Sting put officers at center of gangs

Kendall Brown was living a double life.

The fast-talking Richmond County sheriff's investigator had recently moved his wife and daughter to Augusta from Savannah, and within a few months he was looking and acting differently. He would leave home late at night with little or no explanation, only to return hours later smelling of marijuana and cheap beer.

His wife knew he was working on something big. Investigator Brown had been undercover before. When they arrived in Augusta, he didn't say much about his work, then the stress began to build.

It wasn't until mid-November, as they gathered for a news conference, that the team of investigators who orchestrated the most successful undercover operation in Richmond County history realized the extent of their work.

Operation Augusta Ink turned out to be the second-largest storefront weapon seizure in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. At last count, 105 men, women and juveniles have been arrested on drug, theft and firearm charges stemming from Colur Tyme Tattooz & Things, the Tobacco Road parlor that served as a black market bazaar for local gangs.

In the beginning

In the spring of 2006, investigators approached a tattoo artist nicknamed Lil' John, whose real name is being withheld by authorities to protect his identity, about providing information about gang members.

Police knew Lil' John was running an illegal tattoo parlor out of his home and had made a name for himself by tattooing members of south Augusta gangs such as O-DUB and Georgia Deadly Boys. Officers saw Lil' John as a way into the world of Augusta's gangs and offered him money and protection in return for his help. Police had been watching the gang problem grow in Augusta for years and reached a point where they felt the need to be more proactive, according to Lt. Scott Peebles.

Within a month, members of the department, including Lt. Peebles, Maj. Ken Autry and Capt. Jack Francisco, started looking for a rental property and those willing to go undercover to staff it. From the beginning, only a handful of people knew Colur Tyme peddled more than just tattoos and Phillie blunt cigars.

"They were told you don't talk about this with anyone because not only will you be fired, but we can, we will, prosecute you," Lt. Peebles said. "That's how serious we took it, and I think that's how serious they took it."

Soon, they set about creating two operations: one a legitimate tattoo parlor with the motto "We buy things others won't," the other a system of networks within local gangs that enabled them to buy those "things," namely stolen guns and drugs.

Daily operation

Augusta Ink began with Lil' John giving tattoos and forwarding his criminal contacts to Chris, a large, bearded officer who would not give his last name. Chris' task was legitimizing the business. He paid the bills and handled the day-to-day operation of the shop while negotiating drug and weapon sales.

It was Investigator Brown, who went by the nickname "Yardie," short for Yardbird, who acted as the tough guy. With eight years of service in the U.S. Army Special Operations and an early life on the streets of Queens, coupled with a sawed-off shotgun, Investigator Brown instilled a sense of fear and respect into everyone who entered the shop.

"(They thought) that I was crazy -- that some of the ATF guys were crazy," he said. "You know, he (Chris) was always quiet, so they thought he was crazy. They just wouldn't come in and start no trouble."

That fear made Colur Tyme neutral ground to gangs -- a sanctuary. Rival gang members would shoot each other in the streets, but in the tattoo parlor all they fired off were dirty looks, according to Dan Carrier, who worked with Sgt. Blaise Dresser behind the scenes to identify every suspect that made a sale.

"They seemed to realize that if they did do something up there, the money would run out," Investigator Carrier said. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."

Suspects were told the weapons they sold were headed to New York. Investigator Brown maintained that he made regular trips to New York City to unload Augusta's stolen guns. In reality, the weapons made a much shorter trip to the ATF crime lab in Savannah.

The risks

With thousands of dollars in cash and weapons entering the store, being robbed was a very real fear. It could not only mean injury or death for the undercover officers, but also the end of the operation. If it happened, investigators were told to cooperate, hand over their money and report the crime like any other business owner.

A gunman robbed Taylor's Banquet, a salon and banquet hall that shared a parking lot with Colur Tyme, in November 2006. Just minutes after the holdup, the gunman and his three accomplices came into Colur Tyme. Their faces were captured on several of the cameras wired throughout the building, but to use the images to arrest the suspects would have meant the end of Augusta Ink.

"The deputy and the business owner came next door, and I told them what I'd seen," Chris said. "I told them what kind of vehicle (the suspects) had, because it was parked right in front of the shop. They had no idea. They treated me like I was a business."

Three teenagers involved in the robbery were arrested that night without the Augusta Ink tapes. The fourth, a 16-year-old Cross Creek High School student, was picked up by police two months later.

The team learned from the experience. They brought in extra help, both from their department and the ATF. Months later, they would rely on that help when dealing with three of their top targets: Jacob Plowright, Nathaniel Jones and Raphael Milligan.

It was late New Year's Day 2007 when Paul Patel was working in the freezer of his store, Richmond Hill Market. His wife, Binal, was at the counter when two men, later identified as Mr. Plowright and Mr. Jones, pointed handguns at her and demanded cash. Hearing the commotion, Mr. Patel rushed from the back of the store to aid his wife.

Startled, the suspects fired their guns, striking Mr. Patel in the left leg and the abdomen. Severely injured, Mr. Patel was rushed to Medical College of Georgia Hospital for treatment and survived.

Investigators said that before the shooting, they had no knowledge of the group. But they say that changed a day later when Mr. Plowright sold a 9 mm handgun to an undercover officer. ATF ballistics tests connected the gun to the shooting of Mr. Patel, and the undercover investigators found themselves in another difficult situation.

"At a point when we realized everything they were involved in," Lt. Peebles said, they thought, "OK, how are we going to arrest them and keep them in jail without using anything from the operations as evidence, because once we do that it exposes the operation?"

The violence continued. A little more than a month later, a bouncer at Club Dreams on Washington Road was shot twice in the chest. A week after that, police say, Mr. Plowright appeared in Colur Tyme again -- this time accompanied by Mr. Jones. For $240, they sold police a .40-caliber handgun that ballistics tests later matched to the club shooting. By then, police had connected Mr. Plowright and Mr. Milligan to the robbery of the Video Warehouse on Tobacco Road. Mr. Plowright was also accused of stealing a billfold from a 16-year-old Sonic employee in October 2006.

In late April, Mr. Jones was arrested and charged with the shooting at Club Dreams. Two weeks later, Investigator Carrier and Investigator Paul Godden said, they followed Mr. Plowright, who was driving a stolen car, from Colur Tyme and tried to do a traffic stop. He rammed the investigators with his car, then led them on a half-mile chase to the entrance of the Raintree subdivision before he was captured. After his arrest, a stolen Colt .45 pistol was found beneath the car seat.

Because he rammed the investigators' vehicle, police said they were able to charge him with aggravated assault on a police officer, ensuring that he would remain in jail until trial, and they managed to keep Augusta Ink quiet for the time being

"He basically handed us 'no bond' on a silver platter," Lt. Peebles said.

Working sources

Essential to the success of Augusta Ink were the close bonds the undercover investigators built with their targets, according to police. Suspects vented to their business associates, who happened to work in the Richmond County sheriff's office.

"That was the best part of the whole entire thing," Sgt. Dresser said. "Everyone would come up talking about, 'We got a snitch in our midst.' When it was all over, they went 'God, y'all are the snitches.' "

When he wasn't carrying his sawed-off shotgun, Investigator Brown was often seen wielding a wooden boat paddle wrapped with black tape. If the shotgun was used to instill fear, the paddle built friendship. Only the "top customers," those described as "big-time gang members" who sold numerous weapons, were allowed to tag, or write, on the paddle. All the rest were relegated to scrawling the names of their gangs and cliques on the store's white walls.

It was just a tool, but an effective one that let those entering Colur Tyme feel at ease. An area of the parlor called "the mall" served as a lounge for the customers, and after making deals, many of those who were later arrested would sit with Chris and Investigator Brown, do drugs and talk.

"They would just sit for hours at a time, smoke as many blunts as their system could handle, and we would just jump into conversations with them," Investigator Brown said. "The intel was just phenomenal."

Another way police said they were able to build that trust was through Lil' John, who knew many of the gang members.

"To a lot of them, they came and they saw us as new faces -- a white guy, a black guy and a couple of ATF guys -- they were unsure about it," Investigator Brown said. "But they saw Lil' John. They knew Lil' John from the neighborhood. He tatted them or their friends. He tattooed their fathers."

Lil' John no longer lives in the area. Lt. Peebles refuses to provide more information on the man he calls a "hero."

It wasn't until hundreds of local, state and federal authorities fanned out to make arrests across Richmond County in November that many of the targets discovered with whom they had been spending time.

"That's how much of a friendship it is, so when it was all over and we were arresting them, a lot of these guys were hurt," Investigator Brown said. "I mean, they were looking at me and they were borderline tears, because they felt such a connection with us at the shop because we weren't cops. It just took me time, that's all."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.