- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) - The second of three men accused of plotting to use a drone to fly drugs, pornography and other contraband into a maximum-security state prison pleaded guilty Thursday to three misdemeanors involving tobacco, rolling papers and a cellphone.

The pleas by Keith B. Russell, 30, of Silver Spring, averted a trial on 36 other charges that prosecutors dropped, including felony firearm and drug offenses, stemming from his arrest in August outside the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland.

Prosecutors will recommend a 10-year prison term at Russell’s sentencing, which hasn’t been scheduled, Allegany County Assistant State’s Attorney Erich Bean said.

Both sides said Russell, a former inmate, was a minor player in an effort led by fellow ex-convict Thaddeus Shortz to fly prohibited materials over the prison’s 12-foot fence. Shortz, 25, of Knoxville, was convicted of 31 felony and misdemeanor offenses last month. He told police he had made such drops in the past. Inmate Charles Brooks, accused of arranging the deliveries in telephone calls to Shortz, is scheduled for trial March 16.

Defense attorney Stephen Tully said Russell, a father of two, made just one trip to the prison with Shortz.

“He picked the wrong thing to do at the wrong time,” Tully said outside the courtroom.

Police, acting on a tip from inside the prison, arrested the pair on the night of Aug. 22 in a nearby business park. Police say the men had binoculars and walkie-talkies. A search of Shortz’ pickup truck yielded a remote-controlled mini-helicopter and packages containing prescription narcotics, synthetic marijuana, pornographic DVDs, tobacco, papers, and a cellphone and charger. Police also found a handgun, too heavy for the drone to carry, that Shortz said belonged to Russell.

Bean said at Shortz’ trial that the contraband was retrieved by prisoners walking dogs unattended outside a housing unit reserved for inmates in a program that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. A prison security officer testified that dog-walking inmates are now observed by correctional staff.

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