Feds: For more than a decade, Georgia prison gang carried out murders, assaults

Three former correctional officers accused of aiding criminal schemes
 U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan, along with Federal prosecutors, announced in a press conference the legal proceedings of twenty-three gang members and associates indicted on racketing, drug trafficking, and firearm charges on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan, along with Federal prosecutors, announced in a press conference the legal proceedings of twenty-three gang members and associates indicted on racketing, drug trafficking, and firearm charges on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

In spite of being locked up in Georgia’s state prisons, members of the Sex Money Murder gang and their associates carried out a series of murders, brutal assaults, and fraud and drug-trafficking operations, according to a federal indictment announced Monday in Atlanta by U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan.

The 12-count indictment charged 23 defendants, including 11 who were incarcerated at the time of their alleged criminal acts, Buchanan said.

Three of those indicted are former Georgia state prison correctional officers, records show.

Buchanan said the indictment was the result of a lengthy investigation involving multiple agencies working to dismantle the violent organization. Buchanan said Sex Money Murder is a national gang that is a subset of The Bloods gang.

“For more than a decade, these gang members and their associates allegedly ran a criminal enterprise inside and outside multiple prisons to earn money, to boost status and to impose gang discipline,” Buchanan said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

The alleged crimes included the murder of a 9-month-old boy in 2014 who was shot when multiple gang members stormed a home in DeKalb County. Three other murders are also included in the case.

Numerous charges in the indictment relate to violence and killings in the Georgia prison system carried out by gang members over several years. Buchanan said there were allegations of multiple stabbings and beatings in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities in 2020. In one case, he said, “Sex Money Murder members trapped one of the members of a prison cell, tied him up and repeatedly stabbed him on suspicion that the victim had violated one of the gang’s rules.”

“Gang activity inside correctional facilities throughout our state continues to be a challenge, and we are using every resource at our disposal to combat this issue,” said Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Tyrone Oliver, in a statement.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published this year exposed the role correctional officers often play in helping state prisoners carry out violence or drug trafficking by supplying them with contraband. The AJC found that at least 360 Georgia prison employees have been arrested since 2018 on charges related to bringing drugs, cellphones or other contraband into prisons.

A Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Monday she couldn’t immediately comment on whether any current or former state prison employees were charged in the indictment.

But peace officer certification records and information in the indictment identified three of the 23 defendants as former correctional officers.

One of the former correctional officers, Tracey Wise, was part of the AJC’s investigative report published in September.

The lead defendant in the indictment is Ryan Brandt, who has been in prison since he was sentenced by a Gwinnett County judge in 2007 to a then-record seven life sentences for a violent home invasion in Snellville, as well as other crimes.

Wise, the former correctional officer, is charged with conspiring to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute while working as a correctional officer at Baldwin State Prison.

The indictment alleges that in February 2021 Brandt, then incarcerated at Baldwin, contacted Wise to coordinate the delivery of 50 sheets sprayed with a controlled substance. The sheets were then allegedly placed in a bag with $4,000 and left in a trash can so Wise could retrieve it.

Wise’s efforts as a drug courier for Brandt are among the matters detailed in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. The story described how Wise, who began working for the GDC in 1999 and rose to the rank of lieutenant, was fired after it was discovered that he had smuggled sheets coated with K-2, a synthetic form of marijuana, into the prison for Brandt.

Wise admitted to the wrongdoing after his contact information was found on a phone confiscated from Brandt. The phone showed that Brandt and Wise, identified as “Lakers,” had been in contact with each other 155 times. Wise acknowledged under questioning by a GDC investigator that he brought in the drug-laced papers for Brandt three times, receiving $2,500 each time.

The two other former officers named in the indictment are Shounnette Wooten, 50, of Gray, and Kierra Williams, 31, of Haddock, both of whom had been employed at Baldwin State Prison.

State records show that Wooten’s certification was revoked after a forensic search of a cellphone seized from Brandt had a phone number connected to her.

The indictment says Brandt instructed Williams to smuggle sheets laced with a controlled substance into Baldwin State Prison. Williams’ certification as an officer is suspended, records show.

Others named in the indictment are Kyle Oree, 52, of Washington State Prison; Chase Pinckney, 38, of Ware State Prison; Elton Jackson, 41, of Telfair State Prison; Sean Carr, 51, of Federal Correctional Institution Talladega in Alabama; Lavorsia Jones, 23, of Dacula; Danielle Ford, 49, of Ellenwood; Charlton King, 23 of Valdosta; Demarco Draughn, 28, of Macon State Prison; Richard Smith, 36, of Ware State Prison; Rontavious Fowler, 26, of Hancock State Prison; Shavon Thomas, 55, of Decatur; Lionel Edwards, 41, of USP Florence in Florence, Colorado; Anthony Jernigan, 36, of Hays State Prison; Cedric Pierre, 23, of Robert A. Deyton Correctional Facility in Lovejoy; Ricardo Sanchez, 40, of Macon State Prison; Troy McCraine, 57, of Tennessee; Qawwee Mitchell, 36, of Gainesville; Sherri Gandy-Torres, 56, of Lakeland, Fla.; and Nyla Blacknell, 43, of Duluth.

Monday’s indictment is one in a series of recent federal cases targeting large, complex criminal enterprises run by Georgia prison inmates. Since 2015, the AJC found, federal prosecutors have filed 20 major cases involving drug trafficking operations run from inside at least 25 Georgia state correctional facilities.

The drug operations can empower prisoners, who get rich from the schemes and can bribe officers to either bring in phones or drugs or become part of the operations that often have ties to violence or fatal overdoses inside and outside state prisons.

“It’s alarming to think that these criminals were brazen enough to distribute dangerous drugs and commit heinous crimes while behind bars,” Robert J. Murphy, special agent in charge of the DEA Atlanta Division, said in a statement. “They must now face the consequences.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez