The attack was brutal, and it was caught on video.
Federal agents say Tennessee drug traffickers linked to a Mexican cartel kidnapped a 22-year-old woman, drove her around Nashville and then digitally recorded it as they chopped off her left hand with a hatchet.
A man spotted her sprawled on the ground Nov. 3, 2019, near the entrance of a motocross and bicycle trail 12 miles southeast of the famed downtown music district and called for help.
But when police questioned the terrified woman, she lied, telling them she had accidentally sawed off her own hand. Officers quickly closed the case, listing it as an accidental injury, according to the official report.
More than two years later, federal court records reveal how the kidnapping was linked to a deadly drug network operating from inside Tennessee's state prisons, right under the noses of corrections staff.
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Investigators say Humberto Morales used the prison as the headquarters for a violent drug network dating to at least January 2018, according to allegations in the federal indictment.
Prosecutors say Morales recruited associates to obtain jobs as prison guards so they could smuggle in drugs and phones to help him communicate his orders.
Morales, known as "Pelon," (Spanish for "hairless"), is accused of making thousands of calls on illegal phones to order up violence and massive amounts of fentanyl, a potent synthetic drug that is helping drive record overdose deaths across the U.S.
Investigators say they linked at least three cellphones to Morales through his selfies and voice recordings, according to a criminal complaint against one of Morales' reputed accomplices. They contained more than 100 photos and videos related to the drug ring, the complaint says.
Federal prosecutors in Nashville hosted a news conference last year to announce Morales' arrest and the toppling of the extensive drug network blamed for a reign of violence, "horrific assaults" and at least one murder.
But they didn't disclose details of its connection to an infamous Mexican drug cartel or explain its link to a street gang implicated in more than a dozen Nashville shootings.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Tennessee repeatedly declined interviews, telling federal agents not to comment before the case goes to trial.
But a joint investigation by The Courier Journal and the Tennessean reveals the multi-million-dollar crime ring bought drugs from the Sinaloa Cartel, a global powerhouse once headed by notorious kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
The two newsrooms combed through hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as prison and arrest records, discovering Morales' criminal history dating back to his youth and including a Williamson County, Tennessee, home invasion robbery in the affluent enclave of Franklin, south of Nashville.
Yet, even as he was serving a 48-year prison sentence for a home invasion robbery in Franklin, Morales escalated his criminal network while he was behind bars, records indicate.
Security breaches inside state prisons operated by private company CoreCivic afforded Morales and his associates forbidden access to secret phones, according to documents obtained through Tennessee's Open Records Act.
CoreCivic also hired a prison guard married to one of Morales' alleged co-conspirators.
Those records also show the alarming frequency with which inmates throughout the prison system accessed or possessed illegal phones.
From July 2018 through June 2021, there have been 5,100 incidents of prisoners using or possessing a contraband phone in four prisons managed by CoreCivic and 10 operated by the state, according to Tennessee Department of Correction reports.
Prison officials found another 243 contraband phones on prison grounds but couldn't prove who used them.
Derek Maltz, who retired from the Drug Enforcement Administration after overseeing Special Operations, said contraband cell phones in jails and prisons are a longstanding problem nationwide.
Maltz said prisoners have used contraband phones to order drone deliveries of drugs inside prison fences, threaten agents, order acts of revenge and continue running drug rings.
"When you’re talking about these kingpin-type guys and these gangsters … they’re gonna be really dangerous with a phone in their hands," he said.
"They can figure out who the key witnesses are" from access to court documents. "Next thing you know, they’re using that device inside the prison to threaten, in some cases hurt or kill witnesses."
Prosecutors previously told reporters the prison-operated drug ring is linked to notorious gangs MS-13 and Sureños, or Sur-13. They haven't publicly disclosed the details of those connections, but court documents accuse Morales of vouching for two associates so they would be accepted into Sureños' prison gang.
The newsrooms' investigation also revealed a tie to a Nashville faction of the street gang MS-13 blamed for at least seven Music City murders.
Agents claim the gang's local faction, known as the Thompson Los Salvatrucha clique, had capitalized on Nashville's addiction crisis since 2014, selling large amounts of cocaine and marijuana in the bathrooms and parking lots of nightclubs.
They are accused of shooting at and killing competitors.
In July, a federal grand jury in Nashville indicted nine reported MS-13 gang members on 60 counts, including charges related to seven murders, five attempted murders, kidnappings, several assaults, robberies and witness tampering in 2016-17.
The gang also is blamed for moving a significant amount of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into Middle Tennessee from 2014-20, according to the indictments.
Prosecutors charged the alleged gang members, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO, which punishes individuals for crimes committed for the group.
It was designed to battle the Mafia. But it's increasingly used to prosecute violent gangs and drug rings.
In the Nashville RICO case, prosecutors and the ATF announced the indictment last year that charges several local men, along with Honduras natives Luis Colindres, 24, known as "Listo" or "Clever;" Jose Pineda-Caceres, 22; and Franklin Hernandez, 22, a convicted cocaine trafficker known as "Happy;" and El Salvador native Gerson Serrano-Ramirez, 34.
Serrano-Ramirez, a convicted cocaine trafficker known as "Frijole," was deported four times between 2006 and 2012 but repeatedly sneaked back into the U.S.
His past crimes in America include a 2011 conviction for breaking a window of a Nashville home, climbing inside and threatening the lives of the victims with an AR-15 assault rifle, according to his court file.
He used his trailer in Antioch, Tennessee, as a cocaine stash house and beat a friend for more than two hours in 2017 because he mistakenly thought the man was informing police about his drug dealing.
He also sprayed bleach in the victim’s eyes, suffocated and choked the man and used a pair of pliers latched to the victim’s hands to drag him around the living room, according to the government's sentencing memo.
Serrano-Ramirez called an alleged MS-13 gang member to his home to tie up the victim while he completed a drug deal. A federal jury convicted him in 2018 on nine counts, including witness tampering and cocaine trafficking.
He is serving a 19-year sentence in federal court for those crimes and awaiting trial on the new RICO charges.
His attorney, Ben Russ, said his client disputes the racketeering allegations, including membership in MS-13.
Another alleged gang member Pineda-Caceres, known as "Demente," was a teen when he teamed with friends and embarked on a crime spree in Nashville that included wearing ski masks and robbing victims while armed with a metal pipe and baseball bat or a gun and knife, court records show.
Pineda-Caceres also was caught with heroin and another gun and led police on a chase. He was deported in 2017 but sneaked back into the U.S. two months later and headed to Nashville.
Agents say they searched Facebook accounts, finding evidence Pineda-Caceres offered to bring high-grade marijuana from Mexico City to Middle Tennessee.
Prosecutors say he's a flight risk because he faces three life sentences if convicted on pending charges of drug trafficking, racketeering and murder, according to the indictment.
All of the Honduras and El Salvador natives face deportation upon release from jail or prison.
A man prosecutors portray as one of the gang's most menacing members, double murder suspect Kevin Tidwell, is a Tennessee native, from Ashland City, northwest of Nashville.
Court documents indicate the 28-year-old with a gun tattooed on his face is a known link between the gang case and Morales.
Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation added Tidwell to the TBI's "Most Wanted" list on May 31, 2017, and publicly named him as a documented gang member wanted for an Antioch murder. Officers arrested him hours later after a police chase and crash on Interstate 65 in Williamson County that shut down traffic in both directions for hours.
The pursuit ended when Tidwell, who had a .38-caliber revolver, rammed into a car and injured the driver, a member of a U.S. Marshal's Fugitive Task Force.
Tidwell has remained locked up ever since and while in a Tennessee prison, he got a hold of cellphones and used them to order crimes on the outside, including drug trafficking, money laundering and firearms offenses — teaming with other prisoners and members of his family, prosecutors allege in their motion to deny bond.
Prosecutors contend that Tidwell provided Morales, who also was in prison, with phone numbers for co-conspirators and recruited and encouraged them to deal hundreds of pills containing fentanyl, high-purity methamphetamine or "ice," heroin, marijuana and other drugs.
Tidwell also is accused of using a contraband phone in prison to order a "pocket powerhouse" pistol for Morales.
Tidwell and fellow gang members are charged with the Nashville homicides of Ammerli Jose Garcia-Munoz, 25, shot and killed in a strip mall parking lot in May 2017, and Jesus Alberto Flores, shot and killed on Antioch Pike in May 2017, according to the indictment.
Tidwell; his attorney, Bob Lynch Jr.; and sister; all declined to comment.
Morales is charged with conspiring with others in a murder-for-hire and kidnapping along with money laundering and trafficking one kilogram or more of heroin, 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, 400 grams or more of fentanyl, cocaine, and marijuana, according to the indictment.
Morales and Tidwell pleaded not guilty. If convicted, both face a life sentence in federal prison, where parole is not an option.
Defense attorney Paul Bruno, who represents Morales, and more than 40 other defense attorneys representing codefendants declined to comment while the trial is pending. Many court filings are hidden under seal.
So, until more is revealed through plea deals or a public trial, some questions linger, including how Morales — a California native who spent much of his youth and adult life in Tennessee jails or prisons — had the power and reach to allegedly run such a large drug ring and bully a sicario, or hitman, in Mexico into chopping off his own pinkie to prove his loyalty.
Prosecutors claim in court motions that Morales told the hitman, who ran up a drug debt, he owed Morales one "murder on the house."
Neither the Tennessee Department of Corrections nor its contractor, CoreCivic, would discuss details about the extent of the security breaches, such as how many prisons and guards were involved. Both cited the ongoing criminal case.
The drug ring is blamed for saturating Nashville and Middle Tennessee with tens of thousands of potentially deadly fentanyl-laced pills, several kilograms of fentanyl and heroin, more than 50 pounds of nearly pure methamphetamine and smaller amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
With Morales and others behind bars awaiting trial, prosecutors told the judge that law enforcement are investigating two more murders, according to a transcript of a September status hearing.
They're also searching for two key fugitives: the alleged sicario, Magdiel Pina Ramirez, and Morales' girlfriend, known as "Chula," who vanished from her home in Memphis, Tennessee. Agents believe both likely are hiding in Mexico.
The indictment also charges Morales and defendant Kim Birdsong, an alleged ranking member of the Kitchen Crips street gang, with teaming to order the murder of a Nashville mechanic called "Pancho" or "Mekaniko," who had worked on Erika Vasquez's car.
"Morales asked several people to harm (the mechanic), including by cutting off his fingers or hand with a machete, and by threatening to shoot him," but later decided to have the man killed, prosecutors argued in a motion urging the judge to deny Birdsong bond.
The 44-year-old mechanic was shot several times in front of his wife on April 4, 2019, but survived.
Prisoners recruiting their own prison guards
Jennifer Montejo, who had a history of drug use and drug smuggling, tried to get a job as a Tennessee prison guard.
The mother of three and native of Tullahoma, Tennessee, knew she could make a lot of extra money if she could smuggle in phones and drugs to Morales and other alleged drug ring members, according to Montejo's plea agreement.
In June 2019, she applied for a job with CoreCivic, which ran prisons that housed her friends, but her attorney said she didn't get the job.
A few weeks later, Montejo teamed with the woman whose hand was chopped to pay $7,500 to a bond company to get alleged drug ring associate Stacy Owens' out of jail in Decatur County, Tennessee, on meth charges, court records show.
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Agents had learned that two suspicious packages were on their way from Ontario, California, to a Decaturville, Tennessee, home Owens shared with her husband through the United States Postal Service.
Morales' girlfriend, fugitive Erika Vasquez, and another alleged drug ring member kept tracking the packages and updating Morales in prison and telling Owens to expect the delivery, agents alleged in court records.
Agents posed as postal workers on June, 19, 2019 and delivered the packages, which contained methamphetamine, and arrested Owens.
Montejo and the woman with the missing hand got a cell phone for Owens so Owens could answer a call from Morales from prison. Montejo was with Owens when Morales called and threatened Owens and her children if she cooperated with police, according to Montejo's plea agreement.
During recorded phone calls, Morales allegedly called Montejo and told her to call a certain defense attorney to represent Owens and to tell the attorney that Owens would be "on her own if she was snitching." Texts agents found on Montejo's phone show that she kept Morales updated on Owens' court hearings.
Montejo also followed orders to track packages of drugs headed to Tennessee homes in Knoxville, an eastern city, and Ripley, a western town.
Stacy Owens' husband, listed in court documents as B.O., was hired by CoreCivic as a guard in 2019 at the prison that housed Morales. He is accused of accepting 2 pounds of marijuana from other drug ring members, prosecutors say in court documents.
Federal prosecutors haven't charged B.O. in this case, but he no longer works as a guard, according to CoreCivic. Reporters learned his identity but couldn't reach him for comment. Attorneys for his wife declined to discuss his employment or her pending criminal case.
Why the woman's hand was chopped off
Montejo became the first of about three-dozen defendants in the case to plead guilty after she was caught smuggling drugs.
The 33-year-old was arrested in 2019 at a Nashville bus station after a brief trip to Los Angeles. Police found 4 kilograms of fentanyl and a kilogram of heroin in her luggage.
She pleaded guilty in November 2020 to trafficking fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine, money laundering conspiracy and having a gun during a drug crime.
Prosecutors say she ordered cellphones and drugs and helped smuggle them into Tennessee jails for the Morales drug ring, according to court documents.
Montejo paid for some of those phones using drug profits.
She also knew the real reason the woman lost her hand in November 2019. Montejo and two other women had gone to the victim's hospital room, where the victim told them her hand was taken as punishment for losing about $50,000 in drug profits she was supposed to transport on a bus for the drug ring.
Court documents don't describe how the money was lost or who chopped off her hand.
Reporters went to an Antioch apartment where the victim once lived, but a neighbor said she moved to west Tennessee and she couldn't be located.
Montejo continued to trade texts with Morales and communicated with defendant Jacob Lee, 25, another state prisoner with access to a contraband phone, about drug ring business, prosecutors contend.
Prosecutors claim Morales instructed Montejo to help buy $8,000 worth of "blues" or pills that were fake oxycodone laced with fentanyl. Someone texted her about the danger, saying: "my buddy is in the er right now and I'm on the way to take my girlfriend to a different er" after overdosing, yet she continued to follow orders, including strapping 3,000 of the pills to her body with saran wrap.
Montejo's attorney, Robert Parris, declined to discuss her case with reporters but told the judge at Montejo's sentence hearing in March 2021 that she couldn’t cooperate with the investigation because “that would have endangered a lot of people.
"This is a credible threat."
The mother of three, including a child in Mexico, is serving 25 years in prison.
Dozens of others remained jailed awaiting trial, which isn't expected to start until next year.
Gannett reporters Mariah Timms and Natalie Alund contributed to this story.
Reporter Beth Warren: firstname.lastname@example.org; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Violent Tennessee prison drug ring tied to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel