'Sophisticated' prison smuggling ring used women met on dating sites, others

The attorney general’s office secured 21 new indictments against people in the alleged smuggling conspiracy

David Travis Bland
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — A barber, a truck driver and a substitute teacher taking care of three kids and her sick mother were some of the people working on the outside with prisoners in a massive smuggling operation that brought drugs into South Carolina prisons, according to a prosecutor. Those working inside the prison included a person who was recently released and trying to rehabilitate from a drug problem and an inmate with business savvy, prosecution said.

The latest defendants indicted in a statewide investigation code-named Cash Cow had bond hearings Friday in a Richland County courtroom. During the hearings, prosecutor Creighton Waters with the attorney general’s office laid out some of the evidence against those accused of being part of a conspiracy to bring marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and other contraband into the state’s prisons.

The attorney general’s office secured 21 new indictments against people in the alleged smuggling conspiracy.

One of those people was Rico Ross, a barbershop manager in Bishopville who was on probation for armed robbery and attempted burglary, Waters told the court.

“You need folks on the inside, and you need folks on the outside,” Water said, to operate what he described as “sophisticated” and “involved operation.”

Authorities found Ross’ fingerprint on a marijuana package in a food delivery that was intercepted on the way to a prison complex in Richland County, according to Waters.

Ross’ attorney, Chris Leonard, told the judge that Ross doesn’t know anyone involved with the alleged smuggling operation and that he had “no connection with any of this.”

In November, Attorney General Alan Wilson and S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling announced the first round of indictments in the Cash Cow sting. Authorities rounded up 17 alleged co-conspirators that included employees within the corrections department. Inmates and partners inside and outside prisons ran drugs, cellphones and tobacco into prisons by coordinating to throw contraband over fences and stowing the illegal items in milk crates from a prison dairy farm which then were sent to the corrections facilities using an elaborate color coding system, authorities said. Operators in the ring also stashed the drugs in bread delivery trucks that supplied prisons and even used the State House grounds as a drop site for inmate work crew members to pick up contraband.

A package picked up from the State House grounds, according to Waters, contained a fingerprint from Jammie Thompson, a South Carolina trucking company owner, father and husband.

The package allegedly contained marijuana, cocaine and meth.

Waters called Thompson a low level “helper on the outside” with prior convictions on cocaine distribution and strong armed robbery.

Thompson’s lawyer told the judge his client started his trucking company five years and was away from South Carolina more than he was in the state. Thompson was shocked by the charges and didn’t know any of the people involved, his lawyer said.

Prisoners got assistance for the intricate, illegal enterprise from women that inmates met online through dating sites and apps, Waters said. The conspiracy required wives and girlfriends to do the business, financial transactions and, sometimes, gathering of the contraband.

“These women think that they’re special and they’re the only one and they’re going to have a life together when they get out of jail,” Waters said

Prison leaders in the ring like Anthony “MP” Pyatt lured women on the outside into being partners in crime through promises of love and marriage, and “groomed” them to partake in illegal action while increasing their involvement over time, Waters told the court.

Ladelia Jenkins was one such woman and possibly “the most significant female associate of ‘MP’ on the outside,” Waters said.

Jenkins told the judge she’s a substitute teacher and mother of three. She’s the primary caregiver for her mother who’s terminally ill with lung cancer, Jenkins said.

Authorities charged her with conspiracy, an offense that can be punished by five years of imprisonment. Waters told the court Jenkins had “extensive” involvement in the ring’s transactions.

Since November, the attorney general’s office has indicted 38 people for being part of the ring. Authorities have brought 200 charges against defendants. The criminal enterprise could not have operated without contraband cellphones being used inside prisons, Attorney General Wilson and prisons Director Stirling said Friday, a point they have used to drive home what they see as the necessity to jam cell signals in prisons.

Cell signal jamming is not allowed by federal regulation. Wilson and Stirling have crusaded to have that regulation changed.

“(Inmates) are physically incarcerated, but with the cellphone technology, they are virtually out there among us still victimizing us,” Stirling said

While not a violent offender, Randy Cornelio was out of prison after serving time for selling methamphetamine in 2017, a drug he also was known to use, according to Waters’ court testimony. After prison, he was caught again with meth but avoided prison by agreeing to a rigid rehabilitation program, court records show.

Cornelio was at the rehab facility when authorities arrested him with charges of conspiracy, distributing marijuana and providing contraband to prisoners. During his time in prison, he worked in food service and used his position to help move the contraband brought in by ringleaders, Waters said.

Demario Nesbit, also known as “Green Eyes,” was another inmate leader in the ring, Waters told the court. Serving 30 years on a manslaughter charge, Nesbit coordinated people inside and out of the prison, operating like a businessman to bring in the contraband that could be worth $1,000 for each cellphone and hundreds for each hit of drugs, prosecutors said.

“These particular conspiracies are very, very in-depth. They’re very, very complicated,” Waters said, “Frankly, I’ll give credit to Mr. Nesbit . . . there’s a lot of work that goes into running these.”

©2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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