-multiplied by other local and state agencies.”

Mr Bivens said that he is confident Cavalcante remains in Pennsylvania as he “does not have the resources” to leave the state.

“We don’t have a defined search area at this point,” Mr Bivens added. “We are considering and acting and investigating any tip or piece of information we receive. There are areas in Nantmeal Township that may have more of our resources.”

Mr Bivens said that he was aware of some weaknesses in the previous ten-mile perimeter, but refused to acknowledge that the several agencies collaborating in the manhunt had made any mistakes. The Lt Col went on to say that the perimeter was “strong” but not infallible.

Around 500 officers were hunting for Cavalcante on 12 September as one school district remained closed and residents were told to secure their homes and be vigilant.

The search is now focused on South Coventry Township in Chester County — near Route 23 to the North, Route 100 to the East, Fairview and Nantmeal roads to the South and Iron Bridge and County Park roads to the West.

Cavalcante’s sister is arrested by ICE

State police confirmed on 10 September that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Cavalcante’s sister Eleni Cavalcante over “some immigration issues”. She faces the possibility of deportation, Lt Col George Bivens said.

Mr Bivens didn’t say whether she is suspected of helping her brother Cavalcante, but noted that she had been of “no value” in the search for her brother.

It’s not Cavalcante’s first time being on the run. Right after he stabbed Brandao to death in front of her children in April 2021, Cavalcante was briefly on the run before he was arrested in Virginia and extradited to Pennsylvania.

During his trial earlier this year, Eleni Cavalcante’s boyfriend Francisco Lima testified that he had helped Cavalcante escape following the brutal stabbing, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Mr Lima, who received immunity in exchange for his testimony, said that he had bandaged Cavalcante’s wounds, given him a clean change of clothes and put gas in his car so he could drive out of state.

The murder

Cavalcante was found guilty of the murder of Deborah Brandao on 16 August – more than two years after he stabbed her 38 times with a kitchen knife in Schuylkill Township back in April 2021.

Prosecutors said he killed Brandao to stop her from telling police about an active arrest warrant he was facing for another alleged murder in his home country of Brazil in 2017.

Cavalcante and Brandao reportedly met through mutual friends and moved in together with her two children not long after their two-year relationship began.

Prosecutors outlined his domestic abuse against Brandao during the trial.

Deborah Brandao (pictured) was stabbed to death in front of her children in April 2021

It was reported that in June 2020, Cavalcante bit Brandao on her lip hard enough to draw blood and chased her and her children out of their home. Brandao and her kids hid in a neighbour’s apartment and a warrant was issued by police for Cavalcante’s arrest. However, he did not turn himself in.

Later that year, Cavalcante allegedly attacked Brandao again, chasing her with a knife, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Brandao then filed for a temporary abuse order against him, but this lapsed in March 2021 when she did not appear at a hearing.

According to evidence presented at the trial, the two kept in touch and police said Cavalcante drove to Brandao’s home to confront her in April 2021.

While Brandao’s children, then aged seven and three, were playing near by, Cavalcante pulled her hair and threw her to the ground. He then began to stab her repeatedly.

Brandao was later pronounced dead at Paoli Hospital, the outlet said. Two friends of Cavalcante testified during his trial that they helped the murder convict escape and gave him clean clothes so he could “disappear” for a while.

Prosecutors said Cavalcante killed Brandao to stop her from telling police about his outstanding arrest warrant for murder in Brazil.

He was captured in Virginia shortly after the stabbing, while police said he was attempting to return to Brazil.

At trial, the jury deliberated for just 15 minutes. He was sentenced to life in prison on 22 August.

Brandao’s sister Sarah Brandao said in an interview that she has been terrified since Cavalcante’s jailbreak.

“I haven’t slept for many days,” Ms Brandao said. “I have been waking up with fright at night.”

Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan said that Ms Brandao and her family are being protected by police.

“They do have protection and they are terrified. They haven’t left their home, they’re barricaded inside their home and they are very scared,” Ms Ryan said. “We do have police detail surrounding the home but I know they are very scared and very, very worried.”

The capture

A nearly two-week manhunt for dangerous murder convict Danelo Cavalcante came to an end on Wednesday 13 September as he was captured in Pennsylvania.

Cavalcante was arrested without incident on Wednesday and taken to the Pennsylvania State Police Avondale barracks. Authorities are set to hold a press conference on the capture at 9.30am.

The fugitive was found hiding inside a shed in Pottstown with the rifle he had previously stolen from a home in South Coventry Township, FOX29 reports. Aerial footage of the capture showed dozens of law enforcement officers surrounding Cavalcante, who was wearing a grey Eagles hooded sweatshirt and dark pants.

Cavalcante was escorted to a SWAT tactical car, where officers cut apart his clothing.

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