June 27, 2008

Gas Thieves Targeting Farms for Diesel

By Joe Boesen, The Bakersfield Californian

Jun. 27--Gas thieves have jacked more than $280,000 worth of diesel fuel from farmers in the last six months according to the Kern County Sheriff's Department.

From Jan. 1 to June 1, the department has noticed a "tremendous" increase in theft, according to Senior Deputy Eric Fennel with the Rural Crimes Investigations Unit. "Gas prices are to blame," he said.

Thieves are getting away with anywhere from 15 to 500 gallons at a time, prompting farmers to set up surveillance systems and the rural crimes deputies to crack down on gas bandits.

Many times the victims do not even know their fuel is gone because thieves may take a little off the top, obscuring the crime until farmers use the rest of the tank. Thieves steal by either siphoning fuel or using the working valve to pump it out.

Martin Hein, co-owner of Hein Ranch Co., installed more than $7,000 worth of surveillance equipment on his properties after his fuel tanks were ripped off several times. In the last two years, thieves have stolen fuel more than six times, taking close to 2,000 gallons of fuel in that time, he said. The most recent theft occurred in late May.

"They typically come in and fill a tank, then fill a few containers," he said. "They have siphoning equipment."

Even after locking the equipment, thieves come during the night with bolt cutters to pry into the fuel tanks.

Hein said he is not backing down. In four separate instances, his surveillance equipment has identified the culprits and they have been arrested.

"The beauty of these thieves is that they are not smart," he said. "If you make it difficult, they will find some other place to go."

Although it is hard to track fuel once it has been stolen, investigations have led deputies to black-market fuel operations, selling diesel at half price.

"We had investigations that have led us to residences where people were selling fuel right out of the house," Fennel said.

Off the farm, drivers are snapping up locking gas caps to stop potential siphoning to their already expensive gasoline. Lisa Robinson, assistant manager at the NAPA Autoparts at 720 Roberts Lane, said locking caps are in demand.

In the last six months of 2007, the store sold 46 locking caps. Since Jan. 1, the store sold 123 locking caps, 29 in June alone.

"For a week straight, people kept saying, 'I need a locking gas cap, I need a locking gas cap,'" she said. Last year at this time people would buy regular replacement caps, but now they have to be locking caps, she said.

But numbers from the Bakersfield Police Department suggest that stolen gas is not a growing problem in the city. In 2007, there were 92 cases of stolen gas reported to the police. So far at the end of May, only 34 have been reported.

"We are a little behind pace," said Sgt. Greg Terry. "That's a good thing."


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