With an Escaped Killer Loose, an Unsettling Encounter in a Darkened House

The French doors were cracked open to the night outside, and someone was down in the kitchen. Ryan Drummond, standing noiselessly at the top of the stairs, was sure he knew who it was.

Grasping a frame with a picture of his wife and children — the only possible weapon at hand — Mr. Drummond, 42, ran through his options. He decided: best to let the intruder understand that he knows he’s in the house. He flicked the lights on and off.

A terrifying moment passed.

Then the lights flicked back in response.

For nearly a week since a convicted murderer slipped away from the Chester County Prison, the people in Pocopson Township, Pa., a quiet stretch of farmland and wooded thickets about an hour outside Philadelphia, have had to live with a relentless unease. Teams of police officers jog through backyards, drones buzz in the skies, and for one day, helicopters shuddering overheard blared the sound of a woman’s voice pleading in Portuguese — the mother of the man who escaped, begging, in a recording, for him to give up.

The fugitive, Danelo Cavalcante, 34, was convicted on Aug. 16 of stabbing his former girlfriend, Deborah Brandao, nearly forty times, killing her in front of her children. On Aug. 22, he was sentenced to life in prison. Last Thursday morning, a little over a week after the sentencing, he disappeared.

He has been seen since, once by a prison employee and several times in the ghostly infrared light of security cameras. For many residents, he has been an unseen force, drawing scores of reporters and police officers, rerouting traffic and closing down schools, creating as much inconvenience as a sense of panic.

Few if any of them have had an encounter like the one Mr. Drummond had on Friday evening.

Danelo CavalcanteCredit…Chester County District Attorney’s Office, via Associated Press

Mr. Drummond, who gave his account first to WPVI-TV, the local ABC affiliate, said he was “100 percent” sure it was Mr. Cavalcante who had been in his house, having seen his image in the news.

At a news conference on Saturday, while discussing possible break-ins related to the escape, the Chester County district attorney, Deb Ryan, mentioned that “one resident” had observed a “male fitting the description of our subject” in the area on Friday evening, though she gave no further details. The Pennsylvania State Police would not discuss the incident.

The week had come to an unsettling close for the Drummond family, with news of the prison break sending recess indoors at the local schools. As they got ready for bed, Mr. Drummond’s 9-year-old daughter asked her father nervously about the French doors that didn’t seem to lock right; he reassured her, asking her why, of all the doors in the area, the fugitive would choose to try those.

He would later wonder if someone had been listening at that moment, perhaps just outside the window or in the shadows beneath the deck, where the family had spent the evening.

Hours later, he awoke to sounds downstairs.

“‘I don’t want to freak you out,’” he recalled whispering to his wife. “‘But I think someone is in the kitchen.’”

He got out of bed and walked softly to the bedrooms of his three children, making sure they were still asleep. Then he came to the upstairs landing, where he saw — exactly as his daughter had feared — that the French doors stood cracked open. That is when Mr. Drummond and the man in the kitchen communicated by the flicking of light switches.

Telling his wife to call the police, Mr. Drummond braced for a potential confrontation, then watched as the man walked to the French doors, carrying a bag and appearing to be in no particular hurry. The police came within minutes, he said, and rushed to the tree line, but the man was gone into the night.

All that the man apparently took was a peach, an apple and a handful of snap peas that Mr. Drummond had bought at the farmers’ market earlier that day and had laid out on the counter.

For the rest of the weekend, the family tried to live as ordinary a life as possible, fixing soccer nets and having drinks with neighbors as SWAT teams came in and out of the woods and helicopters hovered overhead. Things have quieted down on his block since Monday night, when it appeared that Mr. Cavalcante had slipped out of the area where police had been focused. But there is no true return to normal in the area as long as the manhunt continues.

“When I left my house, I set my house alarm, I made sure I had my car key ready to go, so we just jumped in the car and I locked the doors really quick,” said Kristin Muzik, 50, who stopped at a convenience store on Wednesday with her three children in tow because the local schools had closed for safety reasons. “I really hope they catch him quickly.”

Joel Wolfram contributed reporting from Pocopson Township, Pa.

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