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Stolen goods from Operation Smoke Screen sting operation being returned to owners

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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.

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Deputy Christopher Rosier searches through a pile of stolen property that was recovered during Operation Smoke Screen, a seven-month undercover investigation into area burglaries.  EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Deputy Christopher Rosier searches through a pile of stolen property that was recovered during Operation Smoke Screen, a seven-month undercover investigation into area burglaries.

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.

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nothin2show4it 03/06/12 - 05:28 am
I don't want to sound

I don't want to sound negative but these criminals were paid money from whom for the goods they stole? What has happened to that money? Of course we all know where the money came from. Tax payers.

I guess the real question is, what will happen to these people that were arrested? Will they all go to prison? I really don't think so.

Other than adding one more line to their already long criminal record and getting the item back to the owner, what purpose has this served? Spend tax payers money without changing much?

David Parker
David Parker 03/06/12 - 03:05 pm
I don't like paying the perps

I don't like paying the perps but having them pawn their loot all over the place at random isn't going to get folks their stuff back nor is it going to identify the players who now are in the system if they already weren't. It's small steps but I'll take it.

csraguy 03/08/12 - 01:53 am
This was a great operation by

This was a great operation by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. Money for operations such as this often comes from asset forfeitures and other non-tax related sources.

As for the crooks potentially being back on the streets quickly, that is 100% up to our court system, not the Sheriff's Office or other law enforcement agencies who did a great job and should be commended. However, the last operation such as this one put approximately 75% of those arrested in federal prison for 5 or more years and when you go to federal prison you will serve 85% of your time before even being eligible for parole. You can rest assured that the Sheriff and Captain Peebles will be looking to do the same this time in all cases where possible such as everyone who was in possessions of a firearm and was already a convicted felon - that is why they brought in the ATF - that one charge alone will keep them behind bars 5 or more years.

Additionally, the Sheriff's Office got many guns off of the street (many that weren’t stolen during the operation) as well as arrested almost 30 violent criminals during the operation so this was very much worth the time, effort and energy of all of the officers who participated and helped to make our city safer.

The past operations are certainly working as burglaries have fallen drastically in our area and violent crime is at an all-time low for the past 7 years.

Again, great job to the men and women of the RCSO, all other agencies and especially to the undercover officer working the pawn shop.

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