The Mercury News
Ex-guard sentenced to 20 months for phone smuggling conspiracy
Pair of gang members on death row were the merchandise recipients
SAN FRANCISCO >> A former San Quentin corrections officer was given 20 months in federal prison for smuggling 25 cell phones to a prisoner on death row, prosecutors announced Friday.
Keith Christopher, 38, of Pittsburg was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston. Prosecutors asked for a 27-month sentence, arguing that Christopher betrayed his colleagues and the public, and said he started accepting bribes to smuggle phones after his probationary period at the prison ended in 2018.
Christopher submitted a letter to the court where he apologized for “the lack of integrity I displayed and the dishonor to the oath I made as a correctional officer.”
“I understand that I compromised the safety/security of the institution and the public by my actions,” he wrote. “I am ashamed, embarrassed, and very disappointed in myself.”
According to court papers, the cell phones ended up in the possession of two death row inmates: James Ellis, an Adelanto-area gang member sentenced to death in 2017 for a double murder. Ellis in turn allegedly shared them with Anh The Duong, a notorious San Jose gang leader convicted in state court of four murder counts and in federal court of eight murders.
In a sentencing memo, prosecutors highlighted recent racketeering cases involving the Aryan Brotherhood and Nuestra Familia in California, where gang leaders are alleged to have ordered murders and facilitated drug deals from inside prison, thanks to contraband cell phones smuggled into various prisons across the state.
“(Cellphones) enable inmates to organize riots, facilitate murder and other violent crime, commit fraud, drug trafficking, witness intimidation, escape, and other criminal activity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Boome wrote in a sentencing memo.
In a defense sentencing memo, Assistant Federal Public Defender David Rizk portrayed Christopher as a “distrustful, cynical, and desensitized” prison employee who “stupidly thought that maybe his job would get easier if he did some favors for inmates.” He wrote that Ellis asked him for cell phones. Prosecutors say Ellis claimed it was all Christopher's idea.
Rizk asked for a 16-month house term in lieu of prison.
(“Christopher) is willing to serve a sentence of whatever length the Court believes is appropriate given the circumstances, but he pleads for the opportunity to do so in a setting that simulates incarceration such as the halfway house or house arrest, where some (though not all) of the risk to his personal safety is mitigated and where he is not detained in solitary confinement or equally harsh conditions,” Rizk wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's office announced the sentencing in a news release Friday night. Notably absent from the news release, though, was any mention of a sentence for Christopher's co-defendant, Isaiah Wells, which was scheduled to occur Friday. No information on the sentence was available on the court docket, and neither the U.S. Attorney spokesman nor Wells' lawyer responded to requests for comment.
Christopher's two other co-defendants, Dustin Albini and Ellis' girlfriend, Tanisha Smith-Symes, have also pleaded guilty to federal charges and are scheduled for sentencing.