KENNEWICK — A former officer at the Benton County jail who smuggled drugs and cellphones to inmates was sentenced in federal court to three years and 10 months in prison on Tuesday.
Eric Christian, 34, previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide prohibited objects to an inmate between December 2019 and April 2020. He had worked at the jail since August 2016 and had worked for the Washington state Department of Corrections for seven years.
He is accused of providing inmates in the jail in Kennewick with heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and Suboxone, a prescription drug that can be used for pain but that also is a treatment for opioid addiction.
He also is suspected of allowing or encouraging fights between inmates, including by sharing confidential information with inmates and purposely leaving cell doors open.
Drugs and cellphones Christian gave to inmates were provided to him by three women in the community, one the girlfriend of Alejandro Leon, an inmate who was in the Benton County jail on federal drug charges.
“Mr. Christian was charged with protecting our community, and he breached that trust by providing dangerous criminals and gang members with access to illegal narcotics and unmonitored cellphones in the Benton County jail,” said U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref.
But Christian’s actions in accepting money to break the law and expose inmates at the jail to drugs and violence is the exception, not the rule, she said.
“We maintain a high level of expectations of those in law enforcement,” said Benton County Sheriff Tom Croskrey. “When these standards are compromised and criminal conduct occurs, we will hold these individuals accountable.”
U.S. Judge Stanley Bastian noted during the sentencing in Yakima that Christian not only allowed phones and drugs into the jail, threatening the safety of inmates, but was directly responsible for allowing other inmates to be targeted and assaulted.
“This abuse of trust” and Christian’s “turning a blind eye” when other inmates were assaulted, shook the very core of a system that “depends on correctional officers to keep inmates safe,” he said.
Bastian said he will recommend that Christian serve time in an East Coast federal prison for his protection.
Request for lighter sentence
The sentence the judge handed down was at the bottom of the standard sentencing range of three years and 10 months to four years and nine months.
But Christian’s attorney, Troy J. Lee of Yakima, had asked the judge for less time.
He argued in court documents that Christian had a difficult childhood, including his father’s death by suicide and later abuse, but had gone on to serve in the Navy and had no criminal history.
Although it is difficult to make sense of why Christian smuggled contraband into the prison, “partial answers lie in Mr. Christian’s mental health,” according to his attorney.
Christian has had contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs for mental health issues and has been on medications in the past, said his attorney.
It is unlikely that Christian will reoffend, his attorney said in court documents.
Mop closet was cell drop
Two inmates served as confidential informants in the case.
One said that one morning before breakfast Christian went into a mop closet with a bag of rags containing phones and drugs.
He told inmate Lance Horntvedt the phones were in the closet and Horntvedt retrieved them, according to court documents.
Horntvedt was a Tri-Cities gang leader who was sentenced in May to 25 years in prison for forcing women through threats and violence to provide sex for money. He is also a defendant in the inmate contraband case, but has not been sentenced yet.
Horntvedt is accused of receiving contraband, keeping some for himself and distributing the rest to Leon and two other inmates, Joel Cervantes and Giovanni Kinsey.
In another incident, a jail officer saw Leon carry a manila envelope into the jail’s law library and unplug a computer there, according to a court document.
The officer later found a phone charger plugged into the outlet that had been used for the computer and a cellphone was found in the manila envelope.
When inmates were scheduled to be moved, Christian alerted them that they should get rid of anything they were not supposed to have, one confidential informant said.
Jail inmate assaults
One of the confidential informants said Christian also let inmates know which inmates were ordered to be kept separate for their own safety.
One informant told officials that Christian would open the doors to sex offenders’ cells and tell other inmates to, “Do what you got to do.”
The other informant said Christian purposely left an inmate’s cell door open to allow an assault by fellow gang members over a perceived wrongdoing as a gang member. The attackers’ cell also was left open.
Christian deflected knowledge of the assault by grabbing the law library cart and leaving the area, according to the confidential informant. The inmate later was seen to have injuries to his face, including a black eye.
When a different inmate said that Christian had allowed the assault, Christian let other inmates go through his belongings and take what they wanted.
The informant said Christian was laughing and said, “He ain’t got nothing left up in there.”
In addition to Horntvedt and Christian, five other defendants in the jail contraband case have been sentenced.
Leon received a five-year sentence, which was in connection with another case that also was resolved. Cervantes was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison. Kinsey was sentenced to time served.
Two of the three women who provided items to smuggle into the jail, Alyssa Cantu and Marilou Martinez, were sentenced to time served. The third woman, Tiffanie Sanders, has not been sentenced.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Tri-Cities Task Force and the Benton County Sheriff’s Office. Stephanie Van Marter, assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuted the case.
“It is unacceptable for a public official to violate their responsibility and position of community trust,” said U.S. Marshal Craig Thayer. “Law enforcement will not tolerate the very few who dishonor their badge, as the vast majority continue to serve with honor and integrity.”