Only on 12: Inside the command center for Operation Smoke Screen

Operation Smoke Screen
Investigators planned for seven months before Operation Smoke Screen went into action on Tuesday. (WRDW-TV / Feb. 28, 2012)
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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga -- News 12 was there before sunrise and into the morning as 77 burglary suspects were brought into the Richmond County jail.

"These folks were burglarizing one, two and three places a day," said Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength.

We got exclusive behind the scenes access as agents prepared to swarm Augusta neighborhoods. It marked the end of a seven-month undercover investigation.

"A lot of times you start an undercover operation and one of the biggest worries is who is going to find out about it," Strength said. "But our guys kept it together, and we kept it quiet."

Our cameras were the only ones inside the command center where the targets were on full display and law enforcement tagged each suspect as they were jailed. We were there as crews brought in one of more than 10 seized cars.

Twelve teams made up of nine law enforcement officers each fanned out across the CSRA for Operation Smoke Screen that targeted 109 suspects.

"This is massive," Strength said. "You can go to these rooms, and you can see what 109 people have done."

There are four or five rooms filled with $500,000 in expected stolen merchandise.

"We learned pretty quickly that we bit off a little more than we could chew," said Cpt. Scott Peebles.

The undercover investigation exploded Tuesday morning when more than 120 officers, U.S. Marshals and federal agents swarmed Augusta neighborhoods. The number of victims is still unknown.

"But it is going to be hundreds," Strength said. "It is a very large number."

The sheriff's office says victims can now rest easier.

"And to the criminals," Peebles said. "Those who you used to feel safe conducting your business with today ... you may not be so safe tomorrow. Because we might have slipped in the back door while you weren't paying attention."

Law enforcement says they have video of everyone who entered that pawn shop. They are encouraging remaining targets to turn themselves in to law enforcement.