Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Public safety

Theft at Tampa gas station puts law enforcement on alert

TAMPA — As gas thefts go, this one was deceptively elaborate.

Inside a blue Chevrolet Venture minivan, criminals had cut out a large hole in the floorboard and set up a portable pumping station, complete with power source, pump and plastic container.

The goal: to steal hundreds of gallons of gas pulled directly from the gas station's underground storage tank and funneled into a plastic tank inside the van.

It's a crime authorities warn could be on the rise as gas prices continue to creep toward historic records.

They didn't get away with it this time. But next time, maybe they will.

"When the price of the commodities goes up, we're not surprised to see that enterprising thieves will find ways to get that commodity and make a profit," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.

Gas prices have never been so high in February.

Not even in 2008, when prices peaked at an average of $4.06 per gallon of regular. It was just $3.09 then.

The average price for a gallon of regular in Florida this month is $3.62, eclipsing the previous record, set last year, of $3.16.

"It's becoming much more likely that we're going to see that $4 on the marquee," said Jessica Brady, a AAA spokeswoman. She estimated gas prices could reach $4.25.

The record high gas prices come as oil prices this week hit a nine-month high after Iran halted crude exports to Britain and France. Rising tensions with the Middle Eastern country are likely to continue to fuel uncertainty in the market, Brady said.

She said higher prices lead to more gas-related thefts, recalling stories from 2008 in which people were breaking into gas tanks.

"As prices get higher and people get more strapped for cash, we may seem things of this nature occur more often," she said. "I don't know if we'll see a huge influx, but it's definitely a possibility."

Tuesday's gas theft might have worked except for Hillsborough County Deputy Alexander Hockersmith.

The deputy, working a midnight shift, saw a suspicious blue minivan parked at an odd angle in the parking lot of the closed gas station at 8606 Citrus Park Drive.

He did a U-turn and pulled in to the station.

As he did, the thieves pulled away in a different vehicle, leaving the minivan and stolen gas behind, Sheriff's Office Capt. Andy Ross said.

It didn't take long for the deputy to piece together the criminal activity.

"This is a pretty typical way of doing it," said Ross, who noted that the department is seeing more of the thefts.

A few minutes after Hockersmith arrived, the tank began to overflow and gas started spilling out of the van. About 25 gallons spilled onto the ground, triggering a response by a hazardous materials team and bomb squad.

"We had this problem pretty widespread a couple years ago," Ross said. "It kind of ebbed. It seems like this is on the uptick again."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

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