The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office announced a new set of indictments Tuesday against inmates and employees of the state Department of Corrections.
The indictments from the State Grand Jury follow three separate investigations that are part of the ongoing fight against staff members who smuggle in contraband, especially cellphones.
“The combination of public corruption and contraband cellphones has contributed to the violent crimes, drug trafficking, child sex crimes and other crimes being committed against our citizens,” said state Attorney General Alan Wilson. “These investigations are part of our ongoing effort to say ‘no more.’”
The three investigations produced dozens of indictments charging nine people, seven of whom were employees of the corrections department, with crimes ranging from misconduct in office and conspiracy to narcotics trafficking.
One particularly high profile investigation, Operation Clean Sweep, saw the indictment of an inmate, Jacob Lance, who is accused of using a contraband cellphone to direct and encourage his girlfriend, Abbygale Alexandria El-Dier, to send him videos of her sexually abusing her daughter.
“I have seen a lot,” said Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, “(but) I will never, ever forget that poor child’s face.”
Lance and El-Dier have both been charged with five counts of criminal sexual conduct of a minor in the first degree, ten counts of criminal sexual exploitation of a minor in the first degree and one count of conspiracy.
Two employees of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, where Lance was incarcerated at the time of the alleged abuse, were charged with facilitating the smuggling of contraband cellphones into the prison.
Brian Keely, a food services manager, and Lt. Brittany Welch were both arrested following a surprise sweep of Lee Correctional Institution. Evidence on Keely’s phone allegedly showed him making contraband deals with inmates, and he reportedly had cellphones and drugs hidden inside of his cafeteria office, officials said. Keely has also been charged with ten counts of possessing child sex abuse material.
Welch, who had been with the Department of Corrections for six years, was accused of tipping off inmates about contraband searches, allowing inmates to share contraband and even holding onto contraband for them.
The discovery of abusive videos on Lance’s cellphone led to a series of statewide sweeps, where K-9 teams inspected corrections officers’ cars for contraband during shift changes.
Two other investigations, Operation Block Party and Operation Gatekeeper, saw the arrest of five corrections officers. They have been charged with helping to bring contraband into prisons across South Carolina.
Bond hearings for the defendants in the investigations was held Tuesday morning in Richland County court in front of circuit court Judge Jocelyn Newman.
In their remarks, Wilson and Stirling described the arrests as a collaborative effort. They thanked the federal Department of Homeland Security, the state Department of Corrections, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the Simpsonville Police Department and the Lee County and Sumter County sheriff’s departments.
Officials Tuesday stressed that the fight against contraband and cellphones in prisons was not simply a matter of enforcing the rules.
In every major investigation into narcotics or gang activity, some of the leadership was being run through South Carolina prisons, said Creighton Waters, an assistant attorney general and chief attorney of the state grand jury. Waters shot to international fame this year as the lead prosecutor in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial.
At the heart of all of these prison cases, Waters said, was a cellphone.
“The most dangerous thing an inmate can have is a cellphone,” Stirling said.
As part of the effort to stamp out cellphones, the Department of Corrections has begun selectively blocking contraband devices. State agencies are forbidden by federal law from jamming cellphones, but the current program allows them to identify unapproved devices, which can then be deactivated by telecom providers.
Since July 29, approximately 790 devices were deactivated at Lee Correctional Institution, which holds roughly a thousand inmates.
But expanding what Wilson called the “iron curtain” is expected to cost between $10 and $12 million. Stirling said that he intends to ask for funding from the General Assembly when the session resumes in January.
Who was arrested?
Information on the those charged in operations Clean Sweep, Block Party and Gatekeeper, along with their bond, charges and the sentencing ranges can be found below.
Abbygale Alexandria El-Dier (Bond denied): Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor, First Degree (5 Counts): 25 Years to Life; Sexual Exploitation of a Minor, First Degree (10 Counts): 3 to 20 Years; Criminal Conspiracy: 0 to 5 Years
Jacob Nathaniel Lance (Bond denied): Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor, First Degree (5 Counts): 25 Years to Life; Sexual Exploitation of a Minor, First Degree (10 Counts): 3 to 20 Years; Criminal Conspiracy: 0 to 5 Years
Brittany Nicole Welch ($10,000 bond): Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years; Obstruction of Justice: 0 to 10 Years
Brian Darold Keely ($7500 bond): Criminal Conspiracy: 0 to 5 Years; Furnish or Attempt to Furnish Contraband: 1 to 10 Years; Sexual Exploitation of a Minor, Third Degree: 0 to 10 Years
Alexis Tucker ($10,000 bond): Trafficking Cocaine, 200-400 Grams: 25 Years; Trafficking Methamphetamine, 400 or More Grams: 25 Years; Possession with Intent to Distribute Marijuana: 0 to 5 Years; Furnishing Contraband to a Prisoner: 0 to 10 Years; Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years; Criminal Conspiracy: 0 to 5 Years
Jorge Romero-Navarro ($10,000 bond): Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years; Criminal Conspiracy: 0 to 5 Years
Whitney Thurmond ($10,000 bond): Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years
Dontai Parks ($7500 bond): Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years
Brandon Taylor (Hearing at a later date): Misconduct in Office: 0 to 10 Years