Corrections officer Jennifer M. Owens pleaded guilty Tuesday to involvement in a racketeering conspiracy to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the Baltimore City Detention Center for an inmate, a gang leader who fathered two children with her and whose name she had tattooed on her neck.
Owens, 31, of Randallstown, Md., is one of 13 female corrections officers who were indicted in April on charges of smuggling items into the state-run jail for Tavon White, a leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, enabling him to run a thriving drug enterprise inside the detention center. She is the first guard to enter a guilty plea. Most of the other indicted officers have pleaded not guilty. However, defense attorneys for several officers said they are negotiating plea agreements with prosecutors.
Owens, who is on supervised release, had initially been charged with involvement in a racketeering, drug-trafficking and money-laundering conspiracy, but as part of a deal worked out with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty only to racketeering. That crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander said at Tuesday’s hearing in Baltimore.
Owens’s ultimate sentence will depend on a variety of factors, Hollander said. The fact that the crime took place in a jail and that Owens was serving as a state corrections officer could warrant harsher punishment, the judge said. However, Owens could also get a bit of a break “for pleading guilty so quickly,” Hollander said.
Owens plans to present her own case for leniency. C. Justin Brown, Owens’s attorney, asked Hollander for a sentencing date “as far out as possible to give us as much time as possible to investigate possible mitigating factors.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 24. Through her attorney, Owens declined to answer questions from several reporters as she left the courtroom.
In a summary of undisputed facts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ayn Ducao said Owens smuggled Percocet pills, suboxone strips, tobacco and marijuana into the jail and moved contraband around inside, “as did many other corrections officers.”
This month, when White pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug trafficking, he alluded to widespread involvement of corrections staff.
“The investigation continues,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said, “and we anticipate that there will be additional defendants charged.”
Since April’s indictments, state corrections officials have been conducting a top-down review of supervisors and staff at the jail. So far, one administrator, Shavella Miles, who was in charge of security, has been forced out. Miles’s attorney has said state officials are using her as a scapegoat.
The cooperation of corrections officers was critical to the virtual takeover of the jail by White, who had been incarcerated there since 2009 awaiting trial. To secure their help, White used money and sex.
The indicted female officers were paid to smuggle in drugs, cellphones and other contraband. Four, including Owens, had sexual relationships with White and bore him children, prosecutors allege. White also gave Owens a diamond ring and access to two Mercedes-Benzes.
Owens, one of the oldest of the officers charged, had been a state corrections officer since 2007.
Tuesday morning, she appeared in court dressed in a yellow T-shirt and khakis. No tattoos were visible under her shoulder-length hair. She said little, confining her responses to questions from Hollander to “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”
Last year, Owens was more candid in wiretapped conversations that found their way into charging documents.
“You locked up, and I’m [expletive] pregnant again. Like really, who . . . does that,” she allegedly said. “I can accept that I [made a mistake]. I know I did, but I did that [stuff] cuz I wanted to. I don’t regret it.”
Although Owens could not corroborate all the events detailed in charging papers, Ducao said that “the ones in which she was named, she accepts responsibility for.”
Ann Marimow contributed to this report.