News

Investigators break up jail smuggling plans

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin points to a lighter shown in an x-ray of an inmate's lower region during a press conference regarding Correctional Officers breaking up a smuggling ring inside the jail, in Merced, Calif. Monday, April 19, 2010. Two cell phones were also intercepted.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin points to a lighter shown in an x-ray of an inmate's lower region during a press conference regarding Correctional Officers breaking up a smuggling ring inside the jail, in Merced, Calif. Monday, April 19, 2010. Two cell phones were also intercepted. Merced Sun-Star

Merced County sheriff's investigators say they've gotten to the bottom of plans by inmates to smuggle cell phones, drugs and other contraband into the main jail -- inside what polite prose would call their posterior.

Sheriff Mark Pazin said during a Monday press conference that three inmates are accused of inserting the items into their body cavities to hide them from deputies. The items were discovered via X-ray last week after sheriff's deputies issued search warrants to scan the inmates.

Although the three inmates were not believed to be working together, investigators say others may be involved. "They were working on some orders from the inside to bring contraband from the outside into our jail facility," Pazin said.

Pazin and sheriff's investigators wouldn't disclose the names of the inmates, citing laws related to medical privacy. After reviewing court records, the Sun-Star learned that search warrants were issued for abdominal and rectal X-rays of inmates Gabriel Antonio Olvera, 22, Angel Hernandez Saenz, 23, and David Garza Barrera, 25.

According to court documents, sheriff's investigators learned in March that at least two cell phones were being passed around cell blocks at the jail. The investigation heated up April 9, after Merced police served a search warrant in the Loughborough area. While police were serving the warrant inside a residence, a cell phone belonging to the occupant of the home began to ring. An officer picked up the phone and an inmate identified himself as the caller, according to court documents.

Deputies searched cell block 3 at the jail April 12, but no cell phones were found. As a result, all inmates living inside the cell block were placed on a body orifice security scanner, a noninvasive metal detector. According to court documents, four inmates in the cell block triggered the scanner.

The sheriff's department obtained search warrants for the inmates, and three were found with the items inside their body cavities. In addition to two cell phones and drugs, one of the inmates was found with a lighter inside his body cavity. Pazin said the inmates were put in isolation until they could "naturally pass" the items.

Sheriff's investigators displayed the inmates' X-rays during Monday's press conference. "This is a testament to how far they will go to ensure that they get whatever they want behind bars," Pazin said. "But, thanks to the good work of our correctional division, they were able to thwart any more of these items getting in (the jail)."

Pazin said detectives are looking into who the phones actually belonged to. When asked if gangs were behind the crimes, Pazin replied, "I'm not going to challenge that statement."

To prevent inmates from smuggling items into the jail, Pazin said he's hoping the Board of Supervisors will approve the purchase of an X-ray machine for use at the jail. Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said each machine would cost less than $10,000, and the department is aiming to purchase one for the main jail and another for the John Latorraca Correctional Center.

It's not the first time, in recent months, that inmates have smuggled illegal items into the jail. Last month, a 21-year-old documented gang member named Jose Ibarra was arrested after allegedly trying to smuggle about $1,500 worth of methamphetamine and marijuana into the Merced County Jail.

Last year, inmate Rance Johnson, 19, was hospitalized after he tried sneaking a homemade knife into the jail.

The knife had to be surgically removed, and Johnson had been carrying it inside his body for three weeks, investigators said.

Olvera is being held at the jail on charges of illegally carrying a loaded firearm in a public place. Saenz is being held on suspicion of domestic violence with assault with a deadly weapon, while Barrera is being held on suspicion of fraud, auto theft and petty theft.

All of the suspects could face additional charges for allegedly possessing illegal items in the jail, MacKenzie said.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

  Comments