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Lancaster Inmate Dies From Overdose

Authorities believe a visitor may have passed Robert Smith a balloon filled with heroin, which ruptured after he swallowed it.

November 15, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

State prison officials are investigating the death of an inmate who swallowed a heroin-filled balloon they believe was smuggled in by a visitor.

The person who supplied the fatal contraband could face homicide charges, said Lt. Ken Lewis, spokesman at Lancaster State Prison.

Robert Smith, 40, of San Diego died Monday, shortly after suffering convulsions in his cell. He had served about half of a 27-year sentence for robbery.

"His stomach acid ate through the balloon," Lewis said, after a coroner's autopsy revealed the cause of death.

Prison officials are questioning several people who visited Smith in the 24 hours before his death. Inmates are allowed to mingle freely with their visitors. Each prisoner must undergo a strip-search before and after a visit, making contraband difficult to exchange.

Department of Corrections investigators said Smith's attempt to hide the heroin inside his body meant it probably did not come from an inmate or prison employee. Drugs slipped to someone in a hallway would simply be hidden in a cell, Lewis said.

"There's no reason to swallow a balloon and wait until it passes through the digestive system," he said.

In addition to manslaughter, the drug courier could face a felony charge of conspiracy to provide drugs to a prison inmate.

Smith began his prison term in 1989 and was not expected to be released until 2016, according to Department of Corrections records.

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