Hundreds of stolen items collected during the undercover sting called Operation Smoke Screen have been returned to their owners but investigators say it could be at least another month before everything gets sorted out.
Police are still going through the merchandise and hearing from crime victims.
“I’ve got people in Florida calling who had their home broken into in Augusta five years ago,” said Sgt. Jason Vinson.
Most of the items bought by undercover officers through the sting operation at Cheap Cigarettes II on Peach Orchard Road came from burglaries between September and January. Smoke Screen has netted 85 arrests since it ended Feb. 28. Authorities are still searching for 29 other suspects.
“It’s like Christmas again,” said Tameka Dekle, who picked up her stolen flatscreen television from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office on Monday.
Dekle squinted as she looked at a mug shot of the man who police identified as the person who burglarized her Barton Village home in October. Like many before her, she didn’t know the man who pawned her property to an undercover cop.
Martin and Cindy Ford never expected to see their $600 worth of stolen lawn equipment again. The couple said it wasn’t the first burglary at their home in the Hill area.
“I had read about the operation and hoped to see our stuff but we didn’t know how they would know it was ours,” Martin Ford said as investigators loaded leaf blowers and power hedge trimmers in his vehicle.
The stockpile of stolen televisions, computers, gaming systems and power tools has been growing daily since the undercover officer began working at the pawn shop seven months ago. Vinson said the officer would meet with an investigator daily to turn over the stolen items.
“That was the hard thing – making sure he wasn’t followed,” Vinson said.
Investigators said the goods mainly came from Richmond County, but several have been identified from Jefferson and Aiken counties. Larger items, including a John Deere tractor and several ATVs, were taken in Burke County.
Sonalis Flores’ belongings were stolen in Richmond County, but after several break-ins at her Plantation Acres home, she moved to Jefferson County. She picked up her laptop, desktop computer and a DVD player from a September burglary. The only item that wasn’t returned was a Playstation 2.
“It’s a relief,” she said. “I didn’t even have the serial numbers.”
Investigators recommend that everyone keep records of serial numbers, makes and models in case they are ever victims of a burglary.
Capt. Scott Peebles said a team is reorganizing to bring in the remaining suspects.