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04/03/2013

7 Texas correctional officers plead guilty to racketeering for smuggling drugs and cell phones to prison inmates

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Seven former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) correction officers pleaded guilty Tuesday as part of a large-scale racketeering case involving the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas.

This case resulted from a four-year joint investigation conducted by the following agencies: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Texas; TDCJ's Office of Inspector General; Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Corpus Christi Police Department's Gang and Organized Crime Units; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the Beeville County District Attorney's Office.

Former McConnell Unit employees Stephanie Deming, 23, of Beeville; Christy Nesloney, 27, of Cuero; Kimberly Koenig, 32, of Victoria; Yvonne Sandoval, 36, of Sinton; Jaime Garza, 38, of Santa Elena, each pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering. Former correction officer Justin Leonard, 23, of Conroe, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The former Texas correction officers admitted to acts of bribery and drug trafficking inside and outside the prison system. Not charged in the racketeering count, former correction officer Jamar Green, 29, of Refugio, who pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. All seven defendants are set for sentencing June 24.

"These defendants were entrusted to serve the public, but violated our trust and became servants to the criminals in their care," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. "As a fitting result, the jailers will now be jailed."

A total of 30 defendants were taken into custody in late February in relation to this case, including 17 former TDCJ officers. Two others remain fugitives. The cases against the other 25 defendants are still pending and they are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law. They are set for trial July 8. The indictment remains sealed regarding those charged but not as yet in custody.

The arrests of those charged were a joint effort between TDCJ's OIG 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. 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, 14 former TDCJ correction officers were part of a criminal enterprise that engaged in bribery and narcotics trafficking. The indictment details specific acts where correction officers assisted incarcerated prisoners in the TDCJ's 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 were used by inmates to assist in coordinating their criminal activities outside the prison, according to the allegations.

The investigation was initiated in 2009 when several Aryan Circle Gang Members were apprehended attempting to transport stolen vehicles from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. The vehicles were destined to be smuggled across the border and sold to cartel members in Mexico. 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 (VICAR). These violent acts included home invasions, shootings and conspiracy to commit murder. During the course of the investigation, agents and officers seized about 13 pounds of crystal methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $300,000. Additionally, seven assault rifles, 14 pistols, five shotguns, five bullet-proof vests, and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition were seized from the gang. All were subsequently convicted; two of them were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Patterson and Michael Hess, Southern District of Texas, are prosecuting this case.