Bobby Lee Julien, who’s driven a fuel tanker for 27 years, was near the end of his route. It was 3 a.m. when he pulled up at a stop sign off State Highway 225 in Houston.
It took only a few seconds for the masked man to rip open the passenger door, jump in and point a gun at Julien, 52.
“I begged him not to shoot me,” Julien said. “I feared for my life. The whole time he had a gun pointed at me.”
It wasn’t Julien’s life the gunman wanted that morning of May 5: “He said he wanted the truck. He wanted the fuel.”
The truck was recovered three days later. Police said its fuel load would probably be sold on the black market, which is thriving as average pump prices approach $4 a gallon.
With siphons, pumps, saws — and sometimes lethal weapons — gasoline thieves are on the hunt. Video: Dangerous thieves
Most gas thefts are still perpetrated by motorists who drive off without paying. After seeing declines in drive-offs earlier this decade, after many stores began requiring drivers to pre-pay, the National Association of Convenience Stores says they’re rising sharply again.
Convenience stores sell more than 80 percent of the fuel U.S. motorists put in their vehicles, and stores in high-traffic areas along Interstate highways are often hit several times a day, the association said. The average store will lose more than $1,000 in stolen fuel this year, it said — and more than double that at stores that don’t require pre-payment.
“I had two of them for $131,” said Reggie Armendariz, manager of Murphy USA in Lubbock, Texas. He said he lost more than $600 last month thanks to drive-offs.
Retailers say gas thieves hurt them badly because they’re already operating at razor-thin margins of roughly 2 cents a gallon. A retailer would need to sell an extra 3,000 gallons to offset a $60 drive-off.
“If you have somebody steal $50, $60, $70 worth of gas, it’s going to take a lot of sales to make that up,” said Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.
Individual vehicles increasingly targeted
But with the average price of a gallon of gas having more than doubled in the last two years, thieves are branching out. Across the country, drivers are waking up to find their gas caps pried open and their tanks dry.
While there are no national statistics yet tracking an increase in gas thefts, police across the country say they’re investigating more reports than ever before:
- Using an empty gas can and a siphon, thieves were able to suck 30 gallons of diesel from a bus in a Bethesda, Md., parking lot.
- In Beaver Dam, Wis., “they’re just going to cars at night and siphoning gas out of them,” said Stephanie Lehmann, who said several cars in her neighborhood had been hit.
- Police in Evansville, Ind., said thieves drained all of the fuel this month from seven trucks belonging to a local office of JBM Inc., a metal fabrication chain. They put the loss at $700.
- And police in Denver are investigating a rash of of incidents in which thieves drill small holes into gas tanks and siphon off the fuel. “This is clearly not the way it’s been done in the past, by taking a hose and putting it in a gas tank,” police Detective John White said.
“I anticipate there will be more types of theft like this,” said Todd Nehls, sheriff of Dodge County, Wis. “Either siphoning from other people’s equipment or siphoning from other people’s tanks.”
Many newer cars have locked gas caps, and if yours doesn’t, “you should consider investing the $10 in a good-quality locking gas cap,” said Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police.
Modern advances in fuel thievery
Gas caps won’t stop the most determined thieves, however.
“Right now, people are actually going to the extent of chopping the hose,” said Ryan Medler of Medler’s Automotive of Guam. “They’ll go to the extent of chopping it off and running a garden hose in to siphon out the fuel to their vehicles.”
That’s what happened to Donna Cotton, who counts on her three vans to get kids between school and her day care center in Augusta, Ga. She was shocked to find their gas tanks empty one morning last month. Thieves had cut the fuel lines and made off with about $150 of gas.
“With all the cars out there, why would you come to a day care?” Cotton asked. “It messed up my day. It really did.”
And when all else fails, an enterprising thief will go straight to the source.
Since March, two men have been driving around western Washington in the wee hours of the morning, stopping at Shell gas stations and making off with hundreds of gallons of fuel.
“It’s happened totally four times ... over a month or so,” said Tom Nguyen, manager of a Shell station in Sea-Tac, south of Seattle. The owner of another station said he had lost $3,000, almost a month of profits.
After a Shell was hit in Gig Harbor, north of Tacoma, police said one of the men — who wore an orange safety vest, apparently to fool witnesses into thinking he was working on the pumps — appeared to have a master key that allowed him to tap into the metering system. In about 30 minutes, he filled large containers with more than 200 gallons of premium valued at nearly $800.
‘There’s always new ways’
Last month in Joppa, Ala., south of Huntsville, a white utility trailer pulled into a Four Way Quik Stop at 3 a.m. and just sat there. When officers checked it out, they found a 250-gallon tank, two 55-gallon drums and a gas pump inside.
Cullman County Sheriff Tyler Roden said the driver had parked above the station’s fuel tank. He’d drilled a hole in the floor of the trailer, pried off the cap of the tank and snaked a hose from his pump to the tank.
“If he can get the lid off that’s on the surface of the concrete, well, he can sit there and siphon gas out of the tank and ... not really be noticed,” Roden said.
The driver, identified as Billy Wayne Collier, 44, a mechanic, was charged with theft and criminal tampering, a felony.
“There’s always new ways that they are trying to be smarter than everybody else,” Roden said. “Just, in this case, it didn’t work out.”
NBC affiliates KCBD of Lubbock, Texas; KING of Seattle; KHNL of Honolulu; KPRC of Houston; KUAM of Guam; KUSA of Denver; WAGT of Augusta, Ga.; WFIE of Evansville, Ind.; WOOD of Grand Rapids, Mich.; WRC of Washington; WTHR of Indianapolis; WTMJ of Milwaukee; and WVTM of Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.