A detention deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has resigned amid an investigation into allegations he sold THC oil vape pens and edibles to inmates in the county jail.
Deputy Marlon Blankenship resigned during an ongoing investigation that could result in criminal charges, the sheriff’s office confirmed this week. A spokesperson said other details would be provided through a records request submitted by the Tampa Bay Times.
The records had not been released by Thursday but two search warrant affidavits released by the Clerk of Court’s office this week include details about how the investigation started and some of the evidence already gathered.
Detectives launched the investigation in September when deputies at the Falkenburg Road Jail discovered two THC oil vape pens in the bunk area of an inmate named David Exposito, according to the affidavits. THC is the compound found in cannabis plants that produces a high.
Exposito, 35, was charged with possessing contraband. Court records show the charge was later dropped. Records show Exposito was still in jail Thursday on other charges.
In October, a source contacted sheriff’s Detective John McDarby and provided testimony that Exposito got the contraband from Blankenship, the affidavits state. The source identified a woman who gave Blankenship money for the contraband on Exposito’s behalf. That woman told McDarby she gave the money to another woman at Exposito’s direction.
That second woman was identified as the girlfriend of another inmate, Jose Ortiz, who was in jail at the time the vape pens were discovered in Exposito’s bunk area, according to the affidavits.
During an interview with investigators in November, Exposito said Ortiz approached him and said he could secure drugs from a deputy for payment. Exposito told Ortiz that an associate would give Ortiz’s girlfriend money to give to Blankenship, according to the affidavits.
Exposito told McDarby he paid Blankenship some $37,000 for vape pens and gummies in multiple transactions spanning from May or June 2022 through September. Exposito said Ortiz would speak to his girlfriend “in coded language to discuss payments to Deputy Blankenship, referring to Deputy Blankenship as ‘the lawyer’ or ‘landlord,’” the affidavits state.
Investigators corroborated that information by listening to phone and video calls between Ortiz and his girlfriend. Detectives subpoenaed phone records and discovered multiple calls and text messages between Blankenship and Ortiz’s girlfriend from June through September, the affidavits state.
On Jan. 6, deputies discovered cannabis gummies in Ortiz’s bunk area. In an interview with investigators a few days later, Ortiz said Blankenship had approached him and asked if he “smoked weed” and shortly after gave him a THC oil vape pen, according to the affidavits. Ortiz said he gave Blankenship his girlfriend’s phone number to coordinate future transactions. Ortiz said Blankenship was paid in excess of $30,000 to provide THC vape pens, gummies and Adderall, an amphetamine.
Ortiz’s girlfriend told investigators that he instructed her to get money from Exposito’s associate. The girlfriend said she met a man at a Wesley Chapel Walgreens on at least four occasions to give him cash.
Detectives included these findings in the two affidavits seeking warrants to conduct additional searches of Blankenship’s phone and that of Ortiz’s girlfriend. The warrants were executed on Feb. 8, records show.
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Granit said the investigation was ongoing so it’s not yet clear whether Blankenship will be criminally charged.
Efforts by the Tampa Bay Times to reach Blankenship at phone numbers listed for him were not successful Thursday.
Blankenship’s is the second case to recently come to light involving a Hillsborough jail deputy accused of providing THC contraband to inmates.
On Jan. 5, while the investigation into Blankenship was well underway, Sheriff Chad Chronister called a news conference to announce that Deputy Terry Bradford Jr. had been arrested a day earlier for bringing pot-laced food into the Falkenburg Road Jail and selling it to inmates. Bradford was arrested when he showed up for work and deputies found in his lunchbox more than a pound of cannabis-laced brownies individually wrapped for sale to inmates, Chronister said.
Chronister said the sheriff’s office’s jail intelligence squad got a tip that Bradford was bringing “cannabis-laced perishables” and other contraband into the jail and selling it to inmates in the pod to which he was assigned. Investigators learned the inmates were using Cash App to pay Bradford for the contraband. The investigation by that point had uncovered more than $1,000 in transactions, Chronister said.
The sheriff said at the time that investigators were still working to determine the extent of the transactions, which inmates were involved and whether any other deputies took part in the scheme.
Bradford faces charges of introducing contraband into a jail facility and possession of a controlled substance, both third-degree felonies. He was placed on unpaid administrative leave while the investigation is underway and has since resigned, said Granit. Court records show he has pleaded not guilty. His next court hearing is set for May.
Investigators have not at this point in the investigation found evidence that Blankenship’s and Bradford’s cases are connected, Granit said.
Chronister said the county’s jails have thorough screening processes but jail employees, who cannot leave during their shifts, are allowed to bring in food for their own consumption during work hours. The jail now provides free hot meals to employees, the sheriff said, a move he hopes will reduce the amount of food brought into the facility.
The sheriff’s office has also increased the number of screenings conducted at the jail by drug-sniffing dogs, Chronister said.