Sheriff: Inmate with 10 cellphone violations orchestrated killing

The sheriff used the incident to call for the government to stop its ban on jamming cellphone signals

By Jeffrey Collins 
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina inmate serving a murder sentence who was also convicted of running a drug ring from behind bars on contraband cellphones orchestrated the killing of a woman from his cell last month, a sheriff said Friday.

Michelle Dodge, 27, was kidnapped and shot in the back of the head last month by seven people taking orders from inmate James Peterson, Laurens County Sheriff Don Reynolds said.

This undated photo provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows James Peterson.
This undated photo provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows James Peterson. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

Peterson is serving 30 years in state prison for killing a man in 2005 during a drug deal in Cherokee County. After he finishes that sentence, Peterson is set to serve 27½ years in federal prison for the cellphone drug ring he ran with four fellow inmates that was worth more than $500,000, according to court records. And now he faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in Dodge's death.

"This hit was orchestrated out of there by an induvial with nothing to lose," Reynolds said at a Friday news conference. "What does he have to lose to reach out and get revenge?"

Reynolds refused to go into details about why Peterson wanted Dodge dead, saying only that it all came back to drugs.

And he joined a number of law enforcement officials across the state, including South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, in saying the federal government needs to stop its ban on jamming cellphone signals as soon as possible.

"This was only accomplished by the gangs having access to contraband telephones," Reynolds said. "Common sense would tell us if the cellphone doesn't work they will be of no use to the inmates."

Court records did not list a lawyer for Peterson. Seven others face felony charges in the case ranging from murder to kidnapping to accessory and conspiracy.

Cellphones have been a critical part of Peterson's life behind bars. Along with the drug ring that got him nearly three more decades in prison, Peterson has been caught with cellphones at least 10 times since 2012 and twice for being on social media, according to his prison discipline records.

Inmates are punished by losing privileges or being put in special confinement, but they can't be kept like that forever, Stirling said.

"There are some people, it doesn't matter what you do; the day they get out, they are going to get their hands on a cellphone," Stirling said.

Cellphones were used to arrange a hit in 2010 that nearly killed a prison guard. An inmate recently escaped a maximum security prison with help from a cellphone and the devices appear to have played a key part in a 2018 riot at a state prison in Lee County where seven inmates were killed. And prison officials have little doubt that almost every day they allow inmates to continue to run their criminal enterprise while serving time.

"We shouldn't have to be doing this over and over," said Stirling, who has spent countless hours lobbying federal officials to allow an exception to a decades-old federal law prohibiting the jamming of a radio signal.

The prison in Lee County where the 2018 riot happened has a $1.5 million managed access system that allows only certain cellphone signals through. But it isn't foolproof. Back in April, inmates at the prison broadcast on Facebook Live for an hour.

Federal officials did allow the state to test a jamming system this spring, but the results have not been made public.

Stirling said repeated searches for cellphones appear to have put some dent into their usage. He has been told a contraband phone that used to sell for a few hundred dollars is now going for $2,000 on the prison black market.

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