When it comes to the string of business burglaries local and regional police recently cleared through the arrest of four suspects, Athens Police detectives Greg Hill and Cliff Van Cleave have become experts.

Case numbers? They know them by heart.

Dates of birth of the suspects? What about their middle names? And what day were arrests made? What about phone numbers of officers in other cities also involved in the investigation?

The information comes forth with almost no hesitation.

“It’s been pounded in our brains,” Hill said Thursday. “We’ve been dealing with this every day.”

Athens Police, with the help of other agencies in the region, including the Smith County Sheriff’s Department, this week announced it had arrested suspects believed to be responsible for what may be nearly 20 business burglaries in East Texas. About half of those, or more, were committed in Athens. The suspects are local.

The investigation is ongoing.

The police department committed heavy resources in its attempt to solve the crimes, which had been committed over the last three years. If it wasn’t the patrol division driving special patrols of businesses, detectives were staking out other locations and trying to figure out where the so-called “Sledgehammer burglars” would strike next.

“These detectives have worked many, many hours,” Detective Sgt. Charles Gurley said. “When a lot of people were home at night sitting on their couch and drinking their iced tea, these guys were out there at 11, 12, 1 working these cases.”

The case began to gather steam in August, when law enforcement agencies started comparing their burglaries and noticing similarities — including businesses in which access was gained through the smashing-in of an outside wall. A sledgehammer or other blunt object is believed to have been used to break through the bricks.

Detectives from APD traveled throughout the city and region tracking down information. Some of those travels ended up being what Gurley called “dry runs,” essentially meaning little, if any, helpful information was obtained — other than to rule out that information as being pertinent to the case.

But Gurley credited Police Chief Buddy Hill for giving the Criminal Investigation Division “the green light” to aggressively pursue the cases.

In turn, the detectives credited Gurley — for allowing at one time or another everyone in the division to move freely in order to investigate various angles.

Van Cleave and Hill said all the detectives at one point or another jumped in to help with the investigation, calling it “a real team effort.”

“Lots of hours, lots of miles,” Gurley said, “but it’s been worth it.”


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