Last week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp made a significant announcement about an ongoing investigation named “Operation Skyhawk” between the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Safe Streets Gang Task Force. Search and arrest warrants were executed at two locations in the Metro Atlanta area, effectively dismantling a sophisticated, multi-state criminal enterprise. This operation involved civilians, inmates, and staff who were implicated in the introduction of contraband into GDC facilities.

The GDC oversees one of the largest prison systems in the United States and supervises around 47,000 state prisoners. With approximately 9,000 employees, it is the state’s largest law enforcement agency.

“Georgia will not tolerate those who put our communities at risk by trafficking drugs, weapons, and contraband both in and out of our correctional facilities,” said Governor Kemp. “I want to thank Commissioner Oliver, the hardworking men and women of the GDC, and all law enforcement who worked to shut these operations down and help keep both Georgians and our correctional facilities safe.”

During the months-long investigation, authorities uncovered the use of drones to smuggle contraband into GDC facilities. This led to the apprehension of 150 suspects, including eight GDC employees, who were promptly dismissed. The charges against these individuals include over 1,000 counts related to contraband smuggling, drug trafficking, and possession of firearms by felons. Many of the arrested individuals are expected to face additional charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for participating in criminal gang activities. These charges will be pursued across multiple jurisdictions in the state, potentially resulting in what could be the largest Gang RICO case in the state’s history.

WSB-TV in Atlanta reported that Robert Schwartz, the owner of Thunder Drones, a business that repairs DJI products, was arrested as part of the operation.  WSB-TV Investigative Reporter Mark Winne was at Thunder Drones when employees were arrested in connection with “Operation Skyhawk.”

Commissioner Tyrone Oliver of the GDC reported that corrections agents executed a search warrant at Thunder Drones and arrested Schwartz for his involvement in drone contraband drops into Georgia prisons. During the operation, they confiscated over 50 drones in two simultaneous raids.

As agents took him away in handcuffs, Winne asked Schwartz, “If you face gang and/or RICO charges, what’s your response?”

“All I do is repair drones. I’ve been doing, I’ve been repairing radio-controlled things for 50 years. I don’t know what they’re even here for,” Schwartz replied.

“Have you broken the law?” Winne asked. “No sir,” Schwartz replied.

“The success of ‘Operation Skyhawk’ should be a reminder to anyone – inside or outside our prisons – that we have zero tolerance and will take swift action against those who threaten the safe operations of our facilities and the safety of the public,” said GDC Commissioner Oliver. “Our reach is far and wide, not just within the walls of our facilities, and I stand by my words from over a year ago that this activity will not be tolerated. I am immensely proud of our Agents for their commitment to seeing that these individuals are brought to justice,” Oliver continued.

Items seized thus far during the operation comprise the following, amounting to a total combined street value exceeding $7 million:

  • 87 drones
  • 22 weapons
  • 273 contraband cell phones found in correctional facilities
  • 180 civilian cell phones
  • 185 pounds of tobacco
  • 67 pounds of marijuana
  • 12 pounds of methamphetamine
  • 51 pounds of Ecstasy
  • 10 grams of cocaine
  • 90 various pills

The belief that the same criminal enterprise may also impact other states underscores the significance of the success achieved through “Operation Skyhawk.” This accomplishment would not have been attainable without the invaluable assistance of hundreds of local law enforcement partners, who diligently conducted traffic stops and responded to instances of contraband drops via drone at GDC facilities.

See the C-UAS Hub Corrections Sector resource page for more information and references.

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Post Image- Aerial view of the Fulton County Jail near Atlanta, Georgia (Image Credit: Adobe Stock by Felix Mizioznikov)