Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Authorities in South Carolina have charged dozens for participating in "a sprawling criminal enterprise" of murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking orchestrated by inmates in state correctional facilities, making it the largest racketeering conspiracy in the state's history, the Justice Department said.
U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy, Jr., of the District of South Carolina announced before the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia on Thursday a 147-count indictment charging 40 people.
"To anyone who would try to harm the people of South Carolina with violence, intimidation or extortion, we are coming after you wherever you are," he said.
The superseding indictment was returned by a grand jury, charging the defendants with conspiracy under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act as well as several charges under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Statute, including for kidnapping and murder. Twenty-four of the defendants were charged in the initial indictment in connection to drug trafficking.
Ten of the defendants have been charged with murder and 35 face potential life in prison if convicted, Justin Holloway, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, told reporters.
Holloway said prosecutors conservatively estimate that the defendants trafficked some $50 million in methamphetamine during each of the past three years and that authorities seized more than 40 kilograms of the drug with a street value of $4 million and more than 130 firearms, including an automatic machine gun, during their investigation.
The Justice Department described the case in a statement as "the largest federal racketeering conspiracy in South Carolina History" that involved numerous departments.
The charges were the result of an investigation that began in 2017 into methamphetamine trafficking and the illegal sale of firearms that grew to focus on the Insane Gangster Disciples, a branch of the nationwide Folk Nation, a violent gang founded in Chicago in the 1970s, the Justice Department said.
The indictment states that several IGD gang members ran the criminal enterprise from South Carolina correctional facilities through the use of contraband cellphones, which they used to order associates outside of prison to carry out violent acts against those they accused of providing authorities with information, of stealing drug proceeds or owing the gang money.
"This was a complex, multi-jurisdictional investigation aimed at taking down an alleged criminal operation of historic reach in our state," said Special Agent in Charge Vince Pallozzi of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "The brazen criminal acts charged fueled gun violence and drug trafficking in numerous counties and cities."
The 101-page indictment links three killings to the conspiracy, one in July of 2019 when from jail a hit was ordered on Michelle Dodge, who the gang believed was an informant.
Dodge was struck with a firearm and forced onto a stolen truck, according to the indictment.
She was then driven to an abandoned property, tied to a chair, waterboarded and shot in the foot before she was placed in the trunk of a second truck and driven to another location where she was walked toward a wooded area and shot in the back of the head, prosecutors said.
Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, blamed cellphones on that gang's ability to operate from prison.
With his cellphone in his hand, Stirling told reporters, "just this device right here, you're seeing why we're here today."
Stirling said he has been advocating for state prisons to have the authority to jam cellphone signals, a power that federal prisons have.
"Because of the Federal Communications Commission Act of 1934, almost a 90-year-old law that says you cannot interfere with a radio signal or radio frequency, state prisons cannot jam," he said. "That makes no sense to me."
He said without cellphones, correction facilities would be in a better position to rehabilitate inmates by severing their contact with negative forces outside prison while ensuring the safety of victims and potential victims.
In 2016, South Carolina correctional authorities confiscated more than 7,000 contraband cell phones from inmates. In 2019, they have so far discovered more than 4,000 devices, he said.
"Every single one of those cellphones is an avenue for these folks to continue their criminal ways behind bars," he said. "This should not be happening."