Maryland inmate convicted in prison drone conspiracy

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A jury convicted a Maryland inmate Thursday of conspiring with two other men to fly drugs and other contraband into a maximum-security prison aboard a drone, a case that exposed a weakness in an inmate dog-training program.

Investigators testified at an earlier trial that Charles W. Brook was in a dog-training program that enabled him to walk his dog outside his housing unit alone at night and retrieve contraband from a drone flown over the 12-foot fence surrounding the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland, Maryland.

A judge in Cumberland sentenced 43-year-old Charles W. Brooks to 13 years for the two conspiracy counts and possession of a contraband cellphone and tobacco. Brooks was already serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder in Prince George’s County in 2002.

Acting Commissioner of Correction Wayne Webb said in an interview last week that the agency now requires staff to know when an inmate takes a dog out, so that the inmate can be observed.

Webb said the case mainly reflected the agency’s lack of drone-detection capability, a problem for prison agencies nationwide.

Former inmates Keith Russell and Thaddeus Shortz were convicted earlier this year and are scheduled for sentencing next month. They were arrested outside the prison on the night of Aug. 22 after a tip from prison officers. In Shortz’ truck, they found a drone and packages containing prescription narcotics, synthetic marijuana, pornographic videos, tobacco, a cellphone and a cellphone charger. Police also found a handgun but said it was too heavy for the drone to lift.

“All three men have now been convicted and held accountable for their respective roles in this dangerous, illegal operation,” Assistant State’s Attorney Erich Bean said in a statement.

Prosecutors were barred from using evidence of earlier drone drops at Brooks’ trial. They built their case around a series of recorded telephone calls between two men, allegedly Brooks and Shortz, cryptically discussing a merchandise order and an upcoming trip.

“Look, man, when you’re here, if you and him can get together on that other stuff, man, that’s a gold mine for y’all,” said the man prosecutors identified as Brooks.

Defense attorney Rebecca Lechliter challenged the state’s assertion that Brooks made the calls. She won acquittal on 27 charges of attempted possession of contraband.

Maryland State Police Sgt. Andrew Farrell testified at Shortz’ trial that Shortz told him he had made five or six drone drops since May, earning $4,000 each time.

Prison agency Detective Rodney Likin testified at Shortz’ trial that the packaged items found in his truck would have been worth $35,000 to $40,000 to prisoners.

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