Charges unsealed in Fresno federal court allege that four men used drones to smuggle drugs and other contraband into California prisons.
U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced the charges Thursday in a news release.
The bust of the suspected ring follows published reports that drones are frequently used to supply inmates with illicit goods in the United States.
Last summer, Wired published a story under the headline “Drone Contraband Deliveries Are Rampant at US Prisons.”
And, The Los Angeles Times reported this week a sheriff’s official testified at a recent trial that deputies shot down a drone flying over a Los Angeles County jail complex in Castaic.
All four men are accused of unlawful use of drones and not having a Federal Aviation Administration drone operator certificate.
Here is a look at the defendants and other allegations:
— Michael Ray Acosta, 48, an inmate at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, is charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, and using a cellphone in aid of racketeering.
— Jose Enrique Oropeza, 34, of Colton, is charged with possessing heroin and marijuana with intent to distribute the drugs.
— Rosendo Rene Ramirez, 34, of Sacramento, is charged with conspiracy to distribute meth, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana; distributing and possessing with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine; and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
— David Ramirez Jr., 34, of Sacramento, is charged with conspiracy to distribute meth, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
How the Smuggling Ring Allegedly Operated
According to court documents, from January through December 2021, Acosta used a contraband cellphone to coordinate multiple drone deliveries at night into Pleasant Valley State Prison and other state prisons.
Oropeza, Rosendo Ramirez, and David Ramirez Jr. flew the drones, which dropped the packages into the prisons. Acosta and his associates then distributed drugs and other items to inmates.
The packages that Acosta helped to smuggle into the prisons contained meth, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, cellphones, cellphone accessories, butane oil, and other items, court documents state.
The other inmate facilities breached by the drones, according to prosecutors, were the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran; Salinas Valley State Prison, High Desert State Prison in Susanville, and California State Prison, Sacramento.
The case is the fruit of an investigation by the FBI, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the FAA.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Antonio J. Pataca is prosecuting the case.