Crime & Courts

Massive sex blackmail scheme run by SC inmates targeted military, officials say

More than 400 military service members across the United States have fallen victim to sexual blackmail schemes run by inmates in S.C. prisons, officials said Wednesday.

Indictments against 15 people, including five S.C. inmates, were unsealed Wednesday, describing a “sextortion ring,” law enforcement officials told a news conference at the S.C. Department of Corrections’ prison complex in Columbia.

About 440 military service members have fallen victim to the scheme in recent years, paying $560,000 in extortion money to the blackmailers and their accomplices, officials said.

The victims came from the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Marines, and military bases across the country. Victims included officers and enlisted service members, officials said.

“Our purpose in being here today is to sound the alarm that these kinds of scams are a significant threat to our military and to the citizens of South Carolina,” Sherri Lydon, U.S. attorney for South Carolina, said just outside the Broad River Road Correctional Institution.

The inmates and their civilian accomplices outside prison — friends and family members — face charges of money laundering, extortion and wire fraud, officials said. The accomplices, including one North Carolinian, were arrested early Wednesday in what agents called “Operation Surprise Party.”

More than 250 other suspects face potential prosecution, Andrew Goodrich, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, told the news conference. “This operation will continue. ... We value the safety of our military men and women.”

According to the indictments, the defendants committed blackmail by using cellphones with internet connections to link up with online dating services and social media platforms that are frequented by military personnel.

Once in contact with a service member, the inmates posed as fictitious young woman interested in meeting members of the military, sent pictures of a nude young woman to the service member and developed online romantic relationships, persuading the service member to send nude pictures of themselves over the internet.

After the “relationship” was established, the inmate would call the military service person and pose as either the father of the fictitious young woman or a police officer. The caller told the service member the young woman was a juvenile and demand money to keep the matter hushed up, not telling military authorities, Goodrich said.

The scheme played on the fears of military service members. A picture of an nude underage girl can be considered child pornography and illegal, and its possession could lead to dismissal from the military, Goodrich said.

Indictments unsealed Wednesday offered more details as to how the scams operated.

S.C. inmate Jimmy Dunbar Jr., for instance, told one military victim that his minor “daughter” was so traumatized by the victim’s sexually explicit text messages that she needed money for counseling and medical bills, according to one indictment. According to prison records, Dunbar, 37, is an inmate at Lee Correctional Institution, serving time for murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. He won’t be eligible for release until 2042.

During 2016 and 2017, Dunbar received $29,598 from various service members, according to the indictment.

Wendell Wilkins, 31, an inmate at South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institution, is alleged to have collected even more — at least $80,000 from service members from 2016 through January of this year.

The pictures of the nude young women that inmates used in the scheme had been obtained “from the Internet,” according to indictments.

To collect and spend their blackmail money, the perpetrators used bank accounts, money transfer services, online payment services, and various credit and debit cards, said Matthew Lyon, a criminal investigator for the Internal Revenue Service.

Money extorted from service members also was wired to accomplices in South Carolina via MoneyGram, Western Union, PayPal and Walmart. The accomplices then bought prepaid debit cards, whose numbers they then gave to the inmates who accessed the money via their cellphones in prison, indictments said. The accomplices also got part of the proceeds, indictments said.

The indictments follow the release of search warrants earlier this year that accused S.C. inmates of what the Army called a “sextortion” scheme. An investigation by state and military law enforcement agencies took more than two years.

The widespread use of contraband cellphones is a persistent problem in S.C. prisons.

“We do not lock up criminals only to have them go to prison and continue their criminal conduct,” U.S. attorney Lydon said. “It is the unfettered use of contraband cellphones that allows inmates to continue harming citizens.”

Federal regulations need to be changed to allow state prisons to jam inmates’ cellphones, said Tom Griffin, U.S. marshal for South Carolina, whose officers helped arrest suspects Wednesday.

“Every week, we see another example of why these cellphones should be blocked,” said S.C. prisons director Bryan Stirling.

Most contraband phones are tossed over prison fences, smuggled in by corrupt corrections officers or dropped onto prison yards by drones, according to the state Corrections Department.

Pointing to 50-foot-tall telephone poles around Broad River Correctional Institution, Stirling said the netting between the poles prevents cellphones from being tossed over shorter fences. But it costs about $1 million, he added.

Stirling unsuccessfully has lobbied Congress for years to modify a 1934 communications law that effectively bans states from blocking the transmissions used by cellphones. “We need relief, and we need it now,” he said Wednesday.

In July, Stirling told lawmakers that more than 4,000 contraband cellphones or parts had been seized in S.C. prisons during the past 12 months.

Disagreements over cellphones also helped cause a deadly riot in April at Lee Correctional in Lee County, Stirling has said. Seven inmates were killed and 17 others injured in that riot, the nation’s deadliest prison riot in the last 25 years.

Schemes involving sex — in which con men trap victims, usually men, into paying blackmail — are not new. In 2000, best-selling novelist John Grisham wrote “The Brethren,” a book whose plot is based on three convicts who carry out a “sextortion” plot that nets them tens of thousands of dollars.

The U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina will prosecute the cases. The law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation include criminal units from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Department, IRS and the U.S. Marshals’ Service. The S.C. Law Enforcement Division and the state Corrections Department also took part.

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