8 charged in woman’s death; authorities: ‘mastermind’ directed killing from prison
If they would just listen … .
If they would just listen to United States Attorney for South Carolina Sherri Lydon when she wrote, in early April, an op-ed that said, cellphone jammers must be activated in all prisons.
That move, right now, is contrary to federal law. But Lydon outlined a compelling case for changing that 1934 law, or at least its “narrow interpretation”. The change was introduced into Congress - a sponsor is US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – but it has not been enacted.
One of the inmates that Lydon cited in her opinion piece is James Robert Peterson, convicted of murder (2005), then convicted (2017) on a federal charge of running a drug ring from inside a South Carolina prison by use of an illegally obtained cellphone. Now, that same man could stand trial on another murder charge.
Peterson, authorities allege, used an illegally obtained cellphone inside prison to order the death of Michelle Dodge. He is one of eight people accused of having a role in the death of this one person.
Eight against one – someone left her dead, shot in the back of the head, in a remote, rural area just outside the City of Laurens, South Carolina - not far from Hickory Tavern.
She was 27, from York. She was held for two months, authorities allege, in a house in Gaffney. There, the last place she was known to be alive, was found 1 kilo of meth. Dodge served a year in prison, in 2018, for meth possession, according to The Rock Hill Herald, but her Facebook posts written under a different name said she had gotten a job. Her car was found later in a remote area near Gaffney – the sheriff there said it looked like somebody was trying to push it into the Broad River.
Authorities said she was never reported missing. After her body was found, the suspects scattered. Peterson was easy to find – he’s serving time in Kirkland Correctional; people there know him – The Greenwood Index-Journal reported, “According to the state prison system, Peterson in December 2009 was charged with striking an employee and assault and battery of an inmate with intent to kill or injure. In December 2011, Peterson was charged with threatening to inflict harm on an employee.”
The rest were rounded up in Laurens, Cherokee and Sumter Counties, and Gaston County, North Carolina; more arrests are possible.
Somehow, all 9 of these people – 8 suspects, 1 victim - came into contact with each other through “the meth trade,” according to Laurens County Sheriff Don Reynolds.
Laurens County is lead on the case since Dodge’s body was found here. It is not known if she had any other connection to Laurens County.
These are the people authorities believe had a role in the Dodge homicide:
-- Aaron Carrion, 26, charged with murder, possession of a weapon during a violent crime, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Aaron Sprouse, 27, charged with murder, possession of a weapon during a violent crime, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Peterson is charged with murder and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Billy Wayne Ruppe, 53, is charged with accessory after the fact to murder and criminal conspiracy.
-- Brandon Lee Phillips, 34, is charged with accessory before the fact to murder and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Lisa Marie Bolton, 31, charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Lisa Marie Costello, 41, charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
-- Catherine Ross, 26, charged with kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and accessory after the fact to kidnapping.
Early on, after Dodge’s body was found late last month, Reynolds said he was turning down all requests for one-on-one interviews, to concentrate on the investigation. At a media availability this past Friday, he said:
“One thing I can share with you is something I feel is very important. Mrs. Dodge’s murder was orchestrated by a prisoner who is currently serving a 30-year sentence. This is only accomplished by prison gangs having access to contraband cell phones. The young lady’s death is a complete tragedy, and one life taken so soon is one too many. I hope this tragedy helps bring to light the seriousness of this issue. Common sense would tell us if the cell phones won’t work, they will be of no use to the inmates. Unfortunately, the solution is not that simple. The people behind those walls are not law-abiding citizens. They are criminals, a large majority of whom are violent, and extremely dangerous. We need to do everything in our power to limit their ability to communicate unlawfully with their outside counterparts.”
There are civil rights and technical issues with cellphone jamming in prisons, but there is a proposed act of Congress to do it - the Cell Phone Jamming Reform Act.
Now under consideration for a federal judgeship, Lydon asked for such a law in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled, “Let States Jam Prison Cellphones”:
“We do not put criminals behind bars only to have them continue their criminal enterprises from inside prison. We will continue to use every tool available to us to stop this threat to public safety. But until our state and local partners are permitted to jam cellphone signals in prisons, inmates with time on their hands and unrestricted access to the Internet will continue to run drug rings, scam innocent Americans, and perpetrate crimes that help them grow their wealth while incarcerated.”
According to information in Lydon’s op-ed, James Robert Peterson – now charged with murder in Dodge’s death – is a “poster boy” for cellphone jamming in prisons:
“In September 2016, a federal grand jury charged 15 defendants — 5 of whom are current SCDC inmates — with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and related offenses. The defendants used telephones, primarily contraband cellphones, and the U.S. Mail to facilitate the drug offenses charged, and they conspired to launder drug money by conducting money transfers, cash withdrawals, and purchases of and deposits onto pre-paid cash cards.
“The five SCDC inmates — Sok Bun, Paul Ray Davis, Jhon Marlon Acosta, James Robert Peterson, and Samuel Travis Wiggins —capitalized on their nearly unfettered access to contraband cellphones to not only continue their criminal activities, but to direct the criminal activities of nine ‘facilitators’ outside of prison, all of whom were willing to accept drug packages for distribution and collect payment on behalf of the inmates. The inmates routinely brokered and managed the delivery and distribution of methamphetamine from California to the upstate of South Carolina and elsewhere in the state. The contraband cellphones were often equipped with touch screens and Internet access, which enabled prisoners to coordinate drug transactions, confirm shipment and delivery, and transfer drug trafficking proceeds.
“All but two of the inmate defendants pleaded guilty. In September 2017, after a week-long trial, a federal jury convicted Bun and Peterson on all counts. During the trial, the jury heard numerous recorded calls made by Bun, Peterson, and other inmates from inside South Carolina prisons. In nearly all of the recorded phone calls between inmate defendants, at least one inmate was using a contraband cellphone. The jury also heard directly from inmate witnesses about how accessible cellphones were to inmates and the various means by which phones were smuggled into the facilities. … Peterson was sentenced to 330 months in federal prison, which will follow the 35-year sentence he is currently serving for murder and assault and battery with intent to kill, both 2005 Cherokee County convictions.”
Dodge’s body was found July 20 in Ekom, rural Laurens County (905 McDaniel Road). Six days later, The Gaffney Ledger reported that “Operation Crystal Clear” had begun in Cherokee County. The C.A.T. (Community Action Team) began serving warrants – initially, 32 people were arrested on 69 warrants resulting from a 4-month investigation. The newspaper reported:
“All of the drug-related charges stemmed from undercover video buys conducted all over Cherokee County by the C.A.T. narcotics unit over the past 120 days. ‘This group of drug dealers also fuels other crimes in our community such as larcenies and burglaries as the individuals seeking to purchase illegal drugs often commit other crimes to get money to support their addictions,’ (Sheriff Steve) Mueller said. ‘This operation will certainly slow the drug trade in our community, but dealers and users let us be crystal clear, our C.A.T. officers are already working on a new operation to rid our streets of persons who sell this poison.’ Since 2011, the Cherokee County Sheriff ’s Office has made 3,536 drug arrests. That figure includes more than 300 drug arrests to date in 2019.”
Meanwhile, many miles away in York, Dodge’s family said (statement by aunt Kris Allison), “Michelle had a pure heart who helped her family and anyone in need no matter what it was. She loved to draw and her laugh filled the room. It was the most pure and honest sound. Never forced. She touched the hearts of everyone she came in contact with. We will never be able to fill the void she leaves in our hearts.” She was born Sept. 15, 1991 in Greenville, Pa., and her memorial service was conducted at Wright Funeral Home, York, S.C.
The Laurens County Advertiser reported that Dodge had a Facebook page under the name “Michelle Smith,” and it indicated she went to work for TG&R Landscaping Group in February. It showed she had friends in Greenville and Anderson.