By Aaron Reiss
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Perkins left the cigarettes in the bathroom adjacent to his office, where Alama could find them during his custodial rounds. Alama's brother wired Perkins $600 — enough to cover his mortgage.
Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, Perkins smuggled in cigarettes several more times, for Alama and two other inmates, he says. He gambled away the proceeds.
At some point, says Perkins, Alama ratted him out to prison officials, accusing him of drug smuggling. The court record contains no reference to Alama's role as an informant, but a source close to the investigation who spoke on condition that his name not be revealed, confirms Perkins' account, including the false allegation regarding illegal drugs. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois confirms that "a [marijuana-smuggling] allegation was made, but we decided not to pursue it." Alama did not respond to a written request for comment regarding Perkins's version of events.
In May 2011 Alama promised Perkins $2,000 in exchange for smuggling a carton of smokes. On the verge of losing his home and car, Perkins took him up on it. This time, rather than working through Alama's brother, Perkins consented to collect the money and cigarettes from a woman later cited in court documents as "Liz."
When Perkins entered the Saint Louis Bread Co. on Loughborough Avenue on May 12 of last year, he sensed someone was watching him. "But I just kept thinking about gambling," he says.
He found Liz sitting at a table. She produced a plastic bag containing a carton of cigarettes, two loose packs and an envelope containing $2,000 in cash.
"You could see right through the bag," Perkins recalls. "In my head, I'm like, 'This is a setup.' But I wasn't thinking straight."
Perkins took the money and drove straight to the Argosy. It took him two hours to blow through the entire two grand. Two days later he arrived at work with 60 cigarettes secured inside two zip-lock bags: one in a jacket pocket, the other stuffed down his pants. Two federal agents, who had him under surveillance during his visits to the cafe and casino, pulled him aside.
Sensing a bluff, Perkins denied any knowledge of the smuggling scheme. The agents produced a warrant, searched him and discovered the contraband. After presenting him with photographs from the Bread Co., the agents asked Perkins where he'd gone after meeting Liz. Perkins said he drove home. The agents produced photos from the Argosy. Faced with evidence he knew to be genuine, Perkins signed a confession on the spot. The agents let him go.
Two days later Perkins called his psychologist in a panic. He checked into the VA's emergency room, reporting that he was "stressed out drinking and gambling." He remained in the psychology ward for two days. Two weeks later he began receiving gambling counseling, which helped. "It really opened my eyes," he says now.
In September he pleaded guilty to all federal charges, and the court scheduled his sentencing hearing for January.
Federal prosecutor Steven D. Weinhoeft acknowledged Perkins' military valor and his PTSD. But as a correctional officer, he argued, the defendant was well aware he was committing a crime. Perkins' gambling binges were "utterly selfish," Weinhoeft asserted.
"[Y]ou look at what he's done," the assistant U.S. attorney told the judge. "He's thrown away his career. He has significantly damaged the institution that he worked for. He's compromised the integrity of the profession that he was involved with."
Speaking on Perkins' behalf, defense attorney Daniel F. Goggin zeroed in on his client's combat-induced transformation.
"[Y]ou take these kids in at a young age to send them to battle. You have to break them down and train them to kill people, because you can't take a normal person who's lived a normal life and tell them to go kill somebody," Goggin argued.
When soldiers come home, Goggin went on, "They don't know how to calm down. They were in that situation thinking, I'm going to die any second, for a couple years. So they just start doing classical behavior. They beat their partners, start drinking, they start gambling. Mr. Perkins' case was gambling, chronic gambling."
Goggin closed by noting that if his client were to be sentenced to 30 months — the minimum prescribed by federal guidelines — his veteran's benefits would expire, making him ineligible for VA counseling upon his release.
Given the chance to speak, Perkins was brief. "I just want to, first and foremost, say — just apologize to my family for putting them through all this. And just really ashamed of myself, my actions for — the person I am today, just completely different from the person I used to be, and I just want to get the help that I need so I can be the person I was. That's all."
Before issuing his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan commended Perkins on his military service and acknowledged his PTSD and gambling addiction. But smuggling contraband into prison, be it tobacco or illegal drugs, is serious business, the judge declared.
"Anything that upsets the delicate balance of power between the guards and the inmates or the inmates and other inmates can turn calm into chaos," Reagan said before sentencing Perkins to 30 months. He chose the low end of the recommended range, the judge explained, in light of Perkins' military service. He also ordered the defendant to steer clear of casinos for three years after his release.