Texas prison cell phone smuggling blamed on inmate rings—-Elaborate
networks of prisoners and their supporters are main culprits,
Authorities say they are closing in on at least four groups of convicts
and their supporters both inside prison and out who are believed to have
helped smuggle dozens of cell phones into Texas' death row.
And with arrests near in the high-profile investigation, details are
surfacing about contraband trafficking inside state prisons.
The cell phone that condemned killer Richard Lee Tabler used to call a
state senator probably was not his. It's believed to have been sneaked
into the maximum-security Polunsky Unit near Livingston in East Texas by a
convict who probably then "brokered" it to Tabler and other inmates for
favors and cash.
Instead of the phone being smuggled by a single corrupt guard, as
originally thought, investigators now say it and dozens of others might
have been put in the hands of Texas' worst killers by an intricate network
of supporters and their families who used code words, fake names, money
transfers, prearranged drop sites and even a secret compartment at the
bottom of a garbage can to get the phones inside what is supposed to be
the most secure part of Texas' prison system.
Investigators say they believe several organized groups are involved in
"From the time someone puts up the money to get the phone for an inmate,
there may be 6 to 8 sets of hands involved with that phone, 6 to 8
different people who do one thing or another," said the prison system's
top investigator, Inspector General John Moriarty. "It's a convoluted,
complicated network that's very difficult to trace. And it's going to be
very difficult to shut off, because as soon as we bust someone, another
person will step in and start it all over again.
"The demand is the problem. It's huge."
If nothing else, the new details explain why smuggling cell phones into
Texas prisons continues almost unabated four months after Tabler's arrest
triggered an unprecedented lockdown of the 154,800-inmate system, a new
zero-tolerance policy on all contraband and an emergency request by prison
officials for $66 million to upgrade security to curb the problem.
"You can stop contraband from coming into prisons if you want to," said
Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat whom Tabler threatened. "It may
be complicated, but they keep it out of county jails and federal prisons
and airports. This is not rocket science."
Though they refuse to discuss details of any of the pending criminal
cases, Moriarty and other investigators say the delivery relay on and off
death row usually begins with an inmate asking a friend or family member
for a cell phone, either in a letter or during a prison visit.
The friend asks around usually with prison family organizations, those
opposed to the death penalty and other affinity groups and eventually
gets in contact with someone who says he can get the inmate a phone.
They set a price, and money is sent to that person usually by check or
money order, often to someone in another state. The person buys the phone
or has a roommate or acquaintance do so, paying cash and leaving a fake
name or no name at all.
The phone, loaded with calling minutes, is then shipped to Texas usually
to someone who lives near the prison. The phone gets handed to a dishonest
prison employee or is delivered to a prearranged drop site outside the
prison, a landmark such as a tree or a telephone service box where it will
be picked up.
In a prison, convicts do all kinds of jobs, inside and outside the fences.
They mow the lawns, hoe the crop fields, take out the trash, cook the
food, map the cellblocks and do the laundry.
Those workers, known as trusties and "support service inmates," go in and
out through various gates and checkpoints. Similarly, traffic through
outside perimeter gates bustles with delivery trucks, work crews and
A trusty working in a field could be alerted by an inmate or a guard to
pick up the hidden phone and deliver it to another inmate. For that, a
contact in the free world would have $50 or $100 transferred into the
inmates' trust accounts, which can be used to buy snacks and other items
from the commissary.
"It might go through 2 or 3 more sets of hands once it gets inside, before
it gets to the inmate who ordered it," Moriarty said. "Everybody would get
a little something for taking care of it."
And once the phone arrived at death row, the inmate who ordered it would
use it or barter it to other convicts in his cellblock, arranging for
family and friends in the free world to transfer money into trust
In recent weeks, officials confirmed, several convict accounts have been
frozen as a part of the cell phone investigation.
"You track money. You track the calls. Neither is easy. It can take months
and months," said one investigator, who asked not to be named because he
is not authorized to speak publicly.
So far, authorities say, the Tabler case alone has involved "tens of
thousands of pages of documents" that are being reviewed by more than a
dozen investigators. Prison investigators even had to purchase special
software to sort the electronic phone records because they were so
voluminous, Moriarty said.
One target of the expanding probe, by her own admission, is Tina Church,
an Indiana investigator known as the "Angel of Death Row" for her
long-standing research work on behalf of condemned inmates seeking to win
their life-saving appeals.
Though she acknowledges talking with Texas death row convicts on cell
phones during the past 2 years, Church, 54, insists that she tried
repeatedly and unsuccessfully to report the calls. "I tried to report it
once, and all I got was death threats from the inmate," she said. "I'm a
target only because my name was listed on those phone records, is all."
Moriarty and other investigators will not discuss the case or even say
whether Church is a suspect.
Church said most cell phones are arranged and paid for by relatives and
The current asking price for a cell phone, according to inmates and their
friends: about $3,100, up from $2,100 last fall, before Tabler's calls to
Whitmire and others exploded in headlines.
"I heard stories all the time about inmates accessing the Internet on the
phones," Church said.
She said she has received cell phone threats from at least one condemned
convict whom she dropped as a client.
"This whole thing is a cesspool," Church said. "I'm sorry I ever got
involved in all this."
If the phones are difficult to track, current law gives investigators
little help, those in Texas and other states say.
The problem is that the phones can be bought in large numbers at one time,
and if the buyer pays cash, the store usually keeps no record of who
In the Tabler case, authorities used subpoenaed phone records to determine
that minutes were purchased for the phone at a Wal-Mart in Waco. After
reviewing store security camera tapes, they identified the purchaser:
Who bought the phone? "We're still tracking that," Moriarty said.
As many as a dozen different SIM cards the electronic cards that allows
the phone to operate and are roughly the size of a postage stamp may have
been used in the phone.
"If you think the phones are easy for convicts to hide, think about the
SIM cards. They can hide those about any place: in the waistband of their
boxer shorts, in a crack in the wall of their cell, places you wouldn't
want to think about," Moriarty said.
When nearly 7 dozen brand-new cell phones were discovered last November
rattling inside the air tank of a shop compressor being delivered to the
Stiles Unit near Beaumont, authorities ran into a dead end trying to find
out who bought them.
"We tracked it only because they used a credit card to buy the air tank,"
Moriarty said. "More ID is required to buy an air tank than 76 cell
Smuggled cell phones have been on the rise in prisons across the country,
according to news reports. The phones have been used from inside prison to
order a murder of a witness in Maryland, to orchestrate a prison riot in
Oklahoma and to arrange drug deals and threaten witnesses in several other
In addition to urging a change in federal law to allow the prison system
to jam cell signals, prison officials in Texas and other states are
pushing for a law that would require ID for any cell phone purchases. Such
a move has been vigorously opposed by cell companies and large retailers
that sell the phones, and so far no such change has been enacted.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Defendant admitted firing shots that killed girl, grandmother, detective
Capital murder defendant Erick Davila gave police 2 statements blaming
another man for fatally wounding a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother at
an April birthday party before admitting that he was the gunman, a Fort
Worth homicide detective testified Friday.
In his 3rd written statement, Davila acknowledged that he, not
co-defendant Garfield Thompson, fired the fatal shots. But he said that he
was shooting at 4 men who were out to get him because he was a member of a
rival gang, according to the 3rd statement, which was read to a Tarrant
County jury by homicide Detective Brent Johnson.
Davila, 21, told Johnson that he didnt intend to shoot women or children
when he fired into a Stop Six town house on April 6, 2008.
But Queshawn Stevenson, 5, and her grandmother, Annette Stevenson, 48,
were killed. Other people at the family birthday party were wounded.
Davila faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole if
convicted of capital murder. His trial resumes Tuesday morning in Judge
Sharen Wilson's Criminal District Court No. 1.
Testimony so far
Since the trial began Tuesday, prosecutors Tiffany Burks and Bob Gill have
called more than 20 witnesses including:
Jerry Stevenson, believed to be the target of the shooting that killed his
mother and daughter, said he fled inside the town house with his
3-year-old son. He later found his daughter critically wounded on the
front porch. His mother was already dead in the master bedroom.
CashMonae Stevenson, 11, whose sister was the birthday girl, recalled her
fear after she saw a red dot coming from a gun a man was pointing at the
house from inside a passing car. The dot was from a laser sight on a
rifle, police said. She was hit when the shooting started, but recovered.
Eghosa Ogierumwense, 15, said he followed a man carrying a rifle with a
laser sight to the Village Creek town house, where he saw the man point
the gun at Jerry Stevenson. After Stevenson went inside the house, the man
shot at women and children on the porch.
Kent Reed identified Davila as the man he saw get out of a black car
carrying a rifle with a laser sight and walk between 2 buildings in the
direction of the Stevenson home.
Anthony Tamunoene said he saw 2 men carry a long, wrapped object from
Davila's Woodhaven apartment and disappear behind the building the day
after the shooting. 4 days later, he led police to the wooded area, where
they found an SKS semi-automatic rifle wrapped in a dark jacket.
Prosecutors expect to call about 10 more witnesses, including a medical
examiner, a firearms examiner and another homicide detective.
Defense attorneys Robert Ford and Joetta Keene then expect to call several
The 10-woman, two-man jury is expected to begin deliberating by the end of
next week. If Davilla is convicted, attorneys will present more evidence
to help the jury decide his sentence.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)