Crime & Courts

Sheriff decries illicit prison phones in drug-related, revenge killing of SC woman

Here is the criminal legal process from arrest to final court days

Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson walks though the legal process from the time someone is arrested until the time they are sentenced.
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Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson walks though the legal process from the time someone is arrested until the time they are sentenced.

Laurens County Sheriff Don Reynolds called it “the hideous operation.”

Michelle Marie Dodge, who was found shot to death two weeks ago, would likely be alive if it wasn’t for a hit arranged on contraband cellphones in the South Carolina prison system, Reynolds said at a Friday news conference broadcast by Fox Carolina. He railed against a federal law that bars officials with the South Carolina Department of Corrections from blocking cell phone signals in prisons.

“It absolutely boggles my mind that they don’t jam these signals,” Reynolds said. “I don’t know why anybody could not be ashamed of themselves that are not fighting to stop this.”

The 27-year-old York woman was kidnapped, shot in the back of the head and her body disposed in a killing that was orchestrated through calls and text messages by a convicted murderer and drug dealer locked up in Kirkland Correctional Institute, authorities have said.

Officials with the South Carolina Department of Corrections have called for the ability to block cell phone signals in prisons for years. A federal law prohibits jamming telephones with no exemptions. Legislation, cosponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, was introduced in March to amend the law.

Police in South Carolina and North Carolina arrested eight people in the case, saying they conspired to kidnap Dodge and concealed evidence. Others are likely to be arrested, Reynolds said.

James Peterson arranged Dodge’s death as an act of vengeance, according to Reynolds. Police charged Peterson with murder and conspiracy to kidnap.

Peterson is serving a 30-year sentence for a 2005 murder and aggravated assault. When he’s done serving, he goes to federal prison for his part in a drug ring organized from prison.

“What does he have to lose if he wants to reach out and get revenge?” Reynolds said.

Deputies said two other men, Aaron Carrion and Aaron Sprouse, carried out the killing. Both are charged with murder and weapon possession during a violent crime.

Deputies found Dodge’s body in the woods of Laurens County on July 20. She was shot in the back of the head and the foot, the coroner said. Police found her abandoned car about 70 miles from her body in a remote area of Cherokee County. Investigators believe someone tried to burn the car or sink it in a nearby river, Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said.

Reynolds did not elaborate on what actions prompted Peterson’s retribution, but the sheriff said Dodge likely knew Peterson and the other suspects through the drug trade.

“They all seem to come across each other’s path through this meth trade,” Reynolds said. “Drugs touch all these people in some way.”

Dodge served a year in prison after a 2018 arrest for methamphetamine possession, court records showed. The meth charge was her third offense. A kilo of meth was found in the house where Dodge was last seen, according to Mueller, as reported by Fox Carolina. Other suspects in the case have prior drug convictions and police charged some with drug offenses when arrested in Dodge’s case.

“It’s so sad and so simple to do what’s right,” Reynolds said, imploring haste in blocking cell signals in prison.

Dodge was memorialize in her obituary as “a loving daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and friend” who “will be truly missed.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.