Operation Smoke Screen launches from small Augusta cigarette shop, arrests 77

Cheap Cigarettes 2
Investigators used Cheap Cigarettes 2 in Augusta to conduct their undercover operation. (WRDW-TV / Feb. 28, 2012)
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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A worn down sign, an old drive-through window -- not exactly the typical front for one of the biggest busts in Augusta history.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength says investigators made a connection between Cheap Cigarettes 2 and stolen goods.

"Investigators were able to confirm that stolen items had been sold to the operators of the business," he said.

Operation Supervisor Cpt. Scott Peebles said the store owners did not have the license to operate as a pawn shop.

"And they weren't keeping track of who was bringing what," he said. "They weren't getting their identification to pass along to law enforcement as legitimate pawn brokers are supposed to do."

Instead of just busting a couple of criminals, though, Strength says the idea for Operation Smoke Screen was born. They had an offer for the store's owner.

"Investigators approached the store owner and were able to persuade him to cooperate with law enforcement," he said.

Surveillance cameras captured seven months of video, on and off, of suspected burglars and thieves dealing at the pawn shop. What they didn't know was they were actually selling their goods to an undercover officer with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.

All in all, the agent helped bring in thousands of items investigators suspect are stolen. The merchandise is tagged and stacked in eight different rooms in the Law Enforcement Center, everything from laptop computers to XBoxes, televisions, lawn mowers and tool kits.

Some "repeat customers" over the seven-month sting raised eyebrows immediately.

"One of the things you have to do when you run an operation like this is to be conscious that you aren't feeding a market for crime," Peebles said. "And so once you identify active rings, you have to find a way to arrest them without exposing the operation."

Special Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow with the Atlanta ATF team added, "In one case, 30 minutes after a burglary was reported from an automobile, the gun was being sold at the store front."

The sheriff thanks all assisting agencies for their help and says the impact of this operation on crime will be dramatic across the CSRA.