A bolt of recognition went through Williams Brooks recently while reading an article about men pleading guilty to burglary and other charges in Augusta.
Three years ago, after Mr. Brooks' McCormick County, S.C., home was ransacked and burglarized, two of the suspects he was told about were pleading guilty in Augusta for their roles in a break-in and theft that sounded familiar to Mr. Brooks.
In January 1997, Mr. Brooks and his wife returned home after running a quick errand to find their home trashed and $50,000 worth of jewelry and guns gone.
Then, on Aug. 20, 1999, Frank Neely received a call from a neighbor who saw burglars breaking into Mr. Neely's home. Missing from the ransacked house was a safe containing more than $150,000 and irreplaceable family photographs and personal treasures.
"They beat up and tore up that house something awful," Mr. Neely said recently as he attended a sentencing hearing in Richmond County Superior Court for one of the men who victimized him.
Last Thursday in Richmond County Superior Court, John E. Thomas, 42, pleaded guilty to theft by taking -- he had been arrested with $3,000 that belonged to Mr. Neely -- and received a 10-year prison sentence. The three men who broke down Mr. Neely's door and made off with the safe -- George A. Hall, Michael D. Dempsey and Christopher E. Duckworth -- have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years on probation.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Mr. Thomas was the mastermind behind this robbery," Mr. Neely told the judge Thursday. That's also what Mr. Duckworth told the judge Tuesday.
Mr. Thomas' defense attorney denied that.
"My client was not the mastermind of anything," Danny Durham countered. He pleaded with the judge, saying Mr. Thomas had only received the money from Mr. Hall to pay off a debt.
But that didn't matter to Judge Albert M. Pickett. He said Mr. Thomas was going to prison because of his prior record. He also has a charge of possession of methamphetamines pending in Columbia.
Mr. Thomas was sentenced to probation in 1998 on four theft charges. The year before, he was one of the people named by state and local law enforcement officers as participants in a car-theft ring and chop-shop operation. One of the men charged with Mr. Thomas in that case listed his address on Neely Road, the same country road Mr. Neely has lived on his entire life.
Mr. Thomas initially was charged with operating a chop shop, possession of methamphetamines with intent to sell and a weapon violation, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Mike Seigler.
Mr. Thomas wasn't the only one with prior convictions. Mr. Dempsey received a 10-year prison sentence in August 1997 for two burglaries -- a sentence later reduced to probation. Mr. Duckworth previously was convicted of theft and escape. And Mr. Hall was convicted of theft and obstruction of justice in November 1997. He was given probation in Columbia County.
Mr. Hall's name came up in the investigation of Mr. Brooks' burglary when Mr. Hall, a suspect of several burglaries in Columbia County, was found to have one of Mr. Brooks' guns in his possession, said Lake Summers, assistant solicitor for the 11th Judicial Circuit.
"It's frustrating on my end, too," Mr. Summers said. There wasn't enough evidence to tie Mr. Hall or anyone else to Mr. Brooks' burglary. Break-ins can be difficult to prosecute when thieves are sophisticated enough to cover their tracks, get in and out of the house quickly, and leave behind everything but cash and items like jewelry and guns, which have a good resale value, Mr. Summers said. Those are also signs of an experienced or career criminal.
"Certainly that person has experience, knows what he wants. That certainly raises a red flag for us," Mr. Summers said.
Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig says he doesn't believe there's any way to change a thief's habits.
"Once a thief, always a thief," he said.
Because prison sentences and denial of parole are generally reserved for violent criminals, those who commit property crimes generally get probation and early release, Mr. Craig said. While that's understandable with limited resources, he says a person caught for a single property crime has committed many more crimes without being caught.
Recently, however, both Georgia and South Carolina have instituted new guidelines. Those convicted of residential burglaries must serve 90 percent and 85 percent of their sentences without parole in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.
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