Sugar and Spice and all things vice – how a South African pen pal allegedly got drugs to US prisoners
A 46-year-old South African woman has admitted to sending ‘legal paperwork’ and greeting cards saturated with K2, a synthetic cannabinoid, to inmates in an Ohio prison. Now she faces 20 years in jail.
In a TikTok video, Tanya Baird explains from an airport lounge that “today is the day” she flies out of South Africa.
@tbear2025 #prison #prisontiktok #writeaprisoner #inmate #jpay #longdistancerelationship #prisonwife #tiktoksouthafrica #prisonwifelife #loveafterlockup #fyp ♬ original sound – Jellybean
A subsequent video shows her boarding a plane and later holding up a drink in a cup. The accompanying text says: “Finally on US soil! #loveafterlockup #prisonwifelife #tiktoksouthafrica#prisonwife #longdistance relationship #jpay #inmate #writeaprisoner #prisontiktok.”
@tbear2025 Finally on US soil! #loveafterlockup #prisonwifelife #tiktoksouthafrica #prisonwife #longdistancerelationship #jpay #inmate #writeaprisoner #prisontiktok ♬ Good Life – G-Eazy & Kehlani
But then Baird’s journey took an unexpected turn and some of the hashtags she used became applicable to her.
Drug consignments via mail
The US Justice Department issued a statement on 24 March about what happened to Baird when she landed in the States.
“Federal agents arrested a South African woman… at John Glenn Columbus International Airport [in Ohio] on federal charges alleging she mailed large amounts of K2 and Suboxone via mail into the United States. Inmates in Ohio jails were the end recipients of the packages.”
Baird (46), a mother of two involved in the finance industry and who had a home-based cake business, was detained in the US.
K2, also known as Spice, Black Mamba, Bliss, Red Ex or Genie, is a synthetic cannabinoid that can be smoked or used as a tea. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes it as: “A synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, K2/Spice is a mixture of plant material sprayed with synthetic psychoactive chemicals.”
Suboxone is a brand-name prescription drug used to treat opioid withdrawal.
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Baird entered a plea agreement with the US on 10 June, which DM168 has seen. She admitted to “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a substance containing a detectable amount of the synthetic cannabinoid”.
The plea also said Baird “admits that she is, in fact, guilty of this offence and will so advise the Court”.
Although it was not immediately clear if Baird would be detained while court processes unfold, she could face up to 20 years in jail.
Pen pal to #prisonwife
In the years running up to finding herself on the wrong side of the law, Baird seems to have had a history with US inmates.
In a March 2015 article on relationships with prisoners, the UK’s Daily Mail described how a woman (with the same name) was writing to six prisoners in US jails.
It said she was in a relationship with one prisoner, which it only identified as JF. He had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to traffic cannabis.
The article quotes a Tanya Baird as saying: “After the interaction I have had with inmates I have a completely different view – the inmates I have corresponded with are the most genuine, caring people I have come across…
“Most have made a real effort to better their lives and themselves as people so as to reintegrate into society and to not end up incarcerated again. And they take a genuine interest in your life.”
Baird’s TikTok account is largely dedicated to her relationship with a man who appears to be a prisoner in Ohio.
One of her posts suggests she met the man in person for the first time in October 2016.
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Some pictures on Baird’s TikTok account seem to show the man, who is holding a telephone handset or wearing headphones, on video calls. Other pictures show him and Baird hugging.
In one of Baird’s many TikTok posts, which are often accompanied by hashtags that include #prisonwife, she claims to have secured a job in North Dakota; another suggests that she was planning to move to the US in 2023.
In a TikTok video, she says she is excited as she had booked a flight to the US to visit “James” – the same name as an individual who has been identified by US authorities as her fiancé. Baird, however, has described herself as a wife.
Baird does not say exactly when she would be flying to the US “because I do have some people who will more than likely want to cause some trouble should they know exactly when I’m going… and they’ve done it before”.
She later went on to detail her journey on TikTok.
According to a statement of facts in the US drugs case, which DM168 has seen, the DEA, the US Border Patrol and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections started investigating an effective trafficking syndicate on 17 October 2018.
The syndicate had been smuggling “falsified legal documents that had been saturated with a liquid form of synthetic cannabinoid… into jails and prisons within the Southern District of Ohio and elsewhere for illicit sale and use by inmates.”
Investigators in the US obtained information from confidential sources and got hold of documents via subpoena. They used these to identify Baird as a suspect.
The statement of facts says Baird would receive telephone requests for K2 from inmates who her fiancé, identified as James H Johnson, directed to contact her.
“Baird would receive payment for the K2/Spice and postage via PayPal, Western Union, MoneyGram, CashApp, Cash, Bitcoin and other money services.”
The statement says that Baird, using an address in Randpark Ridge, Johannesburg, sent about 69 packages of “fraudulent legal paperwork” believed to be saturated with the drug. DM168 traced the address to a townhouse complex.
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“This included multiple packages seized by law enforcement and laboratory tested to confirm dozens of pages of fraudulent documents soaked in K2/Spice, and multiple confidential informants working directly with Baird who verified that Baird had sent them dozens of packages which they then would mail or otherwise transport into Ohio jails and prisons,” the statement of facts says.
Investigations led to Baird’s arrest on 23 March in the US when she landed there.
According to the statement of facts, Baird admitted to “routinely receiving the K2/Spice from a lab in China, and saturating legal paperwork and greeting cards with K2/Spice”.
She also admitted to “sending these packages containing legal paperwork and/or greeting cards saturated in K2/Spice into the United States via DHL to various individuals on behalf of current Ohio and other United States inmates”.
At the time of Baird’s arrest, DEA Acting Special Agent in Charge, Kent Kleinschmidt, said: “Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous because their use can lead to very erratic behaviour and even death.
“They absolutely have no place in our society, but are especially problematic inside a correctional facility.” DM168
How Tanya Baird allegedly ‘Spiced up’ US prisons
- 2015 – The UK’s Daily Mail reports that a Tanya Baird, based in South Africa, is a pen pal to six US inmates;
- From 2018 – Baird receives synthetic cannabinoids, known as K2 or Spice, from a laboratory in China. Fake legal documents and greeting cards are saturated with it;
- ‘James’, her fiancé in the US, who is possibly an inmate, directs prisoners in Ohio to request K2 from Baird by telephone. Baird sends about 69 packages from an address in Gauteng containing “fraudulent legal paperwork” – believed to be saturated with the drug – to inmates in Ohio. Baird allegedly receives payment for the K2 and the postage in bitcoin and via platforms including PayPal and Western Union;
- 23 March – Baird travels from South Africa to the US to visit her fiancé, but is instead arrested on landing;
- June – Baird pleads guilty to “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a substance containing a detectable amount of the synthetic cannabinoid”. She faces up to 20 years in jail.
Source: Plea agreement and statement of facts in the case USA v Tanya Baird
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.