Kenneth Magidson, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, announced the indictments earlier this week as the culmination of a four-year investigation that began in Corpus Christi.
The indictment, on file at the Corpus Christi federal courthouse, was unsealed this week.
Of the 32 defendants, 17 were former correctional officers.
Beeville residents indicted were Stephanie Deming, 23, Lela Ysolde Hinojosa, 51, and Arturo Salas, 22. Also indicted was Jamar Tremayne Green, 29, of Refugio.
According to the indictment, on Oct. 28, 2009, Deming, while a correctional officer, accepted or agreed to accept cash from an inmate in exchange for a cell phone.
She, along with another officer, Megan Brook Morales, are also accused of possessing with the intent to distributed cocaine between September 2009 and October of that year.
This indictment also accuses Hinojosa, while a correctional officer, of accepting or agreeing to accept cash twice from an inmate in exchange for a cell phone in 2009.
The indictment adds that in January 2011, Salas, inmate Christopher Owens and a third unidentified person conspired to distribute marijuana. The indictment adds that Salas, as a correction officer, also provided Owens with an unidentified controlled substance.
“They are charged in a racketeering conspiracy and other drug and money-laundering counts. It is the culmination of Operation Prison Cell,” Magidson said during a news conference on Wednesday.
The arrests were a joint effort between the state prison system Office of Inspector General and federal authorities to attempt to break the “culture of corruption” that permeated the McConnell Unit Prison during a period between 2005 to the present, according to a news release issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
State and federal authorities worked together in a determined effort to disrupt and dismantle the violent criminal gangs who were profiting through the corruption of guards at the prison.
“According to the indictment returned under seal by a federal grand jury last week, 13 former TDCJ correction officers were part of a criminal enterprise that engaged in bribery and narcotics trafficking,” Angela Dodge, spokeswoman for the department, said in the release.
The indictment details specific acts, wherein the correctional officers assisted prisoners incarcerated in the TDCJ McConnell Unit Prison in Beeville by smuggling cellular telephones and drugs into the prison system.
The drugs and phones were allegedly sold inside the prison to other inmates.
The phones, Dodge said, were used by inmates to assist in their coordination of criminal activities outside the prison, according to the allegations.
Wednesday’s announcement caps a four-year investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), TDCJ-Office of the Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Corpus Christi Police Department Gang and Organized Crime Units, U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the Bee County District Attorney’s office.
The investigation was initiated in 2009 when several Aryan Circle gang members were apprehended attempting to transport stolen vehicles from Corpus Christi to Brownsville.
“It started out being worked by (Corpus Christi) authorities regarding car theft,” Magidson said. “They determined that the car theft ring was bringing these vehicles into Mexico.
“They asked for Homeland Security assistance because it involved the international border.”
The vehicles were destined to be smuggled across the border and sold to Mexico cartel members, Dodge elaborated. The operation was coordinated by inmates incarcerated at the McConnell Unit through the use of illegal cell phones.
The resulting investigation led to a December 2010 federal indictment charging 14 alleged members and associates of the Raza Unida street and prison gang with committing violent acts to support racketeering.
These violent acts included home invasions, shootings and conspiracy to commit murder.
During the course of the investigation, agents and officers seized approximately 13 pounds of crystal methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $300,000.
Additionally, seven assault rifles, 14 pistols, five shotguns, five bulletproof vests and approximately 1,000 rounds of ammunition were seized from the gang.
All were subsequently convicted, two of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Mark Patterson and Michael Hess.
Wednesday’s announcement of the indictment was also attended by Special Agent in Charge of HSI Brian M. Moskowitz, Inspector General Bruce Toney with TDCJ-OIG, Special Agent in Charge Lucy Cruz of IRS-CI, Special Agent in Charge Melvin King Jr. of ATF, CCPD Chief Floyd D. Simpson and Postal Inspector in Charge Robert B. Wemyss of USPIS.
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.