Feds say 3 Georgia inmates used cellphones to run drug ring

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ATLANTA (AP) — For the third time in four months, federal prosecutors have accused Georgia inmates of using contraband cellphones to run criminal operations from their prison cells.

An indictment unsealed Tuesday accuses 17 people of participating in a drug trafficking ring that distributed significant quantities of crystal methamphetamine in metro Atlanta and elsewhere.

Georgia inmates Francisco Palacios Baras, Johnathan Corey McLoon and Christopher Wayne Hildebrand used contraband cellphones to manage a network of brokers, distributors and runners from their prison cells, according to the indictment filed on Jan. 5.

It was not immediately clear whether any of those named in the indictment had attorneys who could comment on the charges.

The indictment comes on the heels of two others filed in September by federal prosecutors in Atlanta that also targeted the use of contraband cellphones by Georgia inmates. Those indictments alleged that inmates used the cellphones to traffic drugs, smuggle in contraband, steal identities and, in at least one case, to arrange a violent attack on an inmate suspected of snitching.

The newest indictment says the three inmates in the latest case used smart phones to communicate with the members of their network via calls, text messages and the WhatsApp messaging service. Prosecutors say Palacios Baras used multiple contraband phones simultaneously on multiple occasions.

"Once again, inmates have gained access to contraband cellular telephones and used them to organize and manage an extensive criminal enterprise from inside prison," U.S. Attorney John Horn said. "It makes no sense that, where prison is supposed to remove criminals from our community and rehabilitate them, the inmates continue to victimize society from behind prison bars."

The indictment does not specify the quantity of drugs the alleged trafficking ring is accused of distributing or the amount of money it took in, and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Palacios Baras, 36, an inmate at Hancock State Prison in Sparta, was serving a sentence of life in prison on charges including kidnapping. He's also known as "Chapparro," ''Shorty" and "Kiko."

McLoon, 30, an inmate at Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta who's also known as "Drop," was serving 20 years on charges including armed robbery.

Hildebrand, 33, an inmate at Coastal Transition Center in Savannah, was serving 20 years on charges including aggravated battery.

Each of the three inmates now faces a federal charge of conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of methamphetamine. Prosecutors have also charged them with possessing methamphetamine with the intent to distribute — one count for Hildebrand, two counts for McLoon and 11 counts for Palacios Baras.

The 14 others named in the indictment face similar charges. Some of them were already in federal or state custody on other charges, and others were arrested Tuesday.

The problem of contraband cellphones in prison is a national one, but in Georgia prisons alone, more than 8,300 cellphones were seized in 2015. Some are brought in by prison staff, visitors and inmates returning from off-site work detail, while others are tossed or flown by drone over a prison fence.

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