Six men accused of stealing thousands of dollars of gasoline from Florida gas stations have been arrested, officials said Monday.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said "Operation Empty Tank" concluded last week when Luis Alcade-Hernandez, Albert Aleman-Gonzalez, Nestor Flores-Rodriguez, Javier Penate-Berbe, Jesus Andres Perez-Cueto and Danys Vazquez-Sosa were arrested. A seventh man, Willian Penate-Arencibia, who is alleged to be their ringleader, is still at large, Chronister said.
Operation Empty Tank began in February when, over two days, two Circle K gas stations discovered they had $25,000 in fuel shortages, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
"After reviewing surveillance cameras, each gas station observed the same strange behavior, where a group of seven trucks would continually cycle through a single gas pump for more than 12 hours at each station," the statement said.
Detectives discovered that someone was breaking into gas pumps and installing homemade devices that disabled the mechanism that calculates the cost per gallon.
"For pennies per gallon, or in some cases no money at all, seven suspects were able to dispense thousands of dollars in gasoline," the sheriff's statement said.
Investigators determined that gas was being stolen from stations all over the Tampa Bay area.
“While we have identified just over $60,000 in gas theft from seven documented events, we believe these men are responsible for far more money in theft due to their operation running nearly every day of the week," Chronister said. “This was very clearly an organized crime ring, and these suspects were not new to the business."
The suspects were selling the gas for half the price to truck drivers, the sheriff's office alleged.
But Chronister said the men weren't doing truckers a public service.
“Don’t think for a minute that these suspects were tampering with the gas pumps in order to ease the burden on everyday drivers,” Chronister said. “No. They were in this only to line their own pockets.”
The six men were arrested after detectives caught them stealing gas, authorities said. They are charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, grand theft and accessing electronics without authority, the sheriff's office said. They could face additional charges.