A Cobb County man and his brother were recently convicted of trying to use a drone to smuggle contraband into a Georgia state prison.
U.S. Department of Justice officials say the Georgia men’s prosecution is likely the first nationwide for illegally piloting a drone without obtaining the required FAA airman’s certification.
A federal judge sentenced George Henry Lo, 27, of Powder Springs, and his 25-year-old brother Nicholas Michael Lo to 12 months in federal prison. Both men pleaded guilty to charges and U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. handed down the sentences June 29, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office.
George Lo pleaded guilty to owning an unregistered aircraft operated by another person. Nicholas Lo, of Dallas, was convicted of attempting to serve as an airman without an airman’s certificate.
Cheikh Hassan Toure, a 24-year-old Austell man who pleaded guilty to conspiring with the brothers earlier this year, is awaiting sentencing for his role in the drone smuggling scheme.
According to federal prosecutors, George Lo masterminded the plan while serving time at Telfair State Prison in August 2019. Lo enlisted Toure and his younger brother and was able to buy a Storm 4 drone. Nicholas Lo and Toure practiced flying the aerial device and George Lo paid them to use it to deliver cell phones and other items into the prison.
Telfair County deputies spotted a suspicious vehicle with no lights parked about 100 yards from the prison about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 26, 2019. Nicholas Lo and Toure were found hiding in a wooded area near the prison. They were carrying a large duffle bag that contained the drone, a video monitor and headset, 14 cell phones, at least 74 grams of tobacco, a digital scale and earbud headphones.
Both Toure and Lo were taken into custody.
Toure pleaded guilty to serving as an unlicensed airman April 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
Georgia DOC records show George Lo has been in state lockup since March 2012, serving a 20-year bid for armed robbery.
Nicholas Lo, of Dallas, was incarcerated in December 2019 on unrelated robbery and statutory rape convictions. He’s currently serving time at Hays State Prison in Trion.
State prison officials have for years decried the use of drones in the no-fly airspace above prison yards. The devices are often deployed to take photos and videos of the prison grounds or to drop drugs, cell phones and other contraband onto the yard for prisoners to retrieve.
Georgia Department of Corrections reported an all-time record of at least 300 drone sightings near state prisons in 2018.
That prompted Georgia lawmakers to pass legislation in 2019 that cracked down on the unmanned aircraft. State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Marietta) crafted the bill, which went into effect in July 2019. The law set guidelines for state judges to sentence anyone convicted of intentionally flying a drone over prison grounds to at least a year in jail.
Authorities said the Lo brothers’ sentence may serve as a warning to deter others from using drones to smuggle items into prisons.
“For as long as there have been prisons, inmates and their allies have attempted to circumvent security measures to introduce contraband inside the walls,” said Acting U.S. Attorney David Estes said. “In recent years, the increasing use of remotely operated aircraft has added complexity to this challenge, but in coordination with our law enforcement partners we will continue to work to maintain secure incarceration facilities.”