A defense attorney and her client face federal charges in a scheme to deliver drugs to the Anchorage Correctional Complex for sale between inmates, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
The attorney, 54-year-old Kit Lee Karjala, and 33-year-old inmate Christopher Brandon Miller are each charged with drug conspiracy, distribution of and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, and providing and possessing contraband in a prison.
According to a statement issued by the Alaska U.S. attorney's office Thursday, the drug delivery involving Karjala — a criminal defense attorney licensed with the Alaska Bar Association since 2002 — and at least four inmates began in the second half of last year and continued "until the present."
Prosecutors said Karjala used privileged attorney-client visits at ACC to smuggle drugs to Miller, as well as other inmates she didn't legally represent. She would then block the transfer of drugs from view of correctional officers and surveillance cameras, while the inmate would carry the drugs "inside his body" into the jail, prosecutors said in the statement.
An affidavit supporting the charges against Karjala, written by Anchorage-based FBI Special Agent Richard Fuller, mentioned several "professional visits" by Karjala to Miller and at least three other unnamed inmates at the jail, two of whom she had never represented as an attorney. Because Karjala was a lawyer, she was allowed to meet the inmates in a room monitored only by a video camera that didn't record audio.
Fuller mentioned a Dec. 14 call, placed from the jail by a man identified only as Inmate A, to a female "drug supplier." After Inmate A called her, however, she set up a three-way conversation with Karjala. During that conversation, Fuller wrote, Karjala asked the other woman about "pieces of paper," which Fuller said was a likely a reference to paper strips containing Suboxone, an opioid routinely used in treating heroin addiction.
Karjala visited another inmate being held at ACC on federal drug charges at least seven times between June 2016 and February, even though she wasn't representing him, Fuller said. That inmate's bank records revealed numerous transfers to his account from other inmates, as well as $6,800 in transfers from his account to Karjala and her adult son between July and October, according to the affidavit.
During at least four jail visits to the inmates between January and May, Fuller said Karjala is seen apparently transferring items to them as she sits near them, typically hiding them from view between stacks of paperwork. The inmates are then seen moving in their chairs, as if concealing the items in body cavities.
Jail staff are first mentioned taking action on March 16, when they ended a meeting between Karjala and Miller. Karjala was allowed to leave unquestioned, but Miller was X-rayed for contraband and placed in "dry-cell" status, where staff closely monitor an inmate in a camera-equipped cell to determine if they might be carrying any illicit items.
Nothing was found after the March visit, but on May 2 a body scanner found a "suspicious item" in Miller following a visit from Karjala, Fuller said. Miller was again placed in a dry-cell cycle, at one point speaking with a DOC employee.
"During the conversation, the DOC employee told Miller to give up what he had," Fuller wrote. "Miller stated it would be trouble and new charges if he did that."
Miller later passed paper strips that tested "consistent" with Suboxone, according to the affidavit. Correctional officers also found him concealing two small plastic jars in his left armpit, the affidavit said, which tested positive for what Fuller called a "distributable quantity" of heroin.
Chloe Martin, a spokeswoman for the Alaska U.S. attorney's office, said she wasn't able to discuss details of the case beyond the documents released Thursday, including the quantities of drugs involved and whether any others may face charges.
The case was investigated by the FBI and Alaska State Troopers, along with "significant assistance" from DOC, prosecutors said.
DOC Commissioner Dean Williams said Thursday afternoon that he is informed "almost every week" of cases in which offenders try to smuggle drugs into the department's facilities, but couldn't recall any other cases of such smuggling involving attorneys.
Although Williams declined to discuss exactly how the alleged smuggling came to the attention of authorities, he credited better sharing of intelligence on drug-trafficking cases among DOC, state and federal agencies with leading to Karjala's arrest. The FBI's involvement has also helped, by providing a long-term focus on such cases when troopers can't afford to do so due to shrinking state funding.
"The troopers are running from call to call, case to case; you really have to have a firm dedication to cases like this in terms of man-hours, and fortunately the FBI has a firm commitment to use its assets when a case warrants," Williams said. "Sometimes persistence pays off."
Karjala's federal charges follow a case from last year in which a former Goose Creek Correctional Center officer smuggled drugs into that prison. Adam Jason Spindler was sentenced to serve eight months in prison in that case.
Nelson Page, bar counsel for the Alaska Bar Association, said the association was planning to conduct an investigation of the allegations against Karjala, which he said would be violations of the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct and the Alaska Bar Rules. If the case proves to be true, both documents outline potential consequences for violators.
"If there's a serious crime that can result in serious penalties, including disbarment and other things," Page said.
The association was also considering a more immediate interim suspension of Karjala, Page said, which can occur in situations where there may be "irreparable harm" to either the clients or the public.
Karjala appeared in federal court Thursday morning, where both sides agreed to postpone a hearing on her bail conditions until Friday.