After a seven-month undercover burglary operation dubbed “Operation Smoke Screen,” which yielded 77 arrests by Tuesday, Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he thinks Augusta’s burglary numbers will take a significant dip.
“We hope by taking (the criminals) off the streets we will see a decrease in burglaries,” he said. “Each of these folks burglarized one to three places a day. So we are talking hundreds of burglaries stopped.”
Around 4 a.m. Tuesday, more than 120 officers from the sheriff’s office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service executed 24 federal arrest warrants and 85 state arrest warrants. The charges ranged from federal firearm and drug charges to burglary and theft. As of Tuesday afternoon, 109 indictments have been issued by the US Attorney’s office. The sheriff’s office has identified suspects in 104 burglaries, 12 car break-ins and 16 general thefts through Smoke Screen, Strength said.
Through the operation, Strength said investigators learned most of the criminals were working independently and there was not any large-scale organization or gang involvement. Along with the 64 guns, the operation recovered 10 cars, countless televisions and electronic equipment, yard tools including riding lawn mowers, ATVs and many other items.
Smoke Screen started in August when investigators identified a pawn shop operating illegally. They approached the owner of Cheap Cigarettes II on Peach Orchard Road, and convinced him to flip. After he agreed, the sheriff’s office placed high definition cameras on the property and inserted an undercover agent in the store.
Before long, they noticed a high number of guns being brought in and contacted the ATF. Special Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow said they joined the operation at the end of August, and noticed shortly after how quickly stolen guns were moving through Richmond County.
“A gun would be stolen from a car and 30 minutes later we would be buying it at the store,” Sweetow said. “Once you open those doors, criminals will find you.”
He said some of the stolen items have been identified by serial numbers from specific burglaries and will be returned to the owners within the next few weeks. Other victims might have a chance to identify their items after the operation is complete.
Strength said there are 47 more suspects they are still working to identify so Smoke Screen would continue for the next few months until they tie up the loose ends.
Capt. Scott Peebles said they had to arrest about 25 people during the course of the undercover operation because they posed an immediate risk to Augusta residents.
“We didn’t want to wait until the end,” he said. “We have to be careful not to feed the criminals.”
Sweetow said the ATF has undercover store front operations all over Georgia, but this one yielded more arrests then he had seen, including one in Atlanta that resulted in 50 apprehensions.
“I was surprised in the amount of guns we received in such a short amount of time,” he said. “A lot of these guns will be traced back to crimes.”
Sweetow said they trace every gun back as far as they can. The firearms reported stolen by legitimate owners will be returned; the rest will be destroyed. He expects more illegal guns to be found by the end of Operation Smoke Screen.
“This operation is far from over,” Strength said. “Many more arrests are forthcoming.”