SYLVESTER, Ga. -- After more than three decades of service to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mike Lewis has stepped down as the head agent of the GBI's Sylvester field office.
Now poised to embrace the life of a retiree, Lewis said this week that putting his law enforcement career and his agents behind him will be the toughest challenge he will face since first swearing his oath as a police officer back in 1978.
"I've made a lot of friends all over the state during my career, and I include the agents I have worked with here in that category, and one of my biggest concerns in leaving this job is losing track of them," Lewis said. "That day-to-day interaction. They're great people; smart, hardworking and dedicated."
Lewis has walked down a long road to get to the pinnacle of his career, a road he first set foot on when he laced up his boots as a beat officer with the Albany Police Department in 1978.
A few years later, Lewis veered away from the department to take his first job with the GBI.
Since that time, Lewis has worked all over the state investigating some of the state's most heinous crimes and sometimes confronting evil face-to-face.
He said one of his most memorable cases came when some of the last marchers of the civil rights movement were confronted by a large contingent of white supremacists and klansmen during an event in Forsyth County in the early 1980s.
"The marchers were peaceably going down the street near the square there, and there was this group of white supremacists that had assembled there, chanting 'white power'," Lewis said. "Everything remained calm until one of them threw a rock and hit one of the marchers. ... It got rough, but we were able to sort it out and found the guy who started it. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and since then there hasn't been a problem in Forsyth County."
In the latter part of his career, Lewis has headed up a team of agents based in Sylvester that assists law enforcement in investigating crimes through a large portion of Southwest Georgia.
It was Lewis' agents who built the white-collar fraud case against former Albany Downtown Manager Don Buie; it was Lewis' agents who, along with local and federal authorities, dismantled a multimillion-dollar marijuana grow operation based in Lee County; and it was Lewis' agents who gathered evidence and investigated the slaughter of six migrant farmworkers on an October night in Tifton in 2005 that resulted in five convictions.
One of his agents, Nikki Rhodes, was even recognized earlier this year at the state level by Georgia Trend as one of the state's top young professionals in the magazine's popular "40 under 40" edition.
Rhodes said Wednesday that some of the agents are struggling with seeing their boss go.
"He just has so much experience; we know we can walk into his office with a question or problem and that he can call on that wealth of experience to help us out and we have the confidence to trust in his judgement," Rhodes said. "He leads by example and, whether some of us want to admit it or not, we're sad to see him go. But he's earned his retirement, and we wish him the best."
Each year the caseload grows while Lewis' agents, who he described as mostly autonomous and self-motivated investigators, have had to cope with cutbacks and furloughs as the state attempts to weather a tense economic storm.
"The philosophy is pretty simple. When you have good people doing good work, let them work," Lewis said. "You can micromanage folks to death sometimes. We give our agents a lot of autonomy and freedom to put their cases together, and that seems to work well."
In rural Southwest Georgia, the GBI serves a vital purpose as an investigative stopgap when smaller departments -- which are coping with their own tightened budgets and fiscal restraints -- are unable to dedicate the resources that are needed to investigate serious crimes like aggravated assaults and murders.
"A department can't just pull an officer off the street to dedicate to working a murder or a real technical fraud case sometimes," Lewis said. "They often need everyone they can to stay on the street and work the stuff that happens out there ... as the saying goes, no one has any 'extra' police officers."
That's where his agents come in and free up the department's resources so they can stay out on the street, keeping up with the day-to-day needs of the community.
"I'd like to think we've done some good in Southwest Georgia," Lewis said. "I'm just grateful for the people I've been able to work with, both in the GBI and in local and federal law enforcement. They're what keeps the people safe at night."
When Lewis turns in his badge this week, the GBI will begin the process of filling his seat in Sylvester. That likely won't happen until the first part of the new year, Lewis said.
Until then, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Mark Pro will run the office, overseeing the day-to-day operations.