GOSHEN — An Elkhart woman has admitted to helping smuggle narcotics into a state prison.
Brenda Hernandez, 35, pleaded guilty Thursday to dealing a Schedule 3 controlled substance in an agreement that includes a 12-year total sentence. The Level 4 felony is a lesser included offense to her original Level 3 felony charge of dealing a controlled substance in the presence of a minor.
Authorities say she helped smuggle a medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone to her brother in Westville Correctional Facility, with the help of a corrections officer. She was arrested in August following an investigation by the Elkhart County Intelligence and Covert Enforcement unit and the Indiana Department of Corrections.
The drug is commonly sold under the brand name Suboxone, and is used to treat an opioid addiction.
Hernandez admitted in Elkhart County Circuit Court that she possessed between five and 10 grams of the prescription drug with the intent of delivering it to someone, who would then provide it to someone else.
Her plea agreement calls for six years in the Indiana Department of Corrections, four years in alternative placement and two years on probation. Twelve years is the maximum sentence for a Level 4 felony, while a Level 3 felony is punishable by up to 16 years.
Judge Michael Christofeno set Hernandez’s sentencing for January 2.
According to court documents:
ICE and IDOC investigators started looking into Hernandez in August after learning that she was trafficking strips of the drug into Westville with the help of corrections officers. ICE officers conducted surveillance on Hernandez for several days in Elkhart County.
She drove with her 4-year-old child as a passenger between Aug. 19 and Aug. 22, according to investigators. They also learned that her license was suspended until 2027 for being a habitual traffic violator.
Investigators conducted a search warrant at her Elkhart apartment on Aug. 22 and picked her up from her job in Goshen to conduct an interview at the Elkhart Police Department.
Officers found 812 empty packages of Suboxone strips in her residence along with one unopened package, and packaging materials they believe were used to transport the strips into the prison.
During the interview, Hernandez told investigators she was hiding about 1,000 Suboxone strips under the center console of her vehicle. She said she had previously helped traffic the strips into Westville for her brother, Felix Hernandez.
She said she would meet with a corrections officer and give him a package meant to conceal the Suboxone so it would not be detected at the prison. She said she had done it twice before and was arranging to work through a different corrections officer this time.
Officers obtained another warrant and searched her vehicle, where they found 799 unopened 10 mg packages of Suboxone.
Other trafficking arrests
Felix Hernandez faces a charge of trafficking a controlled substance with an inmate, a Level 5 felony, in LaPorte County. He was charged with the alleged July incident at the beginning of December.
Another Elkhart woman, 34-year-old Jessica Duffield, was arrested in November and charged with trafficking a controlled substance with an inmate at Westville. Her case is also pending in LaPorte County court.
She was arrested on Nov. 23 after Westville correctional investigators learned that a visitor was going to attempt to pass a controlled substance to an inmate there, according to information from the IDOC. Duffield was met by investigators when she arrived at the visiting room and found to be in possession of a substance believed to be buprenorphine.
Other Westville staff members have been charged with trafficking in the past year.
They include Charles Halbert of Gary, a correctional officer since August 2018 who was arrested in January. He was charged with attempting to traffic a controlled substance and official misconduct, a Level 6 felony, after investigators found Suboxone strips in his possession when he came in to work one day.
A correctional facility maintenance worker, 20-year-old Joshua Spyker of Westville, was arrested in October and charged with two counts of trafficking a controlled substance as well as bribery, a Level 5 felony.