LAWRENCEVILLE -- It started with a big, missing balloon.
When owners of a customized, $70,000 hot-air balloon reported that it had been lifted -- along with thousands more in accessories and its "Stairway to Heaven Hot Air Balloon Team" trailer -- from a storage area on Collins Hill Road on July 5, police had no way of knowing that crime would lead to a web of alleged thieves stretched across two counties.
But an investigation into the vanished balloon has prompted charges against eight suspects, taken down a Dacula chop shop and closed several theft cases in Gwinnett and Barrow counties, police said Monday.
After the balloon owners pleaded for the thieves to simply drop the aircraft off somewhere, Gwinnett police found the trailer -- sans some equipment, but containing the deflated balloon -- parked along Stanley Road on a Dacula farm, roughly 18 miles east of Lawrenceville.
The ball got rolling after an anonymous tip in the trailer theft investigation led detectives to the home of Susan Owen, 32, on Scott Circle in Dacula.
"Detectives searched the location and found parts of a lock that possibly belonged to the stolen trailer," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter. "They also found small amounts of meth and marijuana."
Not home at the time, Owen was charged with two counts of drug possession. She remains at large.
A second tip led detectives to suspect Amber Spinks, 24, and her father, Richard Spinks, 46, of stealing the balloon's trailer.
On July 14, a resident called Gwinnett police to report people trespassing on his property on the Apalachee River at the Barrow border. The property owner confronted the trespassers, who were riding a Kawasaki Mule UTV, and they fled on foot.
Police later identified them as Amber Spinks and Jason Gordon, 33 -- and determined the Kawasaki had been stolen in Barrow. While searching the area, detectives located pieces of equipment stolen from the balloon trailer, Ritter said.
Amber Spinks was ultimately arrested in Gwinnett on July 24 and charged with two counts of theft by receiving. Facing similar charges, Jason Gordon was arrested in Barrow, said Ritter.
The same investigation next led detectives to search a Fence Road home in Dacula, where they reportedly found a stolen Chevrolet Trailblazer, two stolen vehicle tags and items from a commercial burglary.
"They also located evidence that a chop shop was being operated on the property," Ritter said.
Detectives determined that Dustin Martin, 23, Brandon Steedley, 27, and Jessica Baker, 25, were responsible for the chop shop. None were home at the time, though police did arrest Douglas Hampton, 23, for an outstanding warrant.
Steedley, arrested later in Barrow, is charged with operating a chop shop, theft by receiving a motor vehicle and two counts of theft by receiving stolen property.
The search for Steedley's counterparts led detectives on July 21 to a Sun Suites extended stay hotel on Steve Reynolds Boulevard.
"When Martin realized that officers were there to arrest him, he jumped from the third story window of his room" and was apprehended with help from a police dog below, Ritter said.
Baker did not attempt to flee and was taken into custody without incident.
Martin was charged with operating a chop shop, theft by receiving a motor vehicle, two counts of theft by receiving stolen property, and seven counts of drug possession. "He had seven varieties of illegal drugs on his person when arrested," Ritter said.
Baker is charged with conspiracy to operate a chop shop and possession of meth.
Further investigation revealed that Martin was an associate of Richard Spinks, father of the alleged Kawasaki and balloon trailer thief, Ritter said.
"They sent photos and information on the stolen Mule back and forth," he said.
Richard Spinks remains at large on warrants charging him with two counts of theft by receiving, which stem from the stolen balloon and equipment, Ritter said.
Police urge anyone with information on Richard Spinks to call detectives at 770-513-5300. Anyone with information on his current location should call 911, Ritter said.