Inmates run a drug ring in a Michigan state prison, feds say

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is the northern of the two major landmasses making up the state of Michigan, the other being the Lower Peninsula. The city of Munising sits on the southern shore of Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula, and is home to the Alger Correctional Facility of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Situated 45 miles east of Marquette, Michigan, between Lake Superior and the Hiawatha National Forest, the Alger Correctional Facility has room for about 900 inmates.

Michigan Upper Peninsula
The city of Munising on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

According to federal court records reviewed by the Detroit News, inmates run an international drug ring out of the facility, selling crystal meth, cocaine and heroin supplied by deported ex-cons in Mexico.

A federal affidavit filed in a request for a search warrant outlines a years-long investigation into the drug trafficking ring, identifies the accused kingpins and reveals their ties to Mexico. That's where former inmates paroled by the Michigan Department of Corrections allegedly coordinate large-scale drug shipments to locations that include the Alger Correctional Facility.

The proliferation of meth use in Michigan

Investigators and prosecutors in the Upper Peninsula have witnessed an increase in the crystal meth industry in recent years, that originated with locals making homemade batches.

According to the Michigan State Police, crystal meth from Mexico has proliferated in Michigan because it’s considered an inexpensive, safer alternative to heroin.

According to state police statistics, the statewide number of meth distribution charges has increased 153% over the years 2017-19. Meanwhile, the number of people charged with meth possession grew by 163% over the same period.

The DEA investigation

The affidavit does not describe how drugs entered the prison. According to federal court records, no person has been charged as of Friday, and the investigation is ongoing.

The probe at the Alger state prison was under way as early as last year and included the use of a federal wiretap, according to the search warrant affidavit.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent described how, in late May, the sophisticated international conspiracy was unraveled by means of a secret wiretap and a hidden piece of evidence found in an inmate's cell.

Dontay McMann, 40, is a convicted killer incarcerated at Alger who was sentenced in 1997 to at least 40 years in prison. Federal agents say McMann deals drugs alongside fellow inmate Juan Mejia. State corrections officers searched the prison in late May and found a virtual drugstore inside McMann's cell.

According to DEA Special Agent Michael Tighe, investigators discovered last year that someone was using JPay — a money transfer and communication system used by inmates in 35 states — to communicate with a drug supplier in Mexico.

The message was sent by Juan Mejia to convicted cocaine dealer Hector Plascencia-Rolon from a contraband phone, the DEA agent wrote. At the time, Plascencia-Rolon, 31, was approaching the end of a minimum three-year sentence for dealing cocaine and was awaiting deportation to Mexico.

Mejia, 47, who is serving a 17-60 year sentence for cocaine trafficking, and Plascencia-Rolon were both incarcerated in 2018 at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, according to the DEA agent.

According to the court affidavit, Mejia wrote in the message: I need the windows that you sold me one day for my car. Wrote DEA Special Agent Michael Tighe: Based on my training, experience, and familiarity with the investigation, I believe Mejia was asking Plascencia-Rolon to sell him methamphetamine, commonly referred to by the (drug organization) as ‘windows,’ upon his return to Mexico.

Hector Plascencia-Rolon finished serving his sentence early last year and was deported to Mexico in April 2019. Five months later, investigators obtained a warrant to search the contraband phone investigators say was used by Juan Mejia used to communicate with him.

By analyzing phone records, agents discovered that the phone utilized the cell tower near Alger prison, and that it was used to call a second phone. That led investigators to suspect that the second phone was also being used by the drug ring. DEA analysis proved that the second phone also exclusively used the same cell tower.

Agents obtained a federal wiretap for the second phone; while overhearing conversations they heard a male voice. Investigators compared the voice to recorded prison calls made by inmate Dontay McMann. According to agent Michael Tighe, the voices matched.

Multiple confidential sources have stated that Mejia uses inmates who are serving life sentences (or long custodial sentences) to handle drug trafficking business, the agent wrote. One confidential source that has spoke(n) directly to McMann about his drug trafficking confirmed that McMann works on behalf of Mejia.

The agents listened to phone calls and concluded that McMann and a second man were discussing drug sale proceeds and crystal meth. During a March 31 phone call, McMann and the second man discussed drug dealing inside state prisons and the second man said “190,” which was an apparent reference to drug sale proceeds. That’s all?, said McMann.

I believe (the second man) was saying that the drug proceeds were less than expected because he had to give someone a cut of the proceeds, the agent wrote.

On May 20, corrections officers raided McMann’s cell at Alger prison. Inside, investigators found more than 50 grams of meth, 120 doses of LSD, a digital scale, a knife and more than 80 strips of Suboxone, which decreases opioid withdrawal symptoms for a day.

Investigators also found an electronic typewriter. Hidden within, beneath the right side of the keyboard, they found three storage devices for the phones investigators said were used to arrange drug deals inside Alger. Investigators also found one of those cellphones.