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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Baltimore BGF jail smuggling case hits 19 more suspects

Federal authorities have charged 14 more corrections officers with corruption at the Baltimore jail, adding new breadth to allegations that the Black Guerrilla Family essentially took over the downtown detention center.

The officers were among 19 suspects accused in indictments unsealed Thursday, deepening the scandal that broke in April with charges that two dozen officers, detainees and associates worked together to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the jail.

One of the officers charged this week was a K-9 supervisor and Army reservist now deployed to Afghanistan. Another is said to have maintained a romantic relationship with an inmate in a Hagerstown prison.

Prosecutors do not say the gang has continued its reign following the initial bust, but they say wiretaps and witness interviews have revealed just how much power the BGF accumulated.

As many as three-quarters of the approximately 650 officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were involved in contraband smuggling, witnesses said in court documents, contradicting assertions by corrections department officials that the "overwhelming majority" of staff members at the jail were clean.

Some state lawmakers said Thursday that the latest allegations call into question whether state officials are moving fast enough to review possible gang ties among officers still working at the jail.

The allegations unsealed in April — packed with lurid details of sex behind bars and brazen boasts by gang leader Tavon White that he controlled the jail — set off widespread criticism of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Twenty-five defendants, 13 of them corrections officers, were charged in that indictment. Sixteen of them, including White, have pleaded guilty to racketeering.

After the original charges, state officials promised to stamp out corruption. In recent weeks, the department gave reporters a tour of the cleaned-up jail and published statistics they said show declines in smuggling and violence.

Gov. Martin O'Malley thanked federal authorities Thursday for continuing to investigate.

"Since April, we have redoubled our efforts to crack down on corruption and improve security at our correctional institutions," O'Malley said. "Protecting the integrity of our correctional institutions requires constant vigilance, and we continue to improve those efforts every day."

But a representative of the AFSCME unit that represents jail officers said the new indictments will shake the confidence of workers trying to get back to doing their jobs.

"It's really shocking because we thought this stuff had ended," union representative Archer Blackwell said.

The new court filings describe cellphones smuggled inside of sandwiches and marijuana inserted in body orifices. They also paint a more detailed picture of the alleged activities of the BGF behind the jail's walls and the network of gang ties that prosecutors say were built up through smuggling deals and sexual relationships.

In a search warrant application connected to the charges, an FBI agent wrote that officer Milshenna Peoples traveled to visit an inmate at Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown. She was captured on surveillance video being fondled under her pants, the agent wrote.

Another of the newly charged officers, Riccole Hall, was the roommate of a woman who has already pleaded guilty.

She allegedly had a relationship with an inmate who described her as his wife, and resigned after pictures of her — including one showing his name tattooed on her wrist — were found on the inmate's phone.

One source reported seeing Michelle Ricks, a sergeant, "sing her song" to pledge allegiance to the BGF, prosecutors said.

Ricks declined to comment. The other officers could not be reached and no attorneys were listed for them in court records.

Some of the officers named in the latest indictment had previously been sanctioned for suspected gang activity. Ashley Newton was suspended in 2011 after she allegedly let a group of inmates out of the cells and the inmates stabbed someone, a FBI agent wrote in filings.

Eight of the newly charged corrections officers have already left the department. Officials said the remaining six have been suspended.

The corrections department has begun its review of all employees at the jail. Security chief Shavella Miles was ousted after she failed a polygraph test, officials said. A new leadership team has been installed.

Miles, who says she was made a scapegoat, is seeking to be reinstated.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, said Thursday's charges did not seem to stem from the internal investigation. He questioned whether the department was moving quickly enough with its own review.

"If these people are saying that 50 to 75 percent of the corrections officers are dirty … what is the internal investigation doing?" Cluster asked. "I don't care if they have limited opportunities [to commit crimes] now. ... If they did it before they're going to do it again."

The FBI reiterated in court documents that the state's process for disciplining corrupt officers is ineffective and is exploited by gang members.

"They don't even really be firing [anybody]," corrections officer Jennifer Owens said in a telephone call that was intercepted by investigators, according to prosecutors. "Like they give people the option to resign … for real."

Owens was indicted in April and has pleaded guilty.

Cluster, who is part of a legislative group formed to evaluate corrections security, said he plans to introduce legislation in the next General Assembly session that would make it easier to investigate and suspend officers suspected of smuggling.

The officers union fiercely opposes changes to state laws that protect members.

After the first indictment, the corrections department, state police and the Baltimore City state's attorney's office teamed up to develop further corruption cases. That partnership has led to several new charges, including accusations against two of the people named in the new federal indictment.

State Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., one of the leaders of the legislative corrections commission, said the group plans to produce its final recommendations at a meeting in early December.

Its suggestions will likely include reclassifying some crimes as felonies and authorizing more corrections officers to make arrests, the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.

Most of the changes made at the jail so far have involved new procedures or technology to more effectively search people who enter the facility. In recent weeks, officials have shown off a sophisticated new surveillance camera system.

The department also plans to introduce technology to disable contraband cellphones, making it harder for gang members to coordinate their activities.

The result of the efforts, according to the corrections department, has been a decline in the number of assaults inside the jail and the amount of contraband being smuggled.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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