Deputy's conviction highlights rising drug presence in county jails

Sheriff's officials take steps to crack down on smuggling operations, some of which use jail guards and contractors to carry in heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana worth tens of thousands.

August 08, 2010|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

The inmate's request seemed fairly benign inside the teeming, violent Los Angeles County jail. He wanted Sheriff's Deputy Peter Paul Felix to smuggle him in some decent food.

The deputy knew he was breaking the rules, but he obliged. What started with hamburgers and pizza led to steadily more requests until the inmate asked Felix to perform another favor: smuggle in a marijuana package in exchange for about $600.

That delivery into the Castaic jail would be the first in a months-long series of drug carries the deputy made, netting thousands of dollars in the process. Inmates goaded Felix to bring them more, telling the young deputy that he wasn't the only officer smuggling drugs, and that they respected him because he was from the "hood."

The case underscores the Sheriff's Department's struggles to keep drugs out of the nation's largest county jail system. Deputies confiscate drugs from inmates on a regular basis — and have done so for years. But Felix's crime and other recent cases reviewed by The Times offer a window into the elaborate schemes used to breach jailhouse security for major profit.

Earlier this year, Deputy Devin McLean admitted in an interview with a sheriff's investigator that she had smuggled heroin hidden in a toothpaste container into jail, according to a district attorney's office memo.

McLean said she was given the drugs by her then-boyfriend, a former inmate she had met while working at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. McLean explained that she carried the drugs into the jail in her backpack and then delivered the heroin inside a bedroll to an inmate, the memo stated.

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against McLean, saying that they did not have enough evidence to corroborate her statement at a trial. She has been relieved of duty with pay pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Her attorney declined comment.

In March, a federal grand jury indicted an employee of a private company that delivers food to the jails for allegedly smuggling more than 100 grams of heroin into the North County Correctional Facility. That amount would easily get 150 users high, one expert said.

Angelica Mora, 40, was allegedly part of a drug ring whose members communicated in code using jail telephones. Another defendant, the operation's drug supplier, also oversaw other criminal activities for a Los Angeles street gang and the Mexican Mafia, a notorious prison gang, according to court records. Mora, the supplier and several other defendants accused in the scheme have pleaded not guilty.

In June, a Beverly Hills attorney was charged with trying to smuggle heroin to inmates in a courthouse lockup.

A drug-sniffing sheriff's dog discovered a bag containing 14.25 grams of the narcotic, enough for 20 or more hits, in an area of the downtown L.A. courthouse where only the attorney, Michael Inman, 48, was waiting, authorities said. He has pleaded not guilty.

Sheriff's records show a steady increase in drug seizures across jail facilities over the last several years, with 370 last year compared to 270 in 2006.

"This is just what we know, how much is going on that we don't know about?" said Lt. Greg Thompson of the department's custody investigative services unit. "But we think we have a handle on it."

He said some drug-runners have stuffed narcotics into tennis balls and flung them over walls at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

"People have nothing to do but think here," he said. "And they're pretty imaginative."

Sheriff Lee Baca said depression and anxiety among inmates creates a huge demand for drugs.

"People incarcerated are looking for some form of psychological support," Baca said. "Drugs seem to do that for most people who are addicted."

Despite the busts, drugs make their way in, sometimes with lethal consequences.

On Christmas Day last year, a 22-year-old murder suspect was found in distress in his cell at Men's Central Jail and began spitting up blood. Another inmate told authorities that Marlon Martinez had snorted an entire spoonful of brown liquid believed to be heroin, according to a coroner's report. The Mexican national was allegedly holding the heroin for one or more other inmates.

Martinez died soon after paramedics attempted to revive him.

Felix's defense attorney, Spencer R. Vodnoy, said his client knew little about the drug operation he was aiding, including who was behind it. Felix, he said, believed that he was transporting marijuana and had no idea that the deliveries included heroin.

The lawyer said Felix was unwittingly drawn in by the inmates when he agreed to give them unauthorized food.

"He wanted to be liked, he wanted to please people," Vodnoy said. "That's a nice thing in most people, but in a sheriff's deputy that was a huge personality flaw."

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