An ongoing search for a 27-year-old Hephzibah man wanted in the theft of copper last month from an elementary school is a prime example of stepped-up investigations this past year by Richmond County school officers.
In that case, which involved copper taken from an air conditioning unit at Hephzibah-McBean Elementary, school officers acted on surveillance video, identifying Blaine Everett Baxley as a suspect and then securing a warrant and conducting a search of his house.
Although Baxley wasn't there, school officers found gloves, a Salty Dog Cafe T-shirt and pink plaid shorts similar to what the thief was seen wearing on surveillance tape.
"He's still on the lam," school safety Chief Patrick Clayton said Tuesday, but the department is following leads.
Before the chief started nearly a year ago, many school-related investigations were turned over to the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, including most felony cases and many that occurred after hours, he said.
But the chief said his office has been trying to relieve the burden on the sheriff's office, adding that his officers are looking to follow up on cases more in an effort to know what's going on in the system and also because they have a vested interest in seeing cases through to arrest.
"We get outstanding support from (the sheriff's office)," Clayton said. "It's just we want to make sure the cases involving the school system, that they're followed up by our people because that's our mission ... and I believe they appreciate it because they are dealing with some very serious crime problems elsewhere."
Richmond County sheriff's Capt. Jim Griffin said he noticed how the school safety office has become more proactive.
"I think it has helped tremendously. ... I think it's been a plus for us," Griffin said.
The school safety office is like any other sworn law enforcement agency, with authority to file charges. School resource officers also are armed and have arrest powers.
Starting July 19, the school safety office will be able to do even more, with two new night patrol officers starting. The officers were approved recently by the school board in response to school break-ins at night.
The office was the lead agency in the arson investigation at a JROTC range building at Hephzibah High.
The school safety office received assistance from the sheriff's office and Hephzibah police, and several teens were arrested after a Hephzibah police officer and school safety officers who work at Hephzibah High recognized a teen on surveillance footage.
"They were able to all identify one of the students, and it caused a domino effect," Clayton said.
The school safety office also recently released surveillance video from a theft at the facilities and maintenance department. Bobby Dean Johnson, 44, of Augusta, was arrested June 20 in that case after authorities say he was viewed by facilities workers on a live school system video feed.
On Friday, the school safety office also was involved in a case in which a construction worker was accused of taking a teacher's camera and some cash at Hephzibah High.
"We want to get out that we're making all efforts, that the school system isn't an easy target," the chief said.