During Operation Smoke Screen, investigators located an illegal pawn shop on Peach Orchard Road and convinced the owner of Cheap Cigarettes II to “flip,” or cooperate with them. After placing high definition cameras at the store and parking lot and inserting an undercover agent, the stolen property started coming to them.
A similar sting in 2007 in which the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office set up a Tobacco Road business called Colur Tyme Tattoo Parlor yielded 400 firearms seized and more than 130 people arrested.
Currently, there are six or seven storefront operations across the state, with most of those between Augusta and Savannah, said Special Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who teamed up with the sheriff’s office for Smoke Screen.
A big advantage of a undercover store operation is that the amount of incriminating evidence ends up saving the government a lot of money on court fees. If police have digital pictures of suspects’ faces, they are more likely to plead guilty and skip the trial process altogether.
ATF Regional Agent in Charge George Belsky said that in the most recent operations in his area, which includes Augusta, 100 percent of those arrested pleaded guilty.
“It saves everyone a lot of time and money,” he said.
The people that bring in the weapons come from all backgrounds. Some are women and juveniles, Sweetow said.
“We are taking guns that would be used in crimes off the streets,” he said, adding that Smoke Screen was the largest he’d seen in a while, yielding 77 arrests by Tuesday. A recent sting in Atlanta ended in about 50 arrests.
The products moved so quickly in Smoke Screen that in one case, 30 minutes after a gun was stolen from a vehicle it showed up at the store.
“Most of these guns are not purchased at a retail store,” Sweetow said. “They are stolen and then find their way all over the state.”
In fact, one of the guns officers bought during the operation was from a suspect from another storefront in another part of the state.
An untraceable gun, one that has had the serial number removed for example, can be worth a lot of money, he said.
Each undercover storefront has a lifespan, Sweetow said. There gets to be a point where the agents have to go in and arrest people and get them off the street.
“You can’t let them go forever,” he said.
The success of Smoke Screen was not a surprise to Sheriff Ronnie Strength.
“What we learned is if we start an operation, chances are 100 percent the criminals will come to us,” he said at Tuesday’s announcment of the operation.