Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Kendall Brown can legally question anyone waiting in line to recycle metal, but on a recent morning Brown was biding his time, patiently scanning the scrap yard crowd through the tinted windows of his silver Impala.
"You have to read the person, watch what people are loading," said Brown, who coordinates the newly resurrected CSRA Metal Theft Task Force.
The task force is a holdover from 2008, when a spike in thefts followed a jump in the prices of metals. More than 20 law enforcement agencies and civilian businesses have joined forces to share their information on what's been stolen and who's responsible.
Richmond County is the hub of the task force because of its six scrap yards; by default, almost all the stolen goods eventually trickle through the county.
Brown was on the task force in 2008 and brings that experience back to the table as the only investigator devoted solely to metal thefts. On an average day, he easily makes two or three arrests.
"It's like fishing with dynamite," he said.
On a recent morning he watched the sea of people rolling into the scrap yard. Two young men caught his eye. They were carrying long copper pipes so new that they gleamed in the hot sun. One wore flip-flops, in contrast to the construction boots worn by most of the contractors filing through.
Something didn't add up.
Brown stepped out of the car, his gold star loosely dangling from a chain around his neck. They talked, Brown motioning to the copper at their feet, one of the young men making and unmaking a nervous fist. Brown walked over to the teens' small black pickup, searched it. The handcuffs came out.
Brown said that the suspect lied for an hour about where the copper came from, but that Brown eventually learned he stole it off of his dad's work truck. The plumbing company was still deciding whether to press charges, but in the meantime the youth would head to jail on possible charges of obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.
Physical evidence of stolen property is usually gone before investigators get their hands on it. Instead, they rely on the extensive records kept by the scrap yards, detailing what was brought in, the name and the address on the driver's license, and what vehicle the person was driving.
Other times, Brown questions someone about goods, but there's no proof that they're stolen. Within a few days, though, a report comes in from another county about a theft that matches the description.
The so-called information pipeline generated by the task force is contributing to closed cases across the Augusta area, Brown said. He credits the "proactive versus reactive" approach for the success.
"We've been very successful in the past couple of weeks because criminals are not expecting law enforcement to show up at the scrap yard or at their job," Brown said. "On the same day they sold items, we put them in handcuffs."