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Final 4 of 29 inmates and guards convicted in Operation Prison Cell sentenced in southeast Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The final four people, out of 29 who have been convicted in a large-scale racketeering case involving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's (TDCJ) McConnell Unit in Beeville, were sentenced Monday.

These latest sentences were announced U.S. Attorney by Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. This investigation was led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Melissa Lozano, 29, of San Antonio a "facilitator" in this case, was convicted on one count of violating the racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations act (RICO). Lozano was ordered Nov. 25 to serve 15 months in federal prison. Craig Owens, 29, of Kileen, and Karla Sanchez, 26, of Houston, were also facilitators, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering. On Monday, Owens and Sanchez were sentenced to 60 and 24 months, respectively. Christopher Karl Owens, 33, of Killeen, an inmate, was also sentenced Nov. 25 to 151 months in prison.

These sentences resulted from a joint effort between the TDCJ's Office of Inspector General and federal authorities to attempt to break the "culture of corruption" that permeated McConnell Unit Prison 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.

Correction officers assisted prisoners incarcerated in the TDCJ McConnell Unit Prison in Beeville by smuggling cellular telephones and drugs into the prison system. The drugs and phones were then sold inside the prison to other inmates. The phones were used by inmates to assist them with coordinating criminal activities outside the prison.

With the exception of Juan Ledezma, who was convicted following a two-day trial, 28 other defendants pleaded guilty to several counts of racketeering to include other charges. Senior U.S. District Judge Hayden Head, handed down the final sentences against all convicted in the case at hearings that concluded Monday.

"'Operation Prison Cell' is an appropriate name for this investigation. It describes where those responsible for the corruption, trafficking and violence uncovered in this case will spend a considerable portion of the rest of their lives," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. "Although we expect convicted criminals to act like criminals, we will not tolerate those entrusted to serve the public to do the same. These sentences send an unmistakable message to both the corrupted and their corruptors that we will catch you and punish you for your crimes."

Seven facilitators were sentenced last month. Yvonne Sandoval, 37, of Corpus Christi, Maria Fernanda Hidalgo, 32, of McAllen, and Lindsey Elaine Savage, 30, of Copperas Cove, were all also convicted of RICO and received sentences of 18 months, 12 months plus one day, and 38 months, respectively. The following four pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering: Juanita Beltran Mendez, 50, of Bishop, will be on probation for five years; Nancy Star Onega, 27, and Donna Sorise, 57, both of Hialeah, Fla., and Maria Rose Rodriguez, 35, of Alamo, will serve sentences of 60, 71 and 66 months, respectively.

Four others charged in the case – Aaron Trevino, 37, of Lockhart, Christopher Karl Owens, Christopher Smith, 28, of Chester, and Ledezma, 40, of Brownsville – were considered "inmates" in the overall scheme; they had been in TDCJ custody during the conspiracy. Owens was sentenced Nov. 25 to serve 151 months in prison for the RICO conviction. Trevino also pleaded guilty to the RICO count and was sentenced to 198 months in federal prison. Smith pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to time served, about 10 months of incarceration. Ledezma was found guilty by a Corpus Christi federal jury of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana; he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for the three counts of conviction.

The former McConnell Unit employees had already received their sentences. Former guards Stephanie Deming, 24, Lela Ysolde Hinojosa, 52, and Arturo Salas, 23, all of Beeville; Christy Nesloney, 27, of Cuero, James Randal Standlea, 25, of Mathis, Desiree Silguero, 43, of McAllen; Emmanuel Cotto, 32, of San Antonio; Megan Brook Morales, 24, of Bulverde; Lakeisha Jeanette Reid, 25, of Austin; Jaime Jorge Garza, 38, of Santa Elena; and Oscar Juraidini, 25, of Brownsville; were all convicted of one count of RICO, as was contract mental health professional Kimberly Koenig, 32, of Victoria. Nesloney was previously sentenced to 28 months in federal prison; Deming and Reid will respectively serve 27 and 24 months. Salas and Juraidini will each serve 22 months. Hinojosa and Morales each received 21-month terms of incarceration; Garza will be in prison for 15 months. Silguero and Cotto will serve five months, to be immediately followed by another five months on home confinement. Standlea and Koening will be on probation for three years.

Other McConnell Unit Guards Jamar Tremayne Green 30, of Refugio; Casey Simmons, 25, of Kenedy; and Justin Leonard, 24, of Cypress; were convicted of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine, respectively. Simmons was sentenced to three years of probation; Green and Leonard will serve five months in prison plus five months of home confinement.

There are still two fugitives in this case; warrants remain outstanding for their arrests.

During Ledezma's trial, the jury heard testimony that Ledezma acted as an intermediary between drug traffickers in south Texas and Mexico. He had connections to drug suppliers and, using the illegally smuggled cell phones, coordinated with other prisoners to organize drug deals inside and outside the prison. Jurors heard that prisoners had made phone calls to Ledezma while in the McConnell Unit. In these calls, Ledezma agreed to help arrange for six pounds of methamphetamine to be purchased in Corpus Christi and distributed in Arkansas. The buyers of the methamphetamine were to pay more than $20,000 per pound of the drug.

The overall 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 Mexico Cartel members. The operation was coordinated by inmates incarcerated at the McConnell Unit through the use of the illegal cell phones.

A subsequent 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. The following items were also seized from the gang: seven assault rifles, 14 pistols, five shotguns, five bullet proof vests and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition. All were subsequently convicted, two of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The overall case resulted from a four-year investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, led by HSI and assisted by TDCJ's Office of Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Corpus Christi Police Department's Gang and Organized Crime Units; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the Bee County District Attorney's office.

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