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7 Ga. COs arrested in ‘Operation Skyhawk’ accused in contraband scheme run by prisoner

While wiretapping to detect drone drops, investigators overheard conversations indicating that COs were aiding a Valdosta State Prison inmate in moving drugs and more


The governor said in a news release that Skyhawk had netted 150 arrests and imposed 1,000 criminal charges against inmates, officers and civilians.

Georgia DOC

By Carrie Teegardin, Danny Robbins
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Georgia prison officials were in the midst of a complex investigation focused on drones making contraband drops for inmates when they stumbled onto a separate conspiracy — a criminal scheme enabled by their own staff.

While investigators were using wire taps aimed at discovering drone drops, they heard conversations suggesting that at least a half-dozen correctional officers were helping a Valdosta State Prison inmate, Kydetrius Thomas, move drugs and money — and more.

That scenario, spelled out in arrest warrants obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution , is the most detailed to come to light since Gov. Brian Kemp’s splashy announcement on March 28 of an investigation focused on stopping drone drops into Georgia prisons.

The investigation, dubbed “Operation Skyhawk,” may yet play out in a way that matches Kemp’s announcement. But an AJC examination found that, in its early stages, the state hasn’t publicly revealed the kind of operation that the announcement described.

Kemp said in a news release that Skyhawk had netted 150 arrests and imposed 1,000 criminal charges against inmates, officers and civilians. Investigators also had confiscated $7 million worth of goods, including 87 drones, 273 contraband cell phones, 51 pounds of ecstasy and 12 pounds of meth, Kemp said.

The announcement pointed to a criminal enterprise that may have operated at prisons in other states as well, drawing the attention of state and national news media.

So far, prison officials have identified only a handful of those arrested: eight correctional officers along with the owner of a Gwinnett County drone business and one of his employees. Prison officials gave the AJC the names of eight prisoners, including Thomas, implicated and said the details of the criminal conspiracies they and others were involved in will be revealed through the indictment process, which is when they will be formally charged.

Ultimately, “Operation Skyhawk” is expected to lead to RICO charges in multiple Georgia counties that would live up to Kemp’s claims, officials told the AJC. Forthcoming indictments are expected to detail complex drone deliveries and juicy phone conversations, as well as trace how civilians outside the walls have worked with those on the inside to smuggle in all sorts of goods, the officials said. GDC officials said Wednesday that indictments are projected in six counties: Lowndes, Telfair, Pulaski, Wilcox, Washington and Calhoun.

The result, officials said, should improve a prison system that is currently facing a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, a blistering contempt order from the judge in a long-running federal case and a state Senate study committee poised to recommend substantial changes.

“I expect these indictments to make a strong dent in the contraband trade in the Georgia Department of Corrections,” said John A. Regan, the gang resource prosecutor at the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, who was brought in to act as a special prosecutor. “Our goal is to severely hamper the ability to bring contraband into prisons. That will cut down on the violence and the criminal gang organizations inside GDC.”

Focus on a Gwinnett company

The state prison system has struggled for nearly a decade to stop drones from delivering cell phones, tobacco and drugs to inmates, spending millions to install detection systems only to have drone operators devise ways to defeat them.

There’s so much money to be made by smuggling the contraband, GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver told the AJC, that even arrests don’t discourage drone smugglers. “They go to jail, get out, and do it again,” he said.

“Skyhawk” underscores the public safety threat resulting from prisoners using contraband cellphones to arrange for drone drops, Oliver said.

The probe’s phone taps allowed local authorities to stop more than 170 drone drops between November 2023 and this past March. It also allowed officers to foil a murder-for-hire plot arranged by a prisoner, he said.

“This drone operation is a lot bigger than people really realize,” he said.

The two known drone-related arrests in “Skyhawk” so far involve a Gwinnett company that repairs and sells drones.

The day Kemp and the GDC publicly disclosed the investigation, 65-year-old Robert Schwartz, the owner, was arrested. He was booked into the Lowndes County jail and remains there, held without bond, court records show.

At the same time as Schwartz’s arrest, search warrants were executed at his business and home, according to an email from GDC spokesperson Joan Heath.

Schwartz has owned his business, Thunderdrones, since 2015, according to his Facebook page. The company’s website says Schwartz has almost 50 years experience with drones and other radio-controlled devices. He also owns a business that sells opera music online, state corporation records show.

Schwartz has been charged with violating the state’s RICO Act as well as other offenses for his alleged dealings with an inmate at Valdosta State Prison. The inmate, Joseph “Lil Joe” Broxton, is serving life without parole for his role in three gang-related killings carried out for the Hate Committee, a subset of the Gangster Disciples, in DeKalb County in 2015.

According to arrest warrants, Schwartz and Broxton, 29, communicated in early January and late December over the sale and repair of a drone altered to carry packages and programmed to mitigate no-fly zone software.

Schwartz knew, or should have known, he was dealing with a prison inmate because of conversations in which Broxton told him he couldn’t personally visit Schwartz’s business because he was in prison and had drank “prison liquor,” the warrants state.

Schwartz denied involvement in a criminal enterprise involving contraband when questioned by a WSB-TV reporter who was at the scene of his arrest.

“All we do is repair drones,” Schwartz told WSB.

A Valdosta attorney representing Schwartz, Randall Hicks, declined comment when contacted by the AJC.

Also arrested March 28 was Schwartz’s employee, Nelda Leora Alber, who faces charges related to providing items to inmates. She, too, is being held without bond in the Lowndes jail. Alber’s attorney, Steven Miller, declined to comment on the case.

Drugs, sex and financial transactions

While many details of the Skyhawk investigation have not been disclosed, the warrants on the officers arrested show once again how GDC employees can become the essential players in prisoners’ contraband operations, enabling some of those prisoners to become powerful “kingpins” inside the walls.

According to arrest warrants, six GDC officers were engaged in a variety of illegal activities on Thomas’ behalf, including smuggling drug-soaked paper, pills and tobacco, handling financial transactions and storing packages. A seventh officer, who the AJC determined to be a Grady County jailer, also was involved in the scheme, according to records.

Thomas, 27, entered the prison system in 2019 after receiving a 10-year sentence for robbery for his role in a home invasion in Thomasville. A 64-year-old woman and two children were in the home at the time of the incident, which investigators believed was a break-in at the wrong house.

One of the officers linked to Thomas, Lashonda Ty’Asia Mannings, allegedly procured pills of an unspecified nature for him and had more than 400 phone conversations with him. It’s also alleged in the warrant that she had sex with him.

Another officer, Amber Nicole Peak, is alleged to have conspired with Thomas to obtain money that allowed yet another officer aligned with the inmate to bond out of jail on Dec. 1 . According to the arrest warrant, Peak attended the bond hearing and reported the findings to Thomas via cellphone.

Arrest warrants show that correctional officer Alexandria Shadae Walker bonded out Dec. 1 after her arrest on charges of improper dealings with an inmate and serving as a look-out when a drone drop was expected. She was again arrested in February, this time for allegedly conspiring with Thomas to introduce contraband and trading information with him regarding law enforcement investigations and staffing and prison security issues.

Also arrested as a result of the Skyhawk wire taps was a sergeant at Rutledge State Prison, apparently for contraband dealings unrelated to Thomas. The arrest warrant says Erika Shonquandria Hall admitted to providing prisoners with cellphones, chargers, tobacco and food in exchange for money on at least six occasions.

Hall declined comment when contacted by the AJC. Other officers could not be reached for comment.

Prison officials have repeatedly emphasized to the AJC that their own employees are not at the heart of “Skyhawk,” which they say involves more than 130 civilians. “The majority of the arrests were inmates and civilians,” Oliver said.

As the two-year investigation shifts into prosecution mode, complex new conspiracies and charges are expected to come to light. Upgraded charges may be filed against some of those already arrested, and additional individuals could be added to the case.

“The investigation is still ongoing, and indictments will be pending in multiple jurisdictions that will bring the charges as a result of ‘Operation Skyhawk’,” Regan said.

AJC investigations editor Lois Norder contributed to this report.

The video below details the “Operation Skyhawk” investigation:

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