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Prison guard shooting suspect to plead guilty

COLUMBIA (AP) — An Orangeburg man charged with conspiring to kill a prison guard in a hit orchestrated by an inmate on an illegal cellphone has signed a plea agreement, according to court papers.

Last week, Sean Echols, 30, signed an agreement to plead guilty to conspiracy to use interstate facilities to arrange a murder-for-hire. Prosecutors and Echols’ defense attorney had said during a February hearing that they were trying to work out the plea.

Echols faces a possible 20-year federal sentence. A formal hearing has been set for April 10 in Columbia.

Echols was indicted last year on charges including conspiring to murder a prison guard for $6,000. That conspiracy, according to the plea agreement, began in January 2010 and continued until the shooting in the spring of that year.

In March 2010, Capt. Robert Johnson was a 15-year Corrections Department veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband such as cellphones out of Lee Correctional Institution. Johnson was shot six times early one morning at his Sumter home, and police say an inmate organized the hit using a cellphone smuggled into prison.

Johnson, who authorities have said was the first U.S. corrections officer harmed by a hit ordered from an inmate’s cellphone, survived after months of surgeries and rehabilitation. Before retiring from the Corrections Department in 2011, he appeared alongside then-Gov. Mark Sanford and prisons officials to implore the Federal Communications Commission to let South Carolina jam the signals of cellphones being used illicitly by prisoners.

“I don’t want someone else to go through what I’ve gone through,” Johnson said. “I would like to tell the industry to come talk to me and get off their bottom dollar and do what’s right, and that is block cellphones.”

Authorities have not named the inmate who allegedly organized the plot to kill Johnson. When he was charged with the federal crimes, Echols was already in state prison, sentenced to 25 years on armed robbery and assault charges following a 2011 arrest.

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