THIRD UPDATE: Search for possible buried bodies called off

News 12 at 6 o'clock, August 6, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. --- Investigators have suspended their search Thursday for two bodies possibly buried behind an Augusta restaurant.

Richmond County investigators were joined by both GBI and FBI agents as they searched in the wooded area off Cherry Street. That's just behind the Longhorn Steakhouse on Washington Road.

Investigators say they did find "suspicious evidence" but so far, no human remains, so they have stopped digging.

Earlier in the week cadaver dogs made a hit there in two locations on the property. Richmond County Sheriff's Lt. Scott Gay told News 12, "We are postponing the dig right now. We feel the areas pointed out to us by the dogs we have searched thoroughly."

Investigators started this massive effort after a tip came in earlier this week from a person out of state, and FBI agents are now in contact that person. The tip indicated two women were killed in the Cherry Street area possibly 10 years ago. Lt. Gay says the woman came forward with the story because "she wanted to clear her conscience".

Lt. Gay says while there is no more digging on Cherry Street for now, there is still work to be done. "We are still interviewing and listening with what the witness has to tell us...We got the person they are accusing so we are going to talk to that person as well."

Investigators say they aren't leaving empty handed. "We don't want to say we stayed out here all day for nothing because we didn't. We learned a lot and we'll go from there."

News 12 is learning from sources that there is reason to believe there may have been bodies on the property, because a crime was committed near it before and it may be connected to the leader of an escort-prostitution ring broken up by deputies in early 2002. At that time, deputies linked the operator of the ring, Steven L. Barnes, to the murder of a local teenager, Samuel Sturrup. Sturrup was found shot to death in Edgefield County in late 2001. He was kidnapped from Cherry Street, the former property owner telling us Barnes lived at the same address investigators are now searching. Officers believed at the time Sturrup served as a lookout for the escort service.

Barnes is now serving a life sentence in the Georgia prison system for other convictions from Columbia County. Three other people, including prostitute Charlene Thatcher, are now serving 18 year sentences for attacking Sturrup.

Sources close to this new investigation are telling News 12 that Barnes could be involved in the deaths of two other women over a drug debt. It's not clear if the women were involved in the escort service. However, once this new tip came in about bodies possibly buried off Cherry Street, investigators decided to pursue the lead.

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