When his National Guard company deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, Derrick Jones could have retired. Instead, the 23-year veteran went to the war zone to "see that the mission was a complete success," according to one of his supervisors.
But his deployment was cut short when he was flown back to face criminal charges. While he was overseas, federal authorities finished an investigation into widespread corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where Jones worked as a K-9 officer, and he was charged with smuggling drugs and cellphones for inmates.
On Friday, Jones, 41, was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison in what his attorney called a "heartbreaking fall from grace."
Standing before U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander, Jones said that as a soldier and parent, he understood the importance of discipline and was prepared to accept whatever Hollander decided. He made no excuses and did not ask for leniency.
Hollander noted that Jones had served his country "admirably" and was a hard worker who earned the love and respect of a wide circle of people. Supporters filled two rows in the courtroom. Several wrote letters of support to the court.
Though prosecutors said Jones worked within a broken system, at a jail where inmates called the shots, Hollander said that "it wouldn't have been broken to the extent it did unless people of trust allowed it to happen."
It was Jones' first brush with the law. Raised by a single mother, he worked at McDonald's and as a downtown parking attendant while attending Edmondson-Westside High School.
In a letter to the court, Jones' longtime friend Rukiya Faulk said that "he set the example amongst our peers to always keep a part-time job."
"Mr. Jones was just the leader you needed as a close friend to keep you focused on doing positive things," she said.
Shortly before graduation in 1991, Jones signed up with the Maryland National Guard. In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq and spent a year driving convoys in "incredibly dangerous conditions," his attorney, Rebecca S. LeGrand, wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Staff Sgt. Kevin Green recalled that he needed to pick someone to drive in the rear of a 50-vehicle convoy, the position most likely to be attacked. Jones volunteered.
"I will NEVER forget Derrick stepping up and bringing us all back to camp safely," Green wrote in a letter to Hollander. "Now that's leadership."
Jones would later be deployed to New Orleans to assist after Hurricane Katrina.
He became a corrections officer in 2004 and eventually became a K-9 officer with the rank of sergeant at the jail.
As a supervisor, Jones was "particularly positioned to be an effective smuggler," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ayn Ducao told Hollander.
Investigators say Jones began working with inmates and gang members in 2011, using his position to help contraband pass smoothly into the jail.
Prosecutors said gang leader Tavon White described Jones as his "homeboy" in one recorded call, and they alleged that Jones made $3,000 to $5,000 each week smuggling banned items for one inmate. He helped bring in cellphones, marijuana and tobacco, making arrangements with inmates' contacts on the outside and insisting on cash payments, according to his plea agreement.
While Ducao said some of the 24 corrections officers charged in the case were young and seduced by inmates, Jones "was a mature, grown man with family support and a career path, who decided to engage in this behavior."
But Janal Alford, a former corrections officer who left in 2013, described Jones as a model officer who may have saved his life in 2012 when he was attacked by inmates and stabbed in the back of the head. He said Jones was the first to come to his aid, and they stood back-to-back fighting off attackers until more officers arrived.
Alford said in an interview Friday that there was a lack of supervision, personnel and equipment at the jail. Still, he said, there's no excuse for guards who help inmates with illegal activity.
"They're in an environment where it can be tempting," Alford said. "They're supposed to be grown people, professionals. You should know better. But there's no one keeping an eye on you."
When his National Guard company came up for deployment in 2013, Jones requested that he be sent. His military colleagues say it was a brave move. But LeGrand also wondered whether the environment at the jail may have played a part.
"Frankly, I think he wanted to get out of BCDC," she told Hollander, calling the jail a "viper's nest of crime and corruption."
The indictment was unsealed in November 2013, and the following month Jones was removed from combat and flown to Texas, where he was arrested and released to await the outcome of the case.
"The devastation of his absence left soldiers unsure of their next steps," 1st Sgt. Dwayne Swinton wrote to Hollander, saying Jones was part of a group who referred to themselves as a "band of brothers." "His guidance and leadership ability was so passionate that it was surely missed by his squad."
Despite his criminal charges, officials recognized Jones' service in August 2014 with an Army Achievement Medal as well as a commendation from then-Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Since his indictment, Jones has been baby-sitting a relative's child and driving a garbage truck.
Sentencing guidelines called for Jones to be sentenced to between 24 and 30 months. Hollander went under those recommendations, saying she was certain he would not offend again.
"You were sworn to uphold the law, and you abused a position of trust," she said.