Criminals dropping drugs onto prison grounds using drones

Farmers Insurance uses a drone to make a record of the damage done by Hurricane Harvey in Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

Kevin Krause

The Dallas Morning News

Shortly before midnight on May 4, 2022, a drone buzzed over a Fort Worth federal prison, carrying a package.

It hovered briefly before crashing near a construction shop inside the secure facility.

Federal Medical Center staff recovered the downed craft and examined its cargo: four packages of tobacco, a baggie of crystal meth, 20 containers of THC, two prepaid cell phones, and nine MP3 players.

The “pilot” had launched it from a school next to the prison. That man, Bryant LeRay Henderson, 42, was arrested and has since pleaded guilty to attempting to provide contraband to a prisoner. Authorities used data from the drone to determine it made three previous flights into the prison’s airspace. It also made two flights over a different federal prison in Seagoville that same month, authorities said.

The incidents were not unique. Small lightweight drones are increasingly becoming a big problem for state and federal prison officials across Texas and the nation. Drones have crash landed on prison grounds carrying not just drugs and tobacco products but blades, wire cutters and other tools. The feds say use of drones at prisons has more than doubled in recent years.

Federal authorities in North Texas say they are investigating a large criminal organization responsible for maneuvering sophisticated drones over barbed wire fences and onto prison grounds. The “commercial-grade drones” the suspects used delivered valuable contraband such as drugs, cell phones and other highly-coveted items that inmates use and sell, court records show.

More than 40 people, including white supremacist gang members, have so far been charged in that case, filed in the Eastern District of Texas. The group is also suspected of home invasion robberies, threats against witnesses and drug overdose deaths, court records say. Investigators have seized multiple kilograms of methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl pills, and synthetic marijuana as well as vehicles and about $150,000 in cash.

“Multiple indicted defendants were involved in a scheme deploying commercial grade, sophisticated drones to drop contraband including cell phones and controlled substances into Texas state penitentiaries,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Rattan said in a court filing.

Hillary Farber, a University of Massachusetts law professor who studies legal and regulatory issues surrounding drones, said the rise of drone contraband deliveries has forced prison guards to direct their gaze skyward in addition to the normal perimeter checks.

“It sort of sounded the alarm bells,” she said.

The drones used to pilot contraband into prison grounds are not necessarily sophisticated, Farber said. Nor do they have to be.

Farber, an internationally recognized expert on drones, follows legislation surrounding these issues. She’s looked at the use of drones for all kinds of activities by private and public actors.

“This is different and it’s presenting new challenges,” she said.

The federal Bureau of Prisons has called drones a major security threat that not only deliver contraband, but also conduct surveillance, help inmates escape, and transport dangerous weapons like guns and explosives.

A drone carrying wire cutters in 2017 helped a prisoner escape from a maximum security prison in South Carolina. The man, who was serving a life sentence, was later captured.

In response to these prison “drone drops,” federal prosecutors are making use of an old law to target a new problem.

The charge is called Operating an Aircraft Eligible for Registration Knowing that the Aircraft is not Registered to Facilitate a Controlled Substance Offense. It comes with a penalty of up to five years in prison. The law, dating back to the early 1990s, was first used to go after drug smugglers who used manned aircraft to transport their product.

Prosecutors employed it most recently against Henderson, who pleaded guilty in October to one count of attempting to provide contraband to a prisoner.

“Contraband drone deliveries are quickly becoming the bane of prison officials’ existence,” then- U.S. attorney Chad Meacham said in a statement about that case. “Illicit goods pose a threat to guards and inmates alike – and when it comes to cell phones, the threat often extends outside prison walls. We are determined to stop this trend in its tracks.”

Wakeup call

Drones are considered aircraft under federal law. Their use falls under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, which restricts airspace over certain private and government facilities.

About 1.5 million recreational drones were registered with the FAA in 2021, the agency reported.

For police, drones are an excellent tool for fighting crime, chasing fleeing suspects and searching for missing or wanted people.

New models have high quality cameras and sensors as well as thermal imaging capabilities to locate people using their body heat. Live footage allows police to monitor ongoing situations, and drones are considerably cheaper, safer and more maneuverable than helicopters.

Once a toy of hobbyists, drones quickly proliferated. And with that increase came serious security breaches.

A drone crashed onto the White House front lawn in 2015, for example, after flying over the secure grounds undetected.

Later that year, the government later required all drones to be registered. Regulations of drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, evolved significantly since then, Farber said.

Drones were banned from the airspace of various facilities like stadiums, airports and certain government installations. But restrictions around correctional facilities only arrived within about the last three years, Farber added.

One of the first federal prosecutions involving drones and correctional facilities was the case of Eric Lee Brown, who in early 2018 tried to use a drone to drop marijuana into a Georgia state prison, she said.

“That got prison administrators and legislators thinking about drones in correctional facilities,” Farber said.

States like Texas and Georgia responded by drafting laws banning the flying of drones near such facilities.

“The states have been out in front with this type of legislation compared to the federal government,” she said.

Brown, 35, never got the chance to launch his unregistered drone toward the prison. Deputies found him in his vehicle near the prison with the drone and drugs inside. They learned that Brown had had “detailed conversations about using the drone to drop drugs into the prison,” the Justice Department said.

Farber said while states led the way passing laws to prevent misuse of drones, the federal government’s response has been mostly “inaction.”

The feds, however, for the first time used an existing aircraft registration law to prosecute Brown in 2019, an approach that was called novel and innovative. In addition to failing to register his drone, Brown did not have an FAA Airman’s Certificate or Remote Pilot Certificate as required by law, federal prosecutors said.

Brown pleaded guilty to attempting to operate an unregistered aircraft to transport a controlled substance and was sentenced to four years in prison. He faced up to five years.

Georgia’s response to the Brown case was to pass a state law in 2019, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to use a drone to deliver contraband to a correctional facility.

Continuing threat

In the North Texas case, a sentencing hearing is scheduled for February.

Henderson, of Smithfield, faces up to 20 years in prison. His attorney could not be reached.

Investigators tracked him down after viewing surveillance footage from a nearby high school. They watched as Henderson drove up in a Chevrolet Tahoe, took out a drone and a package and launched it toward the prison before driving off.

Police later found his SUV abandoned in the road. Inside were documents and mail in Henderson’s name, his social security card, a drone controller and various accessories like rechargeable batteries and a propeller box.

The recovered drone had belonged to a previous owner who canceled his registration in August 2018, and Henderson failed to register it as required, authorities said.

The Justice Department’s inspector general office said in an audit released in 2020 that the number of drone incidents at federal prisons more than doubled in 2019 over the previous year, with nearly 60 cases.

But the Bureau of Prisons only began tracking drone activity in 2018, and that number was likely underreported, the report said.

“We found that the BOP faces significant and growing challenges to protect its facilities from drone threats,” the audit said. “Drones have been used to deliver contraband to inmates, but could also be used to surveil institutions, facilitate escape attempts, or transport explosives.”

The BOP also did not have “protocols or staff training” about how to “safely approach and secure downed drones,” the audit said.

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