Money helped lure criminals

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Police working with Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength deny they created a market for illegal weapons by offering more than their street worth.

The investigators at Colur Tyme Tattooz & Thingz bought things others wouldn't, and some say that was the problem.

Since the arrests of more than 100 people on narcotics, weapons and other charges, those representing the suspects think Operation Augusta Ink might have helped to fuel a market for illegal guns in south Augusta.

Attorney Victor Hawk said he believes the amount of money the Richmond County Sheriff's Office offered tempted many to make a quick buck. Two of Mr. Hawk's clients, Marcus Salmond and James Bartell Smiley, have pleaded guilty in federal court.

Mr. Hawk said he believes it's likely many arrested were criminals, but he knows many were also poor individuals who were drawn to the store because the money was too good to pass up.

"You go into a poor neighborhood and you offer two or three times what the street value of a gun is, you're going to get a lot of people you're not looking for," Mr. Hawk said.

Sheriff's office statistics show there were 181 more reported gun thefts during the 16 months Operation Augusta Ink was under way than in a similar 16-month period in 2005-06.

Police deny that they created a market for the weapons by paying more than street prices. Lt. Scott Peebles said the investigators were careful to learn as much about who they were making a sale with before they came in the store. They based the price on the seller and if they knew whether the weapons had been used in a crime.

He used the example of a young person attempting to sell his grandmother's gun.

"We're going to lowball you," Lt. Peebles said. "We don't want that gun. We know it hadn't been used in anything. We might look at it and get the serial number and you're out of there. But if it's somebody who's a gang member who we know has stolen the gun or used the gun, we definitely don't want them walking out the door with a gun because these are bad people. Then we would try and work a little more."

He contends that investigators targeted individuals who were breaking into gun stores and burglarizing homes for weapons before the operation began.

Wright McLeod said gun sales are the least of his client's worries. He represents Jacob Plowright, who faces charges stemming from the shooting of a convenience store clerk and an armed robbery, in addition to selling firearms.

Even if it was as pressing a worry, Mr. McLeod said, entrapment can be a difficult case for defense attorneys to make.

"The fact that they pay you more money than it's worth, it has no bearing," he said. "You sell stolen merchandise, you're guilty, regardless of whether they throw a ton of money at you."

Several messages left for attorneys representing suspects labeled as "high-ranking gang members" during the operation were not returned.

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

BY THE NUMBERS

Total number of arrests (federal and state): 105 targets

Reported Gun Thefts in Richmond County:

2007518
2006524
2005448
2004403
2003432

Guns stolen during the Augusta Ink Operation (July 2006 to Nov. 15, 2007): 689 guns stolen

Compared to the same amount of time the previous year:

July 2005 to November 2006: 508 guns stolen

Source: Richmond County sheriff's office