43 charged in drug ring run by S.C. inmates, connected to Mexican cartels

A state grand jury indictment brings 170 charges against 43 defendants for the trafficking of more that 25 kilograms of methamphetamine


By Ted Clifford
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A methamphetamine ring run by inmates in South Carolina prisons was broken up by a multi-agency investigation, the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office announced Thursday.

Long time drug traffickers — using cellphones smuggled into prisons — coordinated a multi-state drug smuggling ring from behind bars, according to the attorney general’s office. Using their contraband phones, they allegedly coordinated with accomplices and Mexican cartels to transport methamphetamine from Atlanta to the South Carolina Upstate, according to the attorney general’s office.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, surrounded by law enforcement officials from around the state, announces a major investigation related to Mexican drug cartels.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, surrounded by law enforcement officials from around the state, announces a major investigation related to Mexican drug cartels. (Photo/Tracy Glantz of The State via TNS)

“It might surprise people that cartel drug trafficking happens in South Carolina, but it does and we’re fighting to stop it,” S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement.

A state grand jury indictment, unsealed Thursday, brings 170 charges against 43 defendants for the trafficking of more that 25 kilograms of methamphetamine.

The multi-year investigation, which involved state and local law enforcement as well as investigators from the South Carolina Department of Corrections, was named “Las Señoritas” for the group of women at the center of the investigation.

The so-called “Señoritas” allegedly coordinated with inmates who ran “command and control” for the entire operation from inside prison, Wilson said at a Thursday news conference. Communicating via contraband cell phones, the inmates directed the women to deliver drugs, primarily methamphetamine, from Atlanta to the Upstate via the I-85 corridor.

The women are believed to have fled to Mexico, according to Wilson. Chelsie Marie Anderson, Jennifer Nicole Burns, and Amy Deanna Cobb a/k/a Emma allegedly fled to Mexico in late 2018-2020, according to the attorney general’s office. Marcy Dawn Vickers allegedly and Kelli Edwards allegedly fled to Mexico in 2022, followed by Michael Pardi last month, according to the statement.

One of the women is believed to have married a cartel member, Wilson said.

Thirty-four of the people named in the indictment have been arrested since Jan. 3, whileseven defendants are believed to have fled to Mexico. They are throught to be hiding with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to Wilson.

Among those named in the indictment are inmates Darrell Foster McCoy, Jr. a/k/a “DJ,”and Matthew David McCoy. The brothers have been involved in drug trafficking since 2011 and have been in prison since 2015, according to the attorney general’s office.

Las Señoritas was just the latest in a long series of “related” drug trafficking cases, said Chief Attorney of the State Grand Jury Division, Creighton Waters.

“The McCoy brothers are serving time for drug trafficking going back to State Grand Jury case ‘Family Tradition,’” Water said.

At bond hearings last week, the McCoys were notified that the state intends to seek prison sentences of life without parole.

The co-conspirators are charged with trafficking more than 400 grams of methamphetamine, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Cellphones continue to plague S.C. Prisons

For S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and Attorney General Alan Wilson, Thursday’s news conference was the latest public event over several years in which they spoke outabout the problems of illegal cell phones used by inmates in state prisons.

Since 2015, the corrections department has confiscated more 35,000 cellphones and related accessories from inmates. The highest number was in 2016, when 7,226 were confiscated. In 2022, 2,446 were confiscated.

The lack of strong federal laws and regulations that would allow state prison systems to jam contraband cellphones frustrates state prison officials around the country, Stirling said.

In recent years, South Carolina inmates have used contraband cellphones to arrange illegal schemes involving everything from drugs to sex to assassination.

In 2018, state law enforcement officials revealed they had uncovered a “sextortion” ring run by South Carolina inmates using cellphones to blackmail more than 400 military service members around the country.

In 2019, a S.C. prison inmate, Michael Young, was sentenced to 43 years in prison for trying to hire a “hit man” on the internet’s “dark web” to send a mail-order bomb to his ex-wife. Unknown to the inmate, the “hit man” was actually an undercover FBI agent.

Each year, the Department of Corrections confiscates several thousand illegal cellphones around the state’s 21 prisons. Inmates will pay some $3,500 to buy a smart phone they can use behind prison walls, officers said at Thursday’s news conference.

“We have all been barking about this for several years,” Wilson said. “We continually keep going back to the same problem.”

While the Department of Corrections has taken steps to eliminate cellphones, including installing full body scanners and putting up golf netting, law enforcement officials at the news conference described the ingenious ways that inmates smuggled in cellphones, from simply tossing them over the fence to using drones or hiding them in bins collected by inmates who maintained the grounds of the State House.

Preventing phones from getting into prisons is nearly impossible, according to Stirling. “All it takes is one corrupt staff member,” Stirling said.

Instead, he called on the FCC to pass the Cellphone Jamming Reform Act, which would allow state prison systems to jam cellphone signals. The proposed law has never received a hearing.

Stirling said his agency has already coordinated with five major wireless carriers to implement this program at the Lee Correctional Institution were the law to be passed.

The Department of Corrections could have every cellphone in the prison shut down in five days, according to Stirling.

“Everyone in America would be safer if Congress would pass this legislation,” Stirling said.

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