2 admit smuggling cash and drugs
Two Orleans Parish Prison inmates, among a dozen accused of starring in notorious videos of drug use and dice games inside a jail tier, admitted Tuesday that they smuggled cash and drugs onto the 10th floor of the House of Detention.
Ellis Jenkins and Rashan Hester pleaded guilty to contraband charges, and were each sentenced to several years in prison. They joined two others who have already pleaded guilty. Ten defendants remain charged, most of them still ironing out deals with the state.
Their films, shot in the summer of 2009 in the now-shuttered House of Detention, show inmates drinking Budweiser, gambling, shooting drugs off a Bible-themed puzzle book and unloading a long-barrelled handgun.
Though embattled Sheriff Marlin Gusman tracked the videos down within weeks of their filming, none of the inmates were ever charged. Gusman apparently never documented the purported investigation he conducted, which he has said included a thorough shakedown of the tier and the guards assigned to watch it. The videos themselves were kept locked in a safe in the sheriff’s office; they were never turned over to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for possible criminal charges.
They resurfaced in a federal courtroom four years later, in April 2013, as evidence supporting the city’s contention that the problems at the violent and dilapidated jail owe to Gusman’s mismanagement, rather than a lack of funding.
The shocking videos made national headlines, and investigators began to piece together from scratch the contraband cases against the 14 men pictured in the footage.
The men were indicted by an Orleans Parish grand jury in May.
Hester, 31, pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to possession of contraband in a jail, admitting that he appeared in the films holding cash, likely as part of a rowdy dice game in a jail cell.
Hester has been convicted of felonies twice before, of possession of stolen property and attempted possession with intent to distribute marijuana, making him subject to sentencing as a habitual offender.
But Assistant District Attorney David Pipes told the court that he agreed to ignore one felony and pursue sentencing as a second-time felon, in exchange for Hester’s plea agreement.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras sentenced him to 21/2 years in prison, the minimum allowed under the state’s multiple-offender statutes.
Jenkins, 28, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to two counts of possession of contraband.
The videos showed him holding cash and drugs. He, too, had two previous felony convictions, for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of cocaine.
Pipes again agreed to pursue sentencing as only a two-time felon in exchange for his plea agreement.
Buras sentenced Jenkins to three years in prison.
Two others pleaded guilty in June for similar sentences.
Buras scheduled an October hearing for the 10 remaining defendants, including the films’ alleged director and leading man, Lester Jones and Arthur Johnson.
Johnson’s attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, has asked the judge to forbid the state from showing the videos to a jury.
Johnson and Jones escaped from the jail in 2009.
The tapes turned up during a search of the Opelousas home where federal agents found Johnson hiding weeks after his escape.
They were shipped to the sheriff’s office and hidden in the safe that Gusman, years later, said he never knew existed.
Hjortsberg argues that the tapes were seized without a warrant and without permission from Johnson, their owner.
He said he has received no reports detailing the thorough investigation the sheriff said his office initially conducted.
He believes no such reports exist.
Without the tapes, Hjortsberg said, the state will have no case against his client.
Buras asked Pipes on Tuesday whether there is any proof that what appears to be in the video actually is: For instance, how can one tell that what is believed to be cocaine being snorted is actually cocaine?
Pipes acknowledged Tuesday that there is no hard proof, but he said the illegal contraband charge outlaws every forbidden item from jails, and the items pictured in the videos would surely fall into that category.
Hjortsberg said Tuesday that he plans to subpoena Gusman and other sheriff’s office employees to testify at the hearing in October.