Two men have been arrested in what authorities say is the first known plot in Maryland involving a new type of crime: Using a drone to smuggle drugs, tobacco and pornography into a prison.
Two law enforcement officers found the four-rotor mini-helicopter on the rear passenger seat of a Ford pickup truck parked outside the state prison complex near Cumberland on Saturday evening, they wrote in court documents.
They said they also found a handgun and six plastic-wrapped packages that contained contraband items, including packets of synthetic marijuana, rolling papers, buprenorphine and pornographic DVDs.
"You can't make this stuff up," Corrections Secretary Stephen T. Moyer told reporters Monday outside the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
Attempted drone deliveries of contraband have been reported in other states, including Ohio and South Carolina. The issue was a hot topic at a recent national conference of correctional officials, said Pete France, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Moyer called the threat of contraband drone deliveries "an emerging problem" for the prison system, and said officials were researching ways to prevent it. He said drone-detecting technology would cost between $350,000 and $400,000 per institution.
"Contraband fuels violence, and we are committed to keeping it out for the safety of our staff and the inmates," Moyer said.
The two suspects were identified as Thaddeus Shortz, 25, of Knoxville in Frederick County and Keith Brian Russell, 29, of Silver Spring. Each faces multiple drug- and gun-related charges in connection with the incident, according to court records.
Moyer said officers from the Western Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility in Cumberland, spotted the vehicle on a side road off U.S. 220 near the prison complex about 8 p.m. Saturday.
The vehicle and its occupants had been under surveillance "thanks to a great deal of intelligence information," he said.
Officials would not say whether the suspects had successfully delivered contraband with the drone. They said it could carry between 6 and 8 ounces of cargo.
Authorities wrote in charging documents that a state trooper and a member of the C31 Narcotics Unit — a law enforcement task force in Allegany County — received information Saturday that Shortz, a former state prison inmate, would be trying to fly a drone over the Western Correctional Institution.
Police set up a surveillance operation outside the prison complex, authorities wrote, and watched two men, later identified as Shortz and Russell, step out of a Ford pickup and look around using binoculars.
After the men were stopped, authorities wrote, officers found the drone on a passenger seat of the truck, and the remote control was on the floor behind the driver's seat.
Shortz told police that the other man "was flying things over the wall including K-2, Suboxone, tobacco and pornographic movies to an inmate" inside the state prison, authorities wrote.
Police said they found 11 DVDs with pornographic titles, 51 packages of "Scooby Snax" — suspected synthetic marijuana — 116 packages of buprenorphine, suspected tobacco and hundreds of rolling papers. A .40-caliber handgun was discovered under a seat.
Shortz and Russell each had a "walkie-talkie type radio device," authorities said.
Shortz was released on bail Sunday, court records show. A person who answered the phone at a home phone number listed for him in court papers hung up when a Baltimore Sun reporter called.
Russell was being held at the Allegany County Detention Center on $100,000 bond, according to court records.
Neither man had an attorney listed in court records.
Authorities said Monday they were preparing charges against an inmate suspected of involvement in the alleged plot. That inmate's name has not been released. Moyer said contraband was discovered in his cell.
Matt Scassero, the head of the University of Maryland's drone testing center, said there have been cases of successful airborne delivery of contraband to prisons, and he expects to see more in the future.
"Just like any other technology, you have good uses and bad uses," he said.
Scassero said new laws might be needed to deal with such plots. He envisions prison systems hiring companies that are adapting military technology to detect and stop the vehicles.
Corporations and academic researchers are looking at a range of methods — including radar, lasers and cameras — for sensing drones.
Once an unauthorized drone has been targeted, it's a question of stopping it without harming anyone on the ground below — potentially by taking over its controls or trapping it in a net.
"You need a variety of technologies," Scassero said.
In South Carolina, investigators found a crashed drone with marijuana, tobacco and cellphones last year near a prison in Bishopville. A man was prosecuted in that case and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gov. Nikki Haley funded extra security measures to defend the state's prisons against drones, corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens said, including new towers and thermal-imaging cameras.
In late July, a brawl involving at least nine inmates broke out at an Ohio prison after a drone dropped off a package in the facility's recreation yard, according to a corrections department incident report.
Investigators concluded someone intercepted the package before its intended recipient could get it, causing the fight. A corrections officer later found a package containing heroin, marijuana and tobacco, according to the report.
Corrections officials and the state highway patrol are still investigating the incident, an Ohio prisons spokesman said. In the meantime, managers and officers have formed a task force to come up with ways to stop future deliveries of contraband by drone.