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Federal indictment shows drug ring operated from Tennessee prison

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    NASHVILLE (WSMV) — A federal indictment unsealed on Friday revealed a drug ring that was being operated inside a Tennessee state prison, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Nashville.

The indictment charged 27 people with a host of federal crimes relating to a large-scale conspiracy to distribute heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine. The conspiracy has been ongoing since as early as 2018 and was orchestrated from within the Tennessee state prison system by Humberto Morales, aka Pelon, 29, of Columbia, who has been jailed since 2014.

The Tennessee Department of Correction previously sought the assistance of federal law enforcement to address criminal activity occurring with the prison system.

Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart praised the tremendous efforts of the law enforcement agencies involved in the extensive investigation and noted the unparalleled cooperation between the agencies and the significant resources contributed by TDOC and its desire to reduce criminal activity by its inmates.

“This is just another example of illegal cell phones being used by convicted felons to communicate and conspire with criminals in the free-world to proliferate criminal activity,” TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said in a news release. “We believe there is only one viable solution in fighting the war on contraband cell phones in our facilities and that is through the deployment of shielded-micro jamming technology. Shielded micro-jamming uses lower power technology to focus energy effectively on the target area while limiting signal disruption outside of the target area. We are working with federal lawmakers and the Department of Justice to find ways to promote shielded micro-jamming.”

The last time Beverly Shelley saw Derrick Cunningham, the murderer of her husband, he was a teenager sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Parker serves on the federal task force that examines countermeasures to prevent the introduction and use of cell phones into correctional facilities.

Parker said TDOC was awarded a grant through the Bureau of Justice Assistance to conduct a pilot program using shielded micro-jamming but the Communications Act of 1934 prevents the use of this type of technology.

“In the fight against contraband cell phones, we run into a brick wall, time and time again,” Parker said. “Our hands are tied with a near century old law that could not have foreseen the problem of illegal cell phones inside prisons in 2021.”

In addition to the 27 indictments unsealed Friday, eight others were charged in separate indictments last week and two others had previously been charged.

Other charges resulting from the investigation include kidnapping, money laundering, making threats by electronic communication and firearms violations.

The resulting indictments and other court documents allege that the organization had ties to MS-13, Sur-13 and other street gangs and distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl-laced pills; multiple kilograms of fentanyl and heroin; over 50 pounds of methamphetamine, which was often 95-99% pure (commonly referred to as “ice”); as well as smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana. Court documents also allege that this well-orchestrated conspiracy is linked to at least one murder, horrific assaults and multiple other violent crimes.

Morales is alleged to have been the leader of the organization and routinely obtained contraband cell phones were smuggled into prison facilities where he was housed. Morales used these phones and encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp to orchestrate activities of the drug distribution network, order acts of violence against individuals, and to direct the flow of cash from drug sales between Middle Tennessee and Mexico. Drug proceeds were also used to pay co-conspirators, to pay for drug shipment expenses, bail and legal services, and to purchase firearms.

A video posted on the Facebook page of a Tennessee prisoner shows him wearing a mask and smoking from a makeshift bong while inside a jail cell.

Notable acts of violence associated with the conspiracy include the severing of a woman’s hand in November 2019 as punishment for losing drug proceeds. During this incident, the woman was kidnapped, driven around Nashville, and then a hatchet was used to chop off one of her hands before leaving her lying on the street. The incident was recorded on video and sent via encrypted communication on a cell phone.

Another incident involved a hitman for the organization who, at the direction of Morales, cut off part of his own pinky finger to prove his continued loyalty to the organization after he lost or stole a small quantity of drugs.

The indictment also charges Morales and Kim Birdsong, 49, of Nashville, with using facilities of interstate commerce (cell phones and encrypted messaging services) in an effort to murder a person known as “Pancho”/”Mekaniko,” and that cash, drugs and the cancellation of a pre-existing drug-related debt were to be provided as payment for that murder. That person was then shot multiple times on April 4, 2019, in Nashville, but survived.

As a result of the investigation, law enforcement seized more than $160,000 in cash drug proceeds and multiple firearms, including a handgun which had been illegally modified to operate as a machine gun, and an operational firearm silencer.

Many of the defendants were charged by criminal complain as the investigation progressed and have been in custody awaiting indictment. Others were arrested Friday and are in federal custody. Two others are fugitives, including Morales’ girlfriend, Erika Vasquez, 32, aka Chula, of Memphis and Columbia, and Magdiel Pina Ramirez, aka Big Show, 28, of Mexico. Ramirez is the person described who served as a hitman in Mexico and cut off part of his own finger. Both are currently believed to be in Mexico.

Others charged in the investigation are: Jose Juan Alvarado, 44; Oscar Avelar Anguiano, aka Chucky, 33, Grecia Barrios, 33, Kim Lamont Birdsong, aka Bird, 49; Jennifer Cano, 33; Ricardo Davalos-Martinez, 28; Mario Garcia Flores, aka Christhian Colmenares-Ruiz, 33; Jonhy Fernando Jimenez, 38; Antonio Sanchez-Lopez, 23; Jennifer Montejo, 33; Korrine Parker, 43; Luis Ramirez Escudero, 27; Phillip Christopher Smith, aka Felipe, 41; Sinquan D. Smith, 27, all of Nashville; Avigael Cruz, aka Traviesio, 29; Billy Cruz, aka Pee Wee, 26; Kevin Oliva-Hernandez, 31; Jairo Rostran, aka Poffi, 28, all of Smyrna, TN; Rico Gross, 38; Armando Lopez, aka Mando, 40; Jesse Sanchez, aka Papi, aka Bori, 31, all of Goodlettsville, TN; Jacob Lee, aka Grenas, 25; Justin Blake Lee, aka Chino, 26, Jasmine Taylor, 26, all of Manchester, TN; Kevin Tidwell, aka Miklo, 27, Melinda Tidwell, both of Ashland City, TN; Terrance Marquette Bobo, 28, of Memphis; Pearline Neal, 31, of Gallatin, TN; Austin Dodd, 25, aka Chucky, of Chapmansboro, TN; Tiffany Messick, 27, of Shelbyville, TN; Stacy Owens, 31, of Decaturville, TN; Zenaida Cano, 42, of Phoenix; David Ku, 45, of Inglewood, CA; and Gerson Jimenez-Garcia, 38, of Honduras.

Jennifer Montejo, charged in the conspiracy in December 2019, was sentenced on Friday to 25 years in prison. She was arrested at a Nashville bus station as she returned from California after traveling to Los Angeles days earlier. At the time of her arrest, four kilograms of fentanyl and a kilogram of heroin were discovered in Montejo’s luggage. She pleaded guilty in November 2020.

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