“Let States Jam Prison Cellphones,” says U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon
Columbia, South Carolina --- United States Attorney Sherri A. Lydon authored today an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal highlighting the public safety threat posed by contraband cellphones in prisons entitled, “Let States Jam Prison Cellphones.” U.S. Attorney Lydon also announced a series of cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted in federal court to help stop the flow of contraband cellphones into state prisons and punish those who use them to harm the public.
“We do not put criminals behind bars only to have them continue their criminal enterprises from inside prison,” said U.S. Attorney Lydon. “We will continue to use every tool available to us to stop this threat to public safety. But until our state and local partners are permitted to jam cellphone signals in prisons, inmates with time on their hands and unrestricted access to the Internet will continue to run drug rings, scam innocent Americans, and perpetrate crimes that help them grow their wealth while incarcerated.”
South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) Director Bryan Stirling stated, “Because of contraband cellphones, criminals are physically incarcerated, however, they are virtually out there amongst us, continuing their criminal ways from behind our nation’s prison walls.”
Among the cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted with the assistance of SCDC and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) are:
SCDC Prisoner and Co-Conspirator Sentenced to Federal Prison for Roles in Dark Web Mail Bomb Plot
In April 2018, a federal jury convicted Michael Young, Jr., and Vance Volious, Jr., both of Columbia, of dealing drugs and plotting to kill Young’s ex-wife with a mail bomb they bought with bitcoin from the Dark Web. While incarcerated in SCDC, Young obtained a contraband cellphone, which he used to run a drug business distributing marijuana he obtained from a California supplier and from the Dark Web. Drugs purchased by Young were shipped to a conspirator’s residence before being picked up by Volious for re-distribution.
While this drug conspiracy among Young, Volious, and others was operating, the conspirators also plotted to kill Young’s ex-wife. This was not the first time that Young had tried to kill her; he was serving a 50-year sentence after having been convicted of attempting to kill her and of murdering her father in 2007.
In February 2017, Young accessed the Dark Web from prison on his contraband cellphone and started a dialogue with an undercover FBI agent, whom he believed to be a foreign explosives dealer. Young paid for a mail bomb to be sent to a conspirator’s residence in Irmo and for the re-shipment label addressed to his ex-wife to be sent to Volious’ house in Columbia.
Fears obtained the labels from Volious, armed the mail bomb, and was surveilled by the FBI delivering the inert explosives package to the Post Office in Irmo on June 6, 2017. After a United States Postal Inspector recovered the mail bomb, Young, Volious, and co-defendant Tyrell Fears, of Irmo, were arrested on federal charges.
Young and Volious were convicted of conspiracy, transport of an explosive with the intent to kill, mailing a non-mailable explosive with the intent to kill, and carrying an explosive during the commission of another felony. Fears pleaded guilty to carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony and conspiracy. In February 2019, Young was sentenced to 525 months in federal prison, and Fears was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison. In March 2019, Volious was sentenced to 255 months in federal prison.
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Terrorism Task Force, United States Postal Inspection Service, South Carolina Department of Corrections’ Division of Police Services, State Law Enforcement Division, South Carolina Information and Intelligence Center, Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Lexington Country Sheriff’s Department, Irmo Police Department, USC Division of Law Enforcement and Safety, and Columbia Police Department. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Will Lewis of the Columbia office and former Assistant United States Attorney Jay Richardson, with assistance from Dan Goldberg of the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
U.S. Attorney’s Office Initiates Forfeiture Proceedings Seizing $400,000 From Prison Accounts of 15 Inmates
The U.S. Attorney’s Office recently initiated civil forfeiture proceedings in which the federal government has seized over $400,000 from the prison accounts of just 15 inmates. According to the seizure warrants, this money was derived from unlawful activity including extortion and the distribution of narcotics and other contraband.
Five Inmates Among Fifteen Defendants Indicted for Wire Fraud, Extortion, and Money Laundering Scheme at SCDC
In November 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted 15 defendants—five of whom are inmates in SCDC—for their roles in a wire fraud, extortion, and money laundering scheme. According to the indictments, the inmates used contraband cellphones to orchestrate a scheme to defraud members of the United States Military. The inmates, using smartphones, joined Internet dating websites and posed as young women seeking a romantic relationship with young men in the military. They downloaded nude pictures, pretended to be the women in the pictures, and sent them to the servicemen. They then asked the service members to text nude pictures and other personal information in return.
After exchanging nude pictures and other personal information, the inmates called the service members and claimed to be the young woman’s father. The inmates told the service members that the “daughter” was a minor and threatened to notify law enforcement that the service member was exchanging nude pictures with a minor unless the service member paid money. The inmates used various means to extort the service members, often claiming that the money was needed to replace the computer or to pay medical bills for the trauma that the “underage daughter” suffered from the sexually explicit text messages. On occasion, the inmates impersonated law enforcement or lawyers to further the scheme.
The inmates then directed the service members to wire money to individuals in South Carolina. To assist in the scheme, the inmates recruited others outside of the prisons to retrieve the money that was wired by the service members and transfer the money to the inmates, often keeping some of the proceeds. In some instances, these individuals provided the inmates with debit card numbers so they could access the criminal proceeds in prison via contraband cellphones. Other times, the individuals wired the money directly into the inmates’ prison accounts.
In total, the “sextortion” schemes resulted in 442 service members paying a total of more than $560,000. The service members involved were from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The five inmates who have been indicted federally on wire fraud, money laundering, and extortion charges are Wendell Wilkins, Jimmy Dunbar, Antwine Lamar Matthews, Rakeem Spivey, and David Paul Dempsey.
This case was investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Services, Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations, Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Services, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command, United States Marshals Service, South Carolina Department of Corrections, and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Assistant United States Attorneys Emily Limehouse and Rhett DeHart of the Charleston office are prosecuting the case.
Former SCDC Employees and Corrections Officers Indicted for Accepting Bribes and Smuggling Contraband
In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began a partnership with SCDC and SLED to investigate the smuggling of contraband into prisons by SCDC staff. The investigation uncovered a number of SCDC employees who accepted bribes to smuggle into prison various contraband, such as cellphones, narcotics, and tobacco.
Since April 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has indicted 19 former SCDC employees—including corrections officers, a nurse, and food service employees—on federal charges related to accepting bribes and bringing contraband into South Carolina prisons. The federal violations alleged include Use of Interstate Facilities to Facilitate Bribery; Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud Depriving South Carolina of the Right to Honest Services; and Possession with Intent to Distribute Narcotics. To date, Douglas Hawkins, Joshua Cave, Shatara Wilson, and Shakeel Malik Monroe have pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Honest Services Wire Fraud.
This operation was a combined law enforcement effort by the FBI, SLED, SCDC, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Assistant United States Attorney Will Lewis of the Columbia office is prosecuting the cases.
Five Inmates Convicted in Drug Trafficking Ring that Operated from Inside South Carolina Prisons
In September 2016, a federal grand jury charged 15 defendants—5 of whom are current SCDC inmates—with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and related offenses. The defendants used telephones, primarily contraband cellphones, and the U.S. Mail to facilitate the drug offenses charged, and they conspired to launder drug money by conducting money transfers, cash withdrawals, and purchases of and deposits onto pre-paid cash cards.
The five SCDC inmates—Sok Bun, Paul Ray Davis, Jhon Marlon Acosta, James Robert Peterson, and Samuel Travis Wiggins—capitalized on their nearly unfettered access to contraband cellphones to not only continue their criminal activities, but to direct the criminal activities of nine “facilitators” outside of prison, all of whom were willing to accept drug packages for distribution and collect payment on behalf of the inmates. The inmates routinely brokered and managed the delivery and distribution of methamphetamine from California to the upstate of South Carolina and elsewhere in the state. The contraband cellphones were often equipped with touch screens and Internet access, which enabled prisoners to coordinate drug transactions, confirm shipment and delivery, and transfer drug trafficking proceeds.
All but two of the inmate defendants pleaded guilty. In September 2017, after a week-long trial, a federal jury convicted Bun and Peterson on all counts. During the trial, the jury heard numerous recorded calls made by Bun, Peterson, and other inmates from inside South Carolina prisons. In nearly all of the recorded phone calls between inmate defendants, at least one inmate was using a contraband cellphone. The jury also heard directly from inmate witnesses about how accessible cellphones were to inmates and the various means by which phones were smuggled into the facilities.
Bun was sentenced to 360 months in federal prison, which will follow the life sentence he is currently serving in SCDC for a 2006 Spartanburg County murder conviction. Peterson was sentenced to 330 months in federal prison, which will follow the 35-year sentence he is currently serving for murder and assault and battery with intent to kill, both 2005 Cherokee County convictions. Jhon Marlon Acosta was sentenced to 188 months in federal prison. Samuel Travis Wiggins was sentenced to 300 months in federal prison. Inmate Paul Davis awaits sentencing.
The convictions were the result of a multi-year Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation. The OCDETF Program is a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Its principal mission is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug-trafficking organizations primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply. The investigation was conducted by the FBI with the assistance and cooperation of the United States Postal Service, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, SLED, SCDC, Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, Spartanburg City Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, ICE - Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the United States Marshals Service. Assistant United States Attorney Leesa Washington and former Assistant United States Attorney Jeanne Howard, both of the Greenville office, prosecuted the case.
For more information, visit https://www.justice.gov/usao-sc/pr/fifteen-charged-drug-trafficking-ring-operated-inside-south-carolina-prisons; https://www.justice.gov/usao-sc/pr/jury-convicts-spartanburg-brothers-federal-court-drug-and-money-laundering-charges.