In-jail gang note intercepted, helps bust drug-smuggling operation

An intercepted in-jail gang note led correctional officers to bust a drug-smuggling operation at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility this week, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Rafael Alfonso Sanchez, 41, of Merced, 33-year-old Benjamin Bettis of Ceres and 25-year-old Rachel Smith of Atwater were arrested and face felony charges of smuggling a controlled substance, Sgt. Delray Shelton said Saturday.

Sanchez also is being cited with misdemeanors for driving on a suspended license from a DUI and failing to carry proof of insurance.

On Wednesday afternoon, correctional officer Jesse Banuelos intercepted a note from inmates in Dorm 602 at the correctional facility, Shelton said.

The note, allegedly intended for “Crip” gang members housed in Dorm 507, detailed a “business arrangement” and indicated a drug and contraband drop would happen sometime that night at the correctional facility.

During a staff briefing of the midnight shift at 11:30 p.m., correctional Officer Michael Lacey identified through the surveillance system a suspicious vehicle lurking around the facility, Shelton said.

The vehicle, a green Dodge Stratus, stopped on an access road near the kitchen parking lot when a suspect attempted to re-enter the vehicle. The officers made contact with the suspects and the vehicle.

As the investigation unfolded, officers found several packages of drugs and contraband and learned that the suspects were at the correctional facility to smuggle it in, Shelton said.

The packages included methamphetamine, marijuana and tobacco.

The three suspects were arrested and booked into Merced County jail. The vehicle was towed.

Sanchez remained in custody on Sunday with bond set at $15,000; Bettis remained held in lieu of $10,000 bond. Smith was released from custody on Wednesday.