From a prison cell 150 miles away, convicted murderer Slint Tate listened to police raiding his girlfriend’s home in Miami, Oklahoma.
Using a cellphone that had been smuggled into the prison, he was talking to his girlfriend/common-law wife Robin Zumwalt as a search warrant was being served.
“Robin! Robin!” Tate shouts repeatedly into the phone.
“Shut up,” Zumwalt, using a Bluetooth device connected to her phone, eventually whispers to Tate.
The conversation could be overheard because of a wiretap, which was entered as evidence in Tate’s criminal case.
In the May 7, 2016, recording, Tate tells his girlfriend to ask officers what they’re looking for.
“Who are you guys looking for?” Zumwalt asks the officers. “What are you looking for?”
“It’ll all be in the search warrant,” the officer replies.
Minutes later, Tate, who is sitting in his prison cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, starts calling and texting people to get the word out about the bust. The conversations would eventually be used in the case that brought down a drug distribution ring, wiretap evidence suggests.
The phone eventually helped police. But how did Tate get it in the first place? How was he able to run a multi-state drug ring from his prison cell that allegedly generated sales totaling $250,000 to $1 million per week?
Prosecutors claim Tate has been using smuggled cellphones to run a drug distribution operation from prison since at least March 2015, but wiretap conversations of Tate suggest he has been at it for at least 10 years.
Tate’s case is not unique, according to prison officials, law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
In a months-long investigation, the Tulsa World found that drug rings run by inmates using smuggled cellphones are on the rise, despite efforts to thwart their use.
Prison and law enforcement officials seize thousands of illegal cellphones each year. But the inmates in Oklahoma prisons — many with ties to violent gangs — continue to get their hands on more. They’re using them to traffic drugs, extort and scam others, officials say.
The World found over 160 people who have been charged since 2014 in court cases linked to prison-based drug trafficking organizations with Oklahoma ties.
Technology exists to rein in the problem, but federal law and the high cost of equipment prevents most prisons from utilizing them.
“It’s a problem,” said Richard Salter, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Oklahoma at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA has busted several prison-based drug trafficking operations with ties to Oklahoma and neighboring states in recent years, but the overall trend continues to be discouraging, officials say.
“No, it’s not getting any better,” said Salter, who wonders if corrections officials could do more. “The state prisons could stop this if they wanted to. I don’t know that they’ve put that much effort into stopping it.”
State prison officials counter that they are doing all they can to stop the flow of illegal cellphones into prison, especially given their budget constraints.
Following the raids in Miami, state prosecutors charged nearly two dozen people in connection with the Slint Tate drug distribution ring.
Tate, 35, has been in prison since pleading guilty in 2001 to first-degree murder in the July 1999 shooting death of Vernie Milford Roberts, a Delaware County reserve deputy. Roberts, 65, and his wife, Betty Jean, were taking Tate, then 16, from the Delaware County Jail to the Tulsa County Juvenile Detention Center.
A federal grand jury in September indicted Tate, Zumwalt and five others on drug distribution conspiracy charges. Five have already entered guilty pleas and await sentencing. Tate and Zumwalt each have a trial date set for June 18.
The Tulsa World obtained copies of the wiretapped conversations in the Tate case after the records were made public during state court proceedings.
The wiretap recordings contain hours of discussions and hundreds of text messages over a nine-day period involving two cellphones Tate allegedly used to communicate with members of his crew and others outside prison walls.
The wiretap calls and text messages range from the mundane — dinner plans — to breathless, play-by-play commentary between Tate and his crew members as they try to elude police during a high-speed chase.
In one of the conversations recorded in May 2016, the man thought to be Tate moved quickly to spread the word about the arrests and search warrant executions.
“Hey, they are arresting everybody on federal cases,” Tate allegedly says to someone on another line. “They are arresting Robin right now.”
“What now?” the other man asks.
“They are arresting Robin right now at my house,” Tate says. “She’s on Bluetooth. I’m getting off here.”
MS-13, Crips, Universal Aryan Brotherhood gang ties
Since 2014, prosecutors have filed charges against more than 160 people linked to prison-based drug distribution rings that operated outside the prison walls.
Of the 160 charged, 18 were already serving prison sentences for crimes ranging from drug dealing to first-degree murder, according to the World review.
Many of those charged have ties to gangs, including MS-13, Crips, Indian Brotherhood, Universal Aryan Brotherhood and Irish Mob, records show.
Locally, Tulsa-based federal prosecutors have since 2014 brought charges against three groups who were running drug rings from prison.
U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said the use of cellphones by prison-based drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs as federal officials call them, has been a “persistent challenge” for Oklahoma law enforcement and prison officials.
“In the past several years, we have seen an increasing number of cases focusing on prison-related activity,” Shores said. “In some cases, a head of a DTO in a prison operation coordinates activity in and on the outside of prison.”
One case — nicknamed “13 Cells” for its ties to the gang MS-13 — involved methamphetamine distribution between California, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Timothy Fitzpatrick — a former Tulsan serving 20 years in prison since 2010 for robbery, assault with a dangerous weapon and drug manufacturing — used smuggled cellphones to control methamphetamine distribution and transactions in and outside of prison, Shores said.
Records and sources say Fitzpatrick worked with Larry Navarete, a 37-year-old California inmate who since 2008 has been serving a 38-year prison sentence for robbery and false imprisonment. Fitzpatrick was in the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville at the time.
Navarete, whose name is also spelled Navarrete in some records, is a member of the gang MS-13, according to prosecutors.
An Arkansas federal grand jury indicted Navarete in September 2015 on drug conspiracy charges that alleged he used smuggled cellphones to direct drug sales in Arkansas and Oklahoma from his prison cell in California.
In another local case involving smuggled cellphones in prison, a federal Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force prosecuted “Operation Thunderbolt,” in which Anthony Hall and 10 others were indicted in 2014 of charges that included racketeering in association with the Universal Aryan Brotherhood.
“That investigation showed that the UAB prison gang operated in several Oklahoma prisons and distributed drugs both in and outside prison,” Shores said.
In the Hall case, UAB members in 2013 kidnapped one of their own on orders from higher ranking UAB members. The gang members took the fellow member to a Tulsa apartment, where they held him down and burned a UAB tattoo off his neck with a heated knife after he failed to supply drugs to the gang.
Reaching out, ‘touching’ others
Cellphones make the drug rings possible inside prisons.
The inmates direct drug deliveries to people on the outside, take orders and direct collections on the sale of drugs, said the DEA’s Salter. And, in some cases, inmates order enforcement when someone doesn’t pay or when someone steals dope from anyone else they don’t like.
“We’ve intercepted these calls where they order a beat down or a murder or they want to get somebody’s attention,” Salter said.
In one DEA wiretap case, officers listened in as one prisoner used a cellphone to remotely monitor video surveillance cameras that he had placed inside his girlfriend’s house.
“The inmate saw someone over there he didn’t approve,” Salter said. So the inmate used his cellphone to call someone to go over to his girlfriend’s house to have her beat up, he said.
When possible, DEA agents try to “find a way to stop that act from happening without disclosing the fact that we are listening to their phone calls,” Salter said.
Statistics from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics also reflect the increase in prison-based cellphone drug rings.
OBN Director John Scully said his agency ran three court-ordered wiretap cases on its own in 2017 and assisted other agencies, including the DEA, on 14 others.
Of the three it handled on its own, two had what Scully called “prison involvement.”
“What I mean by that is we were actually monitoring cellphones that were inside prison walls,” Scully said.
In 2016, like the ensuing year, two of the three wiretap cases that OBN ran on its own involved the use of cellphones in prison. In 2015, only one of the nine OBN wiretaps had prison ties.
One of the cases involved inmates at Dick Conner prison in the Osage County town of Hominy. Prisoners were using cellphones to communicate with runners selling meth and pot in Carter County in 2016.
Scully has sympathy for the challenges faced by the Department of Corrections officials in keeping cellphones out of inmates’ hands.
“It presents a significant challenge for DOC, and I think they are doing a pretty good job of trying to reduce that,” Scully said. “I know they are taking actions on their part to minimize and reduce any kind of contraband.”
Cost to taxpayers
Wiretap investigations are time-consuming. And they’re costly.
In 2016, federal officials in the Northern District of Oklahoma, which includes Tulsa, spent $102,646 on one wiretap probe, according to records from the U.S. Department of Justice. Case details are not made available.
Nationwide, the average cost of a wiretap investigation in 2016 was nearly $75,000.
Slint Tate made hundreds of phone calls with smuggled cellphones during the nine-day period his wiretap ran.
On recorded conversations between Tate and his friends, the man identified as Tate talked for hours on subjects like the three houses, 20 vehicles and grenade launchers he claimed to own.
An attorney representing Tate did not return a call seeking comment.
Tate talked and texted nonstop into the evening after the warrants were served at his girlfriend’s home.
“Hey, you’re going to have to get the f--- out. They are looking for Todd, too,” Tate allegedly tells one person. “It’s over man. Get them out of there. It’s over, you hear me?”
In another call, a voice attributed to Tate can be heard warning another male: “Hey flush all your s---. They just arrested my wife on federal charges. Flush it all. Get rid of it.”
A Tulsa World review of the Tate wiretap found that during one 48-hour period, the voice attributed to Tate talked on a telephone for a combined 24 hours.
Asked how an inmate could talk nearly continuously on a cellphone all day, one DOC official replied:
“It may be as simple as hiding it under the mattress when he sees you coming; and when he sees you leave, picking it up and never getting off that phone,” DOC regional director William Monday said. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to stealth around these prisons hardly.”