A home in a quiet, Columbia County neighborhood became the site of a state and federal investigation. That’s where a convicted felon, now back in jail, is accused of housing weapons. But law enforcement also discovered something more alarming. Pipe bombs.
NewsChannel 6’s has been following this story and learned that the suspect’s employer became aware of suspicious activity, reported it and nothing happened.
Anyone looking for trouble wouldn’t necessarily find it on Lakeview Drive in Grovetown.
That’s what Heather Osborn said about her neighborhood when we spoke to her immediately following the pipe bomb news.
“This is a really quiet street where nothing ever happens, so it’s a little crazy,” she told us.
Christopher Traxler agreed, “It’s just kind of shocking that something like this would happen so close.”
James Richard Grates II lived in a mobile home on the block. Most of the people in his neighborhood though, did not know him. That is until Columbia County Sheriff’s Office put him behind bars. They found the convicted felon on parole allegedly with a shotgun.
But some who know Grates said that wasn’t his first time, he was just caught on April 30. NewsChannel 6 learned Grates was known to have weapons while transitioning from prison to normal life at Augusta Transitional Center.
“As a convicted felon he owned firearms and he manufactured firearms. We didn’t find out until later that he actually was doing some of the manufacturing or at least some of the components in our shop, while he was on the job being paid by me,” Scott Aldrich, owner of Olde School Tool Repair, told us.
His business partner, Matt McFarland could attest to it as well.
“He had showed me some videos on YouTube on how to do it at one point.”
Aldrich and McFarland told us Grates began working for Olde School Tool Repair in May of 2016. They hired him straight out of prison and knew weapons were off limits.
“He had got a piece of brass in his eye,” McFarland recalled. “I asked him if that happened here. He said no, I was at home. I was messing around with a .22 and a sliver of the casing got stuck and came off in my eye.”
The shop owner did not report that incident. At least not at that moment.
Aldrich said they started out with a pretty decent employee who they wanted to give another chance.
He told us the goal is to, “Give people another start, if you will, and help people get transitioned into society. We would be able to get good labor and all that. For the most part, it kind of worked. But there were some issues.”
We pressed McFarland to see whether Grates had done any good work.
“He did what he needed to do to get his stuff done and that was about it. He had some clever ideas, but over all he was, in the beginning he was a fairly typical employee,” he said.
McFarland said after some time, Grates’ behavior changed. He began being absent from work, having tardies, taking long lunch breaks and producing poor quality of work. That’s when McFarland made his first official report.
“The first time I had to call law enforcement was after he quit. He disagreed with the way things went and began harassing me through text messages. I warned him repeatedly, stop texting me.”
Those text messages, McFarland informed us, accused his business of cheating Grates out of money.
So in January of 2018, they took out an Order of Good Behavior against him. The owners said this is similar to a restraining order. They did it because they feared Grates would harm them because of his background. There’s also a lawsuit too. And then the shop was robbed.
“When we first contacted law enforcement about the robbery that occurred here, we considered him to be a potential suspect along with a great many other people actually. We informed them 100 percent at that time of James’ firearms that he owned,” McFarland recalled. “He owned a crossbow. We heard some other things through people that lived in the area with him and manufacturing firearms.”
Aldrich added, “In fact, he said he was going to make it his life’s mission to damage us.”
But the two said nothing happened to Grates and he remained free. We talked with a spokesman with Columbia County Sheriff’s Office about whether any report existed on a tip that Grates was manufacturing guns. He said he found no previous reports stating such.
“I don’t feel that law enforcement took us seriously at all,” McFarland said. “As best I can tell, since he was on parole, if a report was made of him doing something he shouldn’t have they would have gone out there and checked it out and he would have gone back to lock up because he’s on parole. But, that obviously didn’t happen.”
Aldrich added, “There’s always these red flags, but nobody does anything about it. And in this particular case we’re telling police, we’re telling law enforcement that this is a giant red flag.”
It was about a year and a half after the tool shop reported Grates, when authorities found a weapon and two pipe bombs at his home.
But Aldrich said he’s certain he knows where they were headed.
“Those bombs were made to go off here,” he said suggesting the tool shop.
“My partner and I had discussed this because obvious concerns about our safety. Both of us kind of came to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to get up close, he was going to try something from a distance if it came to that,” McFarland said of their fear of Grates. “We never considered pipe bombs. We considered a rifle, a bow.”
The owners also believed Grates might be on drugs too, but could not prove it. We found out he does have a drug past. A Richmond County incident report shows Grates was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide, driving under the influence of drugs, and other charges. In that 2011 incident, a witness watched as Grates ran off Gordon Highway near Old Savannah Road and hit a pole while ‘sleep at the wheel.’ Another adult was in the car along with 3-year-old Devon Grates, who was killed. Neighbors of Grates in Grovetown told us he lost a son years ago.
Georgia Department of Corrections list Grates’ entire criminal past. It includes a 2003 substance act violation and meth possession.
We also checked to see if Grates had records in Burke, McDuffie and Aiken Counties. He did not.
Aldrich told us if Grates is released, he fears it’s not over.
“I believe if this guy ever gets out of prison he’s coming back here for me.”
We asked whether Aldrich had expressed his feelings to law enforcement about what Grates would do upon release. He said yes but the answer was, “It’s nothing they can do.”
McFarland said he’s looking for answers on how he could have worked harder to thwart a potentially dangerous situation.
“They maybe could have provided us with another avenue. Do we need to physically go down and file a police report? Do we need to call dispatch?”
Authorities told us they take calls all the time over the phone, not just in person. But McFarland leaves this advice:
“Don’t give up complete faith in the system yet because there are still some good fellas out there that try to do their job,” he said. “Be annoying. If there is an issue that you think could potentially cause harm, call. Call, call, call. Annoy them until they have to deal with you. Just the same as when you go apply for a job. Just keep calling until they give you a job just to get you to shut up.”
Grates remains in jail in Columbia County.
The ATF is still working to pursue charges for the two pipe bombs.
Photojouranlist: Mark Gaskins