Armed robbery cases skyrocket in Augusta

During the past decade, armed robbery has become the most prevalent violent crime committed in Augusta-Richmond County, in Georgia and across the country.

The Augusta Chronicle found the number of reported armed robberies skyrocketed 142 percent in the past five years. The rate increase over the 10-year period from 2000-2009 was similar at 138 percent.

Looking at Georgia's prisons is another way to gauge the prevalence of armed robbery. Nearly 13 percent of Georgia's prison population is there because of armed robbery, according to an analysis of the Department of Corrections data. More than half of those inmates came from the state's urban areas, such as Augusta.

But the problem isn't Augusta's alone. Muscogee County (Columbus) has the highest per capita rate of inmates now serving time for armed robbery, followed by Chatham (Savannah), then Richmond. The rates per 100,000 population -- 136, 126 and 124, respectively -- in each is nearly triple that of the state, according to an analysis of the DOC and U.S. Census Bureau data.

Beyond being urban centers, each area has high rates of poverty, single-parent households and high school dropouts.

For example, poverty rates in Muscogee, Chatham and Richmond are 18, 17 and 23.8 percent, respectively. Each county also has a correspondingly high level of high school dropouts -- 21.1, 19.8 and 22 percent, which are double the percentage of dropouts in a suburban area such as Columbia County, according to an analysis of Census data.

Those same rates are reflected in prison populations. But compared with other prison inmates, those serving time for armed robbery are even younger, less educated, more likely to be raised in a single-parent home and more likely to be black, the DOC data shows.

"There's no main point, no one quick easy answer as to why," said Tod W. Burke, a Radford (Va.) University criminal justice professor, media consultant and former police officer.

It's a combination of variables, not a person's race, that short-circuits good judgment and empathy, he said.

Still, the percentage of blacks in prison overall is greater than the group's comparative population, Burke said.

Poverty plays a role, he said. People with money stand a better chance of getting charges reduced. Racism within the criminal justice system -- specifically by individuals who won't give a warning or break that they might offer others -- contributes, he said.

Sometimes the racial breakdown of a community -- where one ethnic group constitutes a high percentage of the population -- is reflected in the people who are incarcerated from that community.

Another factor to consider is that the likelihood of violent crime increases as more people are crowded into urban areas, Burke said.

In cities, there are more targets to hit, said Robert Greenbaum, an assistant professor of public policy and management at Ohio State University and a co-author of studies about the effect of violent crime surges on business and communities.

Community suffers

Violent crimes such as armed robbery not only affect their victims, but they also can have a crippling effect on an entire community, Greenbaum found.

The fear of violent crime, whether real or perceived, can ruin businesses and stop new ones from opening, Greenbaum said. His study found that businesses in low crime areas suffer along with those in high crime areas because people are reluctant to go to a business in any part of town, he said.

Capt. Scott Peebles, of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office's violent crime division, said businesses are robbed all over Augusta.

The surge in armed robberies that began after 2004 in Augusta is mirrored to a lesser extent in Georgia and across the country. During the past five years, armed robberies in the state have shot up nearly 49 percent and the number in the United States rose just more than 10 percent, which is opposite of most other crimes.

The rate of other major crimes has continued to drop even during the recession, according to the most recent Uniform Crime Reports. But the number of robberies and burglaries increased, said Burke, who now teaches criminal justice classes.

"When the economy started to tank, we started bracing," Peebles said. Last fall and winter, he said, "it seemed that every time we turned around we were running out the door (to another armed robbery call)."

People who are unemployed and desperate can turn to robbery, Burke said. "It's like the old saying: Why do you rob banks? Because that's where the money is."

But the truth is that armed robbers rarely get much, especially compared with the number of years they face in prison if caught, said District Attorney Ashley Wright.

In 1995, Georgia lawmakers increased the penalties for the state's most violent crimes and imposed mandatory minimum prison sentences that must be served without the possibility of parole. A convicted armed robber's best possible outcome is a decade behind bars. The worst is life in prison.

"And 20 years later you have more armed robberies, so it doesn't appear the penalty is a deterrent to armed robbery," said veteran Augusta defense attorney Charles Lyons.

Peebles said most violent crimes are committed by people younger than 25. He has arrested juveniles as young as 11 years old in robberies.

"The younger kids absolutely don't think of the consequences," Peebles said. "They can't fathom 50 years in prison."

They're doing it younger, doing it in groups and doing it repeatedly until they get caught, Peebles said. Each one of those elements makes it that much more dangerous for victims, he said.

Some, whom Burke calls "thrill seekers," do it for fun. Those types cut across every social and economic category. Lyons and Wright both said they see armed robberies that probably would never have happened if the participants hadn't gotten together.

And they wouldn't have been able to carry through with any plot if they didn't have such easy access to guns, Lyons said.

"When you put a gun in a kid's hand, he gets twice as bold. Now he thinks, 'If I have any trouble I have this gun.' "

Nearly every gun officers seize when they arrest armed robbery suspects was stolen, Peebles said.

Until the Augusta Ink undercover operation in 2007 -- a sting in which federal, state and local investigators set up a Tobacco Road tattoo parlor where young men sold drugs and weapons -- officers didn't really understand how many guns were on the street, Peebles said.

In 16 months, officers bought about 400 stolen weapons during the sting operation.

"We didn't have a clue," Peebles said. "We had no idea how easy it is to get a gun."

Among those coming in and out of the tattoo parlor were the three young men who robbed Wendy Davis at CiCi's restaurant on Peach Orchard Road in 2006. They worked at the restaurant with her. They also were members of the Meadowbrook Clique gang.

Davis said she suspects they robbed the restaurant as part of a gang initiation, not for the money, because they knew there would be little money in the safe that morning -- less than $1,000.

For a share of that, Ortez Samuels is serving 15 years.

When Wright is asked to speak to groups, the district attorney often talks of a letter she received from a young man she sent to prison for armed robbery.

All he wants is to go home to his mother and little sister, Wright says. On the back of the letter, he drew a face with a frown and tears.

"And this is a big, strong tough guy with a gun," Wright said. "I tell them, this is what it's like to be in prison."