Prosecutions of aircraft operators were among nation’s first
AUGUSTA, GA: An Atlanta-area man is the third defendant sentenced in U.S. District Court after admitting to a scheme to use a drone to smuggle contraband into a Georgia state prison.
Cheik Hassane Toure, 24, of Marietta, Ga., was sentenced to 12 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to Serving or Attempting to Serve as an Airman Without an Airman’s Certificate, said David H. Estes, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. Toure had been in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service since June 9 after a hearing in which it was determined he had violated the conditions of his bond. At sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen also ordered Toure to pay a $1,000 fine and to serve one year of supervised release after completion of his prison term. There is no parole in the federal system.
Toure’s co-defendants, brothers George Lo, 27, of Powder Springs, Ga., and Nicholas Lo, 25, of Dallas, Ga., are serving sentences of 12 months in federal prison after also pleading guilty in the scheme. The prosecutions in the case are believed to be among the first in the nation under federal law regulating non-passenger aircraft.
“The growing field of unmanned aircraft has bloomed enormous possibilities for legal commerce and recreation, but like all technological advances it also has provided a new tool for those who would attempt to smuggle contraband inside prison walls,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Estes. “Thanks to the vigilance of our law enforcement partners, this particular scheme was grounded before delivering its payload.”
As described in court documents and testimony, George Lo was serving a state sentence for armed robbery at Telfair State Prison in Telfair County when he began conspiring with Nicholas Lo and Toure, and others, to own and operate a Storm Drone 4 kit-built unmanned aircraft without registration or licensing. The Lo brothers discussed using the drone to deliver contraband to Telfair State Prison, and Nicholas Lo and Toure practiced flying the aircraft. George Lo planned to pay the two to fly the aircraft to deliver the contraband, which he intended to sell to other inmates.
At 1:30 a.m., on Aug. 26, 2019, Telfair County Sheriff’s deputies observed an approaching vehicle turn off its lights about 100 yards from Telfair State Prison. During a search, Deputies encountered Nicholas Lo and Toure in a wooded area between the road and prison. The pair possessed a large duffle bag containing the drone, a controller, a video monitor and a headset. In addition, the bag contained 14 cell phones, at least 74 grams of tobacco, a digital scale and earbud headphones. Both men were taken into custody.
Federal law requires registration of unmanned aircraft weighing 0.55 pounds or more, and the Storm Drone 4’s weight was in excess of that requirement. Also, federal law requires the pilot of any unmanned aircraft to hold an airman’s certificate when operating the unmanned aircraft for compensation or hire.
“Federal laws and regulations related to owning and operating drones serve to ensure the safety of the public and our nation’s airspace. Violating those laws while attempting to smuggle contraband into a state prison is a recipe for disaster,” said Todd Damiani, Special Agent-In-Charge, U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, Southern Region. “This sentencing sends a strong message that, together with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners, we are committed to keeping our skies safe and illicit activities at bay.”
“We are pleased to see that justice has been served on these individuals for their role in attempting to introduce dangerous contraband into our facilities,” said Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy C. Ward. “This outcome should serve as a clear message that perpetrating criminal activity, even while behind prison walls, will not be tolerated.”
The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, the Georgia Department of Corrections, and the Telfair County Sheriff’s Office, and prosecuted for the United States by Assistant U.S. Attorneys John P. Harper III and E. Greg Gilluly Jr.
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