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Two accused of attempt to smuggle packages into jail via rope

Blocks away from the Baltimore City Detention Center and well after midnight, a man in a blue "No. 11" sports jersey clutched a package and made his way toward the jail.

As he approached the heavily fortified compound, a rope emerged from a top-floor window.

The next step was to affix the package to the rope; authorities say it contained marijuana, tobacco and a cellphone. The scheme was elegant in its simplicity — almost Rapunzel-esque — until corrections officers swooped in. Police say they caught it all on video.

Jail officials hailed the bust as a small victory for a beleaguered facility. The state corrections department has been trying to improve security since federal authorities indicted two dozen jail officers, detainees and outside helpers this spring in a gang-linked smuggling scheme.

Police said they arrested the man with the package and an alleged accomplice, but haven't caught the person who threw the rope. Nonetheless, the arrests early Sunday were the first to come through a first-year partnership between Baltimore's CitiWatch outdoor surveillance system and the jail compound.

"Together, these efforts are showing that it has become increasingly difficult for both gangs and corrupt staff to operate inside the state's Baltimore City correctional complex," Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials said in a statement.

Criminals are always trying to sneak illicit goods behind bars, according to agency spokesman Rick Binetti, and the cameras are in place to limit their options. "This is the first time they've caught anyone in the act," he said.

The annals of thwarted smuggling attempts include a number of creative schemes: A correctional officer at the Carroll County Detention Center allegedly tried in 2001 to smuggle heroin in a cleaning bucket. A contracted dietary worker was accused in 2008 of hiding a cellphone in a vat of tuna fish, Binetti said.

The Bellingham Herald in Washington this August reported on the arrest of a man who allegedly affixed a bag of marijuana to an arrow he fired into a second-floor jail recreation area. And Mexico City prison authorities found a cellphone hidden in the coffin of an inmate's mother this summer after he was permitted to say one last goodbye, the Associated Press reported.

In Baltimore, where the downtown jail is in a high-foot-traffic area, people have commonly thrown packages over fences. Corrections officials wanted to fix this, Binetti said, and in January they enlisted Baltimore's surveillance system to help monitor the surrounding blocks.

Camera No. 2502 in the city's extensive system was erected at East Madison and Graves streets, and officers trained No. 2509 on areas outside the jail.

Corrections officers in the CitiWatch nerve center were monitoring the video feeds at 1:58 a.m. Sunday when they saw the suspicious beginnings of the alleged smuggling attempt, Binetti said. They called police to the scene, and officers said they converged on the man as he worked to affix the package to a rope extended from a window in the Jail Industries building.

The man tried to run, as did two women who had been standing nearby, according to court charging documents. All were caught by police.

The man had dropped a bundle of shrink-wrapped goods that had been duct-taped together, authorities say, and officers also found a similar package on one of the women.

Police said the parcels contained a lighter, cigarette paper and large amounts of suspected tobacco. Another plastic baggie wrapped in gray tape contained more suspected tobacco and a box of cigarette rolling paper. Yet another bag held suspected marijuana. A package wrapped in white plastic held a gray Samsung cellphone along with a phone charger, a water bottle and soap.

Perry Davenport, 53, and Sierra Johnson, 28, were each charged with nine criminal counts, including drug possession, attempts to deliver a controlled dangerous substance and conspiracy to deliver a telecommunication device to an inmate. A third alleged member of the group, a juvenile, was released to a guardian after police found nothing on her.

State corrections officials touted the arrests as another "piece of a coordinated anti-corruption campaign."

In April, 25 people — including 13 corrections officers — were indicted by federal prosecutors who said they played a part in a smuggling ring overseen by members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang.

Several security reforms and technological improvements have followed, and prison officials said their response has reduced new contraband at the Baltimore City Detention Center by 51 percent through October compared with the same time last year.

No attorney was listed in court records for Davenport or Johnson, and a message left for Davenport's relatives was not returned. A woman who described herself as Johnson's sister but declined to give her name said her sister was "a very nice person."

"I don't know that she would ever do anything like that," the woman said.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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