Feds raid Golden Grove early Tuesday morning

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ST. CROIX - A multiyear federal investigation into a suspected contraband smuggling operation at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility prompted federal agents to raid the prison in the overnight hours into Tuesday looking for illegal contraband.

The 15-page affidavit that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Tracey Gardner filed in support of the search warrant for the prison indicates that agents believe V.I. Corrections Bureau officers, inmates and others are involved in the smuggling operation.

A prepared statement the U.S. Attorney's Office released Tuesday afternoon said there had been no arrests at that point in connection with the search. It does not say how much contraband was seized.

Local officials, meanwhile, were tight-lipped about the search, which involved multiple federal agencies.

"I got nothing to tell you," V.I. Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson said Tuesday before hanging up.

In response to a Daily News inquiry, Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. sent an email saying Government House had no comment.

"The smuggling of contraband into Golden Grove is a serious offense that jeopardizes not just the inmates and corrections officers, but the entire community," U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands Ronald Sharpe said in his statement. Sharpe also points out that a search warrant is a tool to collect evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation.

The statement also quoted Vito Guarino, special agent in charge of the DEA Caribbean Division, saying that shanks, knives and controlled substances pose an obvious danger to inmates and corrections officers.

"As the search warrant affidavit shows, cellular telephones in the hands of inmates also pose a serious threat to the security of the prison. They can be used to commit further crimes, run criminal organizations from inside prisons, intimidate witnesses, plot escapes, and facilitate drug trafficking inside the prison," Guarino said.

The warrant

The search warrant was for the entire area of all inmate units for sentenced inmates and for pre-trial detainees, including cells and pertinent offices, multipurpose rooms, day rooms and basketball courts, as well as all workshop buildings, the library and the laundry buildings and the prison yard.

Court documents that have been unsealed indicate that the items agents were looking for included cell phones; chargers for cell phones; Subscriber Identity Module cards, or SIM cards, which are portable memory cards used primarily with cell phones; weapons, including shanks and knives; and drugs.

Under federal and territorial law, it is illegal for inmates to possess such items. It also is a violation of federal law to provide contraband to inmates.

The V.I. Corrections Bureau runs Golden Grove. Federal inmates awaiting trial and those already sentenced and awaiting transfer to a federal correctional facility are housed at Golden Grove through a contract.

The investigation that prompted the search warrant was led by the St. Croix DEA High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, which includes officers from the V.I. Police Department, with assistance from the FBI, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

U.S. Magistrate Judge George Cannon signed the search warrant last week.

The problem with contraband at Golden Grove has also been part of the focus of a separate civil case the U.S. Justice Department has been litigating against the territory for more than 27 years, aimed at bringing conditions of confinement at the prison up to constitutional standards.

The investigation

Gardner has directed the investigation into the smuggling of contraband - including drugs, weapons, cell phones, SIM cards, liquor, tobacco and food items - into Golden Grove by corrections officers, inmates and others since October 2011, according to the affidavit.

The investigation has included several undercover operations into corrections officers smuggling contraband into and extracting smuggled items out of the prison, as well as a probe of the distribution of smuggled drugs within the prison, the affidavit states.

It indicates that corrections officers are often paid to smuggle contraband and that despite the recent arrest of two Corrections officers accused of attempting to bring contraband into the prison, contraband continues to be smuggled in.

The affidavit was based on those investigations, investigations conducted by other law enforcement officials and information obtained from several "confidential sources."

Among the allegations included in the affidavit are that inmates used cell phones to arrange a murder for hire plot against corrections officers and that certain prison officials tip off inmates about scheduled cell searches. The document did not name names.

Some items in the affidavit, which was unsealed on Tuesday, have been redacted. There is no further mention in the redacted document of the murder for hire plot or the tipping off of inmates about impending searches.

Gardner describes a number of methods inmates and corrections officers use to smuggle, distribute and store contraband within Golden Grove, including using cell phones to contact suppliers of contraband outside the prison; to arrange for the pickup and delivery of contraband by corrections officers; and to arrange the sale or purchase of contraband within the prison.

The affidavit also indicates that a confidential source told investigators that inmates use smuggled cell phones to arrange the sale, purchase or distribution of controlled substances or firearms in the community.

Gardner contends that corrections officers smuggle contraband into the prison in their personal belongings and that inmates conceal it in mattresses and other spots in the prison.

"I also know that contraband is introduced into Golden Grove on a regular and ongoing basis," Gardner states in the affidavit. "Further, numerous inmates are in possession of some form of contraband on a daily basis."

More contraband

The statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the affidavit note that between February 2012 and February 2014, the V.I. Corrections Bureau has searched 51 of approximately 350 prison cells at Golden Grove, turning up contraband in approximately 90 percent of those searches.

The contraband seized in those searches included marijuana; empty baggies; weapons; cell phones; cell phone chargers; SIM cards; and cable boxes, according to the affidavit.

Meanwhile, the affidavit states there have been 11 stabbings at the prison, one of them fatal, since November 2012. The most recent stabbing was in February.

The section of the affidavit about the undercover investigation states that some corrections officers accepted money, directly or indirectly, from undercover agents to smuggle contraband - including SIM cards; cell phones; micro adapters; cigarettes; a cell phone charger; and alcohol - into Golden Grove.

No arrests have yet been made in connection with that operation, but the affidavit notes that investigators think the problem is widespread.

"Although this undercover law enforcement operation only identified six COs involved in the smuggling of contraband into Golden Grove, the number of COs involved in the smuggling of contraband into Golden Grove is believed to be much greater," the affidavit states.

Gardner asked to execute the search warrant at night, while prisoners were locked into their cells, for safety reasons.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, V.I. Police Department and V.I. National Guard assisted the HIDTA task force in the search.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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