Jury convicts man on 31 counts in prison drone plot trial

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Posted: Jan 15, 2016 7:32 PM
Jury convicts man on 31 counts in prison drone plot trial

CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) — A jury convicted a man of 31 offenses Friday for plotting to fly illegal drugs, a cellphone and other contraband aboard a drone into a maximum-security state prison.

Thaddeus C. Shortz, 25, of Knoxville, could face more than 50 years in prison for crimes that include contraband, drug, conspiracy and firearm convictions. His sentencing wasn't scheduled.

The Allegany County Circuit Court jury deliberated about two hours and 15 minutes after two days of testimony. The panel of eight men and four women convicted Shortz on all but four of the charged offenses. He was acquitted on two counts each of intending to distribute drugs within 1,000 feet of a school — there is a vocational school near the prison — and knowingly engaging in a financial transaction involving proceeds from illegal drug sales.

Defense attorney Robin K. Ficker said he sees grounds for an appeal because police did not obtain a warrant before searching Shortz' pickup truck.

Assistant State's Attorney Erich Bean said he was pleased with the verdict.

The case went to the jury after a Maryland State Police investigator testified that Shortz confessed to having made five or six such drops in the months before his arrest. Bean said in his closing argument that the evidence against Shortz was overwhelming.

The defense presented no case. Ficker told the jury that there was no proof of Shortz' guilt and that he was being railroaded by authorities embarrassed that prison airspace had been violated.

Co-defendants Keith Russell of Silver Spring and prison inmate Charles Brooks are awaiting trial.

Shortz is an ex-convict who was released from the Western Correctional Institution in April after serving time for assault. Police acting on a tip arrested him and another man outside the prison on the night of Aug. 22.

In Shortz' truck, they found a remote-controlled mini-helicopter and six plastic-wrapped packages containing prescription narcotics, synthetic marijuana, tobacco, pornographic videos and a cellphone — items worth a total of $35,000 to $40,000 to prisoners, one witness testified.

Police also recovered a handgun, though investigators say it exceeded the drone's cargo weight limit.

Maryland State Police Sgt. Andrew Farrell testified that Shortz told him he was a top man in a contraband ring and had made five or six drops since May at $4,000 each. He said he had used $20,000 of the proceeds to help pay for his new Ford pickup, Farrell said.

"He was almost boastful about it," Farrell said.

Prosecutors presented evidence of what they said were phone calls between Shortz and Brooks, calling the operation "a gold mine."

Prosecutors said Shortz would fly the drone over a 12-foot fence and land it near the back door of a housing unit reserved for inmates in a dog-training program. Inmates walking dogs unattended would retrieve the packages. A Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services internal investigations officer testified that inmate dog walkers now must be watched.

The officer, Detective Sgt. Rodney Likin, said he learned that a disabled drone had crashed on prison grounds during one of the drops. He said Brooks sent other inmates out to pick up and dispose of the pieces.

The case is the first involving allegations of drone smuggling at a Maryland state prison. Similar cases have surfaced in Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

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This story has been corrected to show the time of deliberation was two hours and 15 minutes.