Death Row Wireless Crime Spree Probed

Death row inmate calls pol, prompting crackdown on illegal cell phones.

Oct. 30, 2008 — -- As a system wide prison lockdown in Texas stretches into its second week, investigators are probing whether women in Europe gave money to death row inmates to buy prohibited cell phones that were allegedly used to direct crimes from behind bars.

"These cell phones are a direct threat to public safety," John Moriarty, the Texas prison system's inspector general, told

State authorities have thwarted attempts at narcotics trafficking and solicitation of capital murder from prisoners who had the illicit phones, he said.

A shakedown of the state's 112 facilities began last week after State Sen. John Whitmire received what he said was a threatening call from Richard Tabler, a convicted double-murderer who is currently awaiting execution on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Tex.

After the call, Gov. Rick Perry put the entire prison system on mandatory lockdown, restricting movement for all of the system's 156,000 prisoners.

Authorities are investigating a large narcotics ring involving cell phones within the prison and people on the outside, Whitmire told

According to a prison representative, a lockdown means many inmates are confined to their cells for most of the day -- they are no longer permitted to leave for educational programs, time in the recreation yard or to go to the showers.

Whitmire told that he became alarmed when Tabler not only mentioned the names and ages of his two daughters but also spoke flippantly about how easy it was for him to get a cell phone behind bars.

"I kept asking [Tabler] how he was calling me, and he just responded, 'I'm on a cell phone,'" said Whitmire, who is chairman of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"I asked him how he got it and he quickly said, '$2,100,'" he added. "He also told me had a charger."

Authorities said they determined that Tabler, 29, had shared his phone with at least nine other inmates; together, they are estimated to have placed as many as 2,800 calls in the last 30 days.

European Connection

Moriarty said the "substantial" number of international calls made from the cell phones led investigators to look into whether women involved in anti-death penalty movements across Europe may be responsible for financing some of the smuggled devices.

"We're very familiar with the anti-death penalty movement folks who are foreign nationals," said Moriarty. "It's not unusual for them to visit death row inmates and have contact with individuals on Texas' death row, and overall we don't have any issues with that unless they engage in criminal activity."

"If [money they are providing is going toward purchasing cell phones for inmates,] that's obviously an issue."

Officials at the Texas prison system, the second largest in the country, are trying to find out how the phones moved from the outside world to behind bars.

Moriarty concedes that it would be "very, very difficult" for inmates to get phones "without inside help."

No prison employees or corrections officers have been arrested or charged yet in the investigation, said Moriarty.

Since the lockdown began at 6 p.m. Oct. 20, 71 cell phones, 65 chargers and six SIM cards -- devices used to transfer information from one phone to another -- have been found by prison authorities, according to Michelle Lyons, the spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

One of those cell phones and chargers was found hidden in the ceiling of the showers -- a common area in the death row building in the Polunsky Unit, said Lyons.

Forty-four of the facilities have since been taken off lockdown, according to Lyons, while the remaining 77 are still being searched.

Before this most recent shakedown, the Texas prison system already had 700 pending cases involving smuggled cell phones and BlackBerry devices, according to Moriarty.

Money for Tabler's phone is alleged to have come from his mother, 60-year-old Lorriane Tabler, who was arrested last week under a state statute that prohibits the introduction of contraband such as a cell phone into a prison facility.

Authorities said the source of funds for hundreds of other phones found in the prisons is unclear.

ABC News was unable to contact Lorriane Tabler for comment.

European Women Befriend the Condemned spoke with several individuals involved in anti-death penalty organizations in Europe who said that they have fostered relationships with men on death row and frequently sent them money.

Myriam Stubbe, a member of the Coalition for Truth and Justice based in Belgium, said she is aware of inmates having cell phones behind bars that were financed by foreign women.

"I know people who have been banned from visits [to Texas prisons] because they sent money for cell phones," said Stubbe, who declined to name the women to protect their privacy.

Activists like Stubbe range in age and socioeconomic status and the majority of them are married, middle-aged women. While there are male activists in the groups, the women are the ones who most frequently write to inmates, while the men help with fundraising.

There are a handful of organizations for anti-death penalty advocates overseas; in Germany alone there are about 300 members who are registered as part of the movement.

To recruit new members, advocates travel across Europe visiting small towns and holding demonstrations and vigils for those awaiting execution in hope of attracting more supporters.

In addition to recruitment and fundraising, many members say they work hard to save enough money to afford a trip to the U.S. to meet inmates in person.

Stubbe said she will go ahead with a upcoming trip to Texas despite the possibility that visitation rights will still be suspended due to the lockdown.

Some inmates take advantage of the women who help them, Stubbe said, and she knows that not all of the money donated is put toward their so-called "defense funds."

"We all know some inmates that use people," said Stubbe. "It's not just because they are being executed that we must swallow everything they say."

According to Stubbe, money is wired to inmates through JPay, a Web site that allows users to send money to prisoners' accounts so long as they provide the inmate's name and ID number.

Texas' Moriarty confirmed that he was aware of JPay and considers it to be a "legitimate" way to provide financial aid to prisoners.

Other women who spoke to said that in addition to JPay, money orders sent to attorneys acting on behalf of prisoners is another common way to provide financial aid to inmates.

Not all of the women corresponding with death row inmates are aware or even interested in where their donations actually go.

Sandrine Ageorges, the chair of the International Committee for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, based in France, said that for more than 12 years she's been making "very good friends" with people on death row.

When asked how she would feel if she discovered the money she was sending to inmates was helping the inmate commit a crime, Ageorges said, "I personally don't judge people."

"They do what they need to with it," she said. "I'm not behind bars."

As for the continuing investigation stateside, Moriarty says that authorities are also looking into leads across the country.

"There are many tentacles to this investigation," said Moriarty. "It's massive."

"Prison is a world of secrecy," said Moriarty.