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‘Prison Empire’ leads to statewide arrests

• 3 connected to Laurens County during investigation

Three people face charges in Laurens County in connection with a drug trafficking case called “Prison Empire.”

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced Monday that the South Carolina State Grand Jury has issued more indictments against more suspects in “Prison Empire” than in any other statewide narcotics investigation. The Laurens County Sheriff’s Office and State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) were among the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation.

The indictments in “Prison Empire” collectively contain 487 charges alleged within 297 counts against 100 defendants.  To date, the investigation has seized approximately 20 kilograms of methamphetamine, five kilos of heroin, and 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, as well as 82 firearms.  The investigation has revealed that this ongoing drug trafficking conspiracy has accounted for over 1000 kilograms of methamphetamine trafficked throughout the State of South Carolina.

“This case shows the importance of our State Grand Jury and its ability to investigate statewide cases that cross jurisdictional lines,” Attorney General Wilson said. “It also highlights what we’ve been talking about for years now—the danger of contraband cell phones and how prison inmates use them to commit more crimes even while they’re behind bars.”

The three suspects facing charges in Laurens County include:

  • Justin Matthew Moore-Grooms, who is charged with trafficking methamphetamine (28-100 grams), possession of a weapon during possession of a violent crime, unlawful carrying of a handgun. He could face up to 31 years in prison and up to $51,000 in fines. Moore-Grooms also faces multiple indictments in Pickens and Greenville counties.
  • Alexus Danielle Pennington, charged with possession of methamphetamine and faces up to three years and/or a fine up to $5,000.
  • Michael Wayne Walker, Jr., charged with trafficking meth (200-400 grams) and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Walker faces up to 30 years in prison and up to $105,000 in fines if convicted on both charges. He also faces a superseding incitement for trafficking 400 grams or more of meth in Pickens County.

The investigation alleges much of the drug trafficking was run and facilitated by current and former inmates though the use of contraband cell phones in South Carolina prisons. The drugs were trafficked throughout the state of South Carolina, but mostly in the Upstate. Most of the drugs allegedly being trafficked in the case were methamphetamine and heroin, but there are also fentanyl, cocaine, marijuana and other charges in the case as well.

Additionally, there are a number of firearms and weapons charges associated with the alleged drug trafficking, as well as burglary, kidnapping and related charges from an incident allegedly ordered from prison because of nonpayment of a drug debt. The investigation revealed alleged gang involvement among the conspirators as well as Mexican sources of supply for the narcotics.

At least two defendants who are currently SCDC inmates were allegedly found in possession of cell phones and methamphetamine when they were rounded up this week for their bond hearings in this case.  One of the non-inmate defendants was a paralegal at a law firm, and this defendant allegedly used hollowed out documents in legal mail to smuggle methamphetamine into the prison system.

“This is one more tragic example of the damage illegal cell phones do in the hands of inmates,” SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said. “The public would be safer if we were able to block cell phone signals. It is past time for Congress to act and allow states to jam cell phone signals inside prisons. We need a hearing on this important public safety issue.”

Bond hearings for 46 of the defendants occurred on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, and Thursday, March 4, 2021, before the Honorable Robert E. Hood via the virtual courtroom.  Previous bond hearings in the case had taken place in November 2019 before the Honorable DeAndrea G. Benjamin at the Greenville County Courthouse. Charges against several defendants are included within the numbers above but are currently sealed, so they are not included in the list of defendants and charges below.

The case was investigated by the South Carolina State Grand Jury, which was assisted in this case by a partnership of the Attorney General’s State Grand Jury Division, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ Division of Police Services, the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, the Greenville County Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit, the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office, the Easley Police Department, the Liberty Police Department, the Pickens Police Department, and the South Carolina Governor’s Counterdrug Task Force (a unit of the South Carolina National Guard).

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