National award honors U.S. Attorney's Office, other agencies for dismantling major drug traffickers
Operation Cellmate overcame significant technological challenges
SAVANNAH, GA: A multi-agency operation in the Southern District of Georgia is receiving national recognition for dismantling a major drug trafficking organization whose methods included delivering contraband to prisons with drones and using funding from a lottery winner.
The Southern District’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) received the national award for Overcoming Technology Obstacles for Operation Cellmate, an investigation and prosecution of a transnational, multi-district drug trafficking organization that used gangs to distribute large quantities of methamphetamine throughout the Southeastern United States, said Bobby L. Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
Ten investigators and prosecutors from the agencies who coordinated Operation Cellmate received the award from OCDETF Region Director Mike Smith at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 7, in a ceremony at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 22 Barnard St., Savannah.
“We are honored that our Assistant United States Attorneys are among the recipients of this award, and even more honored at the recognition of the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who coordinate their efforts to drive criminals out of our communities,” said Bobby L. Christine, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. “Being chosen for this prestigious award from among the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country is truly evidence that the Southern District of Georgia is punching above its weight class.”
Operation Cellmate began in 2014 when the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) learned that a violent drug trafficking organization was operating from within a Georgia Department of Corrections facility. The investigation identified Daniel Roger Alo, an associate of the Ghost Face Gangsters, as leading the criminal group from inside the prison where he was serving a life sentence for multiple violent felonies.
Alo developed a source of supply for methamphetamine from the Sinaloa Cartel, the Mexican crime syndicate previously operated by the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In addition to other Ghost Face Gangsters, Alo recruited help from other violent street gangs, including the Bloods and Gangster Disciples.
The organization used drones and compromised prison guards to smuggle phones and contraband into the prison, where the conspirators used the devices to coordinate drug trafficking throughout the Southeast. In the largest seizure, agents in 2015 seized 10.9 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, multiple firearms and more than $600,000 in a Brunswick sting operation. The methamphetamine had been purchased with some of the $3 million won months earlier in the Georgia Lottery by Ronnie Music.
By September 2016, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Georgia indicted 21 defendants on drug trafficking and firearms related charges. The strength of the legal case rested on the exhaustive, detailed work provided by Assistant United States Attorneys E. Greg Gilluly Jr. and Tania Groover, and within a year, all of the defendants indicted in the operation pled guilty and were later sentenced to a combined 170 years in federal prison.
The OCDETF award recognizes the significant technical obstacles investigators encountered in investigating the drug organization that operated from inside a prison using drones, cell phones, Facebook and Green Dot cards.
Agencies and their members receiving the award are:
- U.S. Attorney’s Office: Assistant U.S. Attorneys E. Greg Gilluly Jr. and Tania Groover with the Southern District of Georgia, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Hertzberg with the Northern District of Georgia;
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: Special Agent Thomas J. Crawford III, Special Agent James C. Turner, Forensic Auditor Christa K. Morgan, and Forfeiture Investigator Richard Ruka;
- Georgia Bureau of Investigation: Special Agent Bobby Banks;
- Drug Enforcement Administration: Special Agent Robert L. Livingston and Special Agent Christopher J. Atkins, at the time of the investigation representing the Glynn County Police Department; and,
- Georgia Department of Corrections: U.S. Marshals Task Force Officer Keith Lank.
Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Division stated, “This investigation demonstrates the effectiveness of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program in encouraging cooperation between federal, state and local agencies. I am proud of the hard work that our men and women in law enforcement have put into this investigation along with our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office. Cooperation is an essential component of efforts by law enforcement in disrupting drug organizations that seek to operate in our communities.”
“As the facts of this investigation indicate, drug investigations have become more complex in the 21st century,” said Jamie Jones, Special Agent in Charge of the GBI’s Southeastern Regional Drug Enforcement Office. “Though the challenges evolve and present more obstacles, a seasoned team of determined investigators can adapt and overcome. The teamwork demonstrated by these determined federal, state, and local agents took this challenge to task and successfully dismantled this sophisticated operation, which was pushing its poison into Southeast Georgia homes and neighborhoods.”
“Although this investigation occurred before my time as Police Chief for Glynn County, I am still proud of past employees who dedicated their lives to making Glynn County a safer community,” said Glynn County Police Chief John Powell. “Special Agent Christopher Atkins worked for the Glynn County Police Department for five years, a large part of which he spent investigating illegal narcotics. His involvement with ‘Operation Cellmate’ is just one testimony of his passion. Special Agent Atkins left the department in August of 2016 to continue his dedication to combating illegal narcotics with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. I am thankful for the cooperation which existed between the department and our federal counterparts back in 2015 and 2016, and we strive to continue and improve upon these partnerships.”
In addition to the OCDETF award, Operation Cellmate also was named 2017 Case of the Year by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
OCDETF is the centerpiece of the United States Attorney General’s national drug strategy to reduce the availability of drugs by disrupting and dismantling major drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and related criminal enterprises.