Politics & Government

54 indicted in $20M drug trafficking scheme run from SC prisons, authorities say

More than 50 people were indicted in a drug trafficking scheme run by S.C. inmates using contraband cell phones in coordination with their partners outside state prisons, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s Office announced Friday.

The operation, dubbed “Prison Empire” by investigators, involved current and former South Carolina inmates who allegedly assisted in organizing the trafficking of methamphetamine, heroine, cocaine and marijuana from cells in prisons, according to the statement and the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the current inmates indicted, most are located in the state’s highest security facilities or at Evans Correctional Institution, a medium security facility located in Bennettsville. One is located in a Mississippi private prison, where he was moved to in November 2018.

The operation resulted in 194 charges — including drugs, weapons, burglary and kidnapping — against 54 defendants, according to the statement from Wilson’s office.

Of those defendant, 12 are current inmates and 14 are former inmates, according to a search of the state’s inmate database and information provided by the S.C. Department of Corrections.

Authorities booked the arrested into Greenville County Detention Center where had bond hearings on Wednesday and Thursday. Some had hearings in Pickens County.

The charges were the result of indictments handed down by the state grand jury and stemmed from an Upstate drug smuggling investigation that began in June 2018 with the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Corrections and the Attorney General’s office and other police agencies. The investigation expanded into the Midlands.

The investigation revealed that a drug-running conspiracy was responsible for moving 500 kilograms of methamphetamine, and multiple kilograms of heroin and cocaine, most of which were destined for locations in the Upstate, the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office said in a release.

The street values of the drugs are estimated to be more than $20 million. The investigation also seized over 40 firearms from street contacts, the sheriff’s office said.

“Today, we release the results of our continued effort to identify and hold accountable the people responsible for the poison that hits the streets of South Carolina,” Pickens County Sheriff Rick Clark said in a release about the investigation. “As I have repeatedly said over and over, the communities of this great state are no longer going to tolerate it, and these agencies represented here today are committed to running the drug trade out of South Carolina.”

State officials pointed fingers at contraband cellphones — a recurring problem for the state Department of Corrections — for allowing the inmates to continue the operation of the outside drug rings.

“The only way prison inmates are able to keep committing crimes on the outside is by using contraband cell phones,” Wilson said. “They coordinate with people on the outside to get drugs and smuggle them into prisons. This market for contraband inside our prisons has contributed to gang power, gang rivalries, and gang violence within our prisons, and also contributes to violence on the outside by those who are involved.”

State prisons Director Bryan Stirling echoed Wilson’s concern, saying, “An illegal cell phone is the most dangerous weapon in our prisons today.”

Stirling has long worked to promote legislation that would allow state prisons to block cell phone signals from going in or out of the prison. He’s pioneered the effort both in South Carolina and across the country.

This is not the first time officials have gone to battle against prison cell phones. Between November 2018 and September, prosecutors indicted 38 people alleging they took part in a prison smuggling plan that was run by inmates using contraband cell phones. The scheme involved using state facilities, such as the State House grounds, the Department of Corrections’ dairy and a Columbia bakery to retrieve and deliver drugs, phones and other contraband to state prisons.

Contraband is the core of many prison controversies, sometimes causing infighting between gangs and other violent acts behind bars, as The State’s 10-month investigation into the S.C. prison system found. Contraband, specifically contraband cell phones, were also blamed for the April 2018 deadly prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville that claimed the lives of seven inmates.

In another scam, prisoners pretending to be women targeted Army soldiers on dating apps and then extorted money out of the military members after exchanging nude photos, authorities said.

One of the people swept up in the indictments announced Friday, Stacey M. Edgerley, is the mother of Kerrie Edgerley who pleaded guilty to being part of a meth distribution conspiracy in June. The daughter was the victim of a Sept. 2018 abduction while she was pregnant after a person broke into her Edgefield County home, police said. Edward Akridge and Jennifer Pruitt, two others indicted in Prison Empire, were charged with kidnapping in Edgerley’s case.

“They wanted money. We didn’t have any. I was scared,” Stacey Edgerley told The State in an interview in June.

In the attorney general’s release, the office said one of the indictments entailed “burglary, kidnapping, and related charges from an incident allegedly ordered from prison because of nonpayment of a drug debt.”

Prosecutor Creighton Waters tied the Edgefield County kidnapping to an order from a prisoner, at a Friday news conference in Pickens County.

Nicanor Perez Rodriguez, one of the indicted, was the head of a particular drug ring and “ordered that kidnapping from prison through use of a contraband cell phone ... because other family members owed a drug debt,” Waters said.

The grand jury indictments brought charges against:

  • Samantha Diane Chavez Aiken
  • Steve Dewyatt Aiken, Jr.
  • Edward Gary Akridge, incarcerated at McCormick Correctional Institution
  • Joey Durant Atkins
  • Justin Kvalheim Babb, a former SCDC inmate
  • Ryan Christopher Ballard, a former SCDC inmate
  • William Clinton Barkley
  • Joey Neal Bodie
  • Steven Ray Boyd, a former SCDC inmate
  • Jessica Addie Bradshaw
  • Matthew Jason Brown, a former SCDC inmate
  • Jennifer Nicole Burns,
  • Kurtis Russell Burns
  • William Davin Burns
  • Warren Brent Chastain, incarcerated at Lieber Correctional Institution
  • Jacob Austin Collins
  • Jesse Taylor Crooks, incarcerated at Evans Correctional Institution
  • Tina Dent
  • Scott Allen Durham
  • Stacey M. Edgerly
  • Kelli Denise Edwards
  • Christina Marie Epps
  • Kenneth Bryant Evans, II, incarcerated at Kirkland Correctional Institution
  • McKayla Dawn Frans
  • Garrick Houston Fuller, a former SCDC inmate
  • Barbara Ann Goodman, a former SCDC inmate
  • Robert Anthony Gracely, incarcerated at Lee Correctional Institution
  • Heather Michelle Hamilton, incarcerated at Graham (Camille Griffin) Correctional Institution

  • Sommer Leigh Johnson
  • Casey Christian Kohler, a former SCDC inmate
  • Kristen Nicole Lesley
  • Cassidy Shane Lewis, a former SCDC inmate
  • Candies Brooke Locke
  • Jeffery Shane Maudlin, incarcerated at McCormick Correctional Institution
  • Darrell Foster McCoy, Jr., incarcerated at McCormick Correctional Institution.
  • Christopher Robert Nix
  • Brandi Nicole O’Bryant
  • Semeca Dannyelle Oglesby
  • William Russell Oliver, II, incarcerated at Evans Correctional Institution
  • Scott Damien Pope, a former SCDC inmate
  • Jennifer Marie Pruitt
  • Ratravious Untwain Quattlebaum
  • Jonathan Richard Rackley
  • Charles Michael Ray, a former SCDC inmate
  • Nicanor Perez Rodriguez, a South Carolina inmate incarcerated in a Mississippi private prison
  • Antonio Marcus Smith, incarcerated at Evans Correctional Institution
  • Jamal Seantea Smith
  • Bryan Michael Stegall, incarcerated at Evans Correctional Institution
  • Anthony Jevea Turner, a former SCDC inmate
  • Jodie Crenshaw Turner, a former SCDC inmate
  • Michael Wayne Walker, Jr.
  • Wade Douglas Watkins, a former SCDC inmate
  • Dustin Allen Wilson, a former SCDC inmate
Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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.