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Smugglers get creative with contraband at Pinellas County jail

Inmates in the sixth-floor recreation room at the jail were pulling up contraband by a nylon cord. 
Inmates in the sixth-floor recreation room at the jail were pulling up contraband by a nylon cord. 
Published Nov. 23, 2014

LARGO — During Sgt. Ron Wehr's first week on duty at the Pinellas County jail, an inmate provided this tip: Contraband was being smuggled in by a nylon cord.

Skeptical, Wehr scanned the outside of the jail one July morning in 2013. He glanced toward the flag pole near the public lobby and saw a thin line on the wall. Detectives yanked on the cord and a grocery bag containing marijuana, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and lighters tumbled down.

Dubbed the "fishing expedition," it was the first in a string of several elaborate drug smuggling schemes involving inmates that resulted in more than a dozen contraband charges.

"If there's a way, they're going to figure it out," said Wehr, supervisor of the detention investigations unit. "They're thinking hard on how to break the system and we're on the other side trying to stop them."

The DIU was once composed of two detectives with backgrounds in detention work until Wehr, with more than 20 years of experience in narcotics cases, joined them in July 2013. A few months later, two other detectives with backgrounds in investigations and patrol were assigned to the unit.

Their cases typically start with tips, often from inmates who like to visit the DIU office, nestled in the South Division behind two metal doors and away from the dreariness of a jail that books roughly 50,000 people each year.

"It's one hand washing the other. They provide information, we provide them with a good word," Wehr said. "We help them with their cases in turn because that's what you do when you're on the street as an investigator and that's what we've done in here."

Mail is the most common way contraband gets in. Five clerks sift through the thousands of packages sent to the jail every month. DIU detectives keep them up to date on any tips from inmates, including one about drugs being liquefied, dried on paper, and mailed to the jail.

"The mail room is the first line of defense," said Cpl. Debra Knighton, who oversees that area. "We in a sense have to be one step ahead."

They've confiscated all kinds of drugs, from marijuana to pills. Suboxone patches, used to treat opiate addiction, are a favorite among smugglers because they are yellow and easy to hide inside manila envelopes.

In August 2013, for example, detectives caught several inmates selling the patches, hidden beneath postage stamps, for $20 apiece.

At the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the jail limited mail, except attorney parcels, to only postcards last year.

"In 2012, we had about 38 incidents of contraband coming in, anything from gang-related paraphernalia to drugs to all kinds of stuff," said Capt. Anne Herman. "That has all completely stopped as a result of the postcards."

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Pinellas Sheriff's officials discussed the postcard-only policy, but decided against it as they weighed the balance between jail security and inmates' rights to communicate with the outside world.

Instead, clerks started removing stamps, often used to conceal drugs.

A body scanner installed last year has also detected hundreds of incidences of contraband by helping deputies discover hidden items on detainees before they're booked.

"When they say they use certain parts of their body as a duffel bag," Wehr said, "they're not kidding."

In the "fishing expedition," inmates Mark Matthew Keating and Phillip Henderson tossed a rope made of blankets from the sixth-floor recreation room, waited for Eric Scott Snook to tie contraband-filled bags on the outside, and then pulled up the rope. During one of the deliveries, Snook tucked in a role of nylon string, Wehr said.

Their plan worked several times, except one day in July 2013 when the bag got caught on a ledge, forcing Henderson to call Snook, who refused to come back to the jail. All three were convicted on contraband charges, records show.

Last week, detectives nabbed Robert Lytle, accused of dropping off a McDonald's Egg McMuffin wrapper containing Xanax and Ambien pills outside the jail's video visitation center. They were reportedly for his fiancee, Stephenie Grove, who asked an inmate worker with a cleaning assignment there to pick up the drugs. Detectives got there first and confiscated the pills. All three face contraband charges.

DIU's cases are not always about drugs.

About six months ago, deputies seized 11 knives carved out of the hard plastic of commissary boxes. Identity thefts have also been reported: inmates have stolen others' paper work and then phoned personal information to someone outside.

"Anything that you have on the street will happen here," Wehr said. "It's a city of over 3,000 and it's 24/7. It never stops operating."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

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