Two thefts of thousands of gallons of gasoline over the weekend appear to be related, Clearwater police said Wednesday.
Sometime between 11 and 11:35 p.m. Saturday, 6,000 gallons of unleaded fuel was pumped from underground storage tanks at a BP gas station at 1996 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in Clearwater. The gas was valued at about $14,000.
Then, between midnight and 6 a.m. Sunday, 4,400 gallons were stolen in a similar manner from a Largo Exxon station at 4822 Ulmerton Road, Largo police said Wednesday. In that case, the tank port caps had been pried open and $11,700 worth of gas was siphoned from the underground tanks, said Largo police Detective Chris Keeler.
Both thefts occurred while the stations were closed.
Large-scale gasoline thefts, like those in Clearwater and Largo, are very rare, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.
"I get, at most, a couple of calls per year, compared to a hundred or so on traditional gas thefts," like drive-offs, pump altering or using stolen credit cards, Lenard said.
For many years, drive-offs - where a customer fills up his or her car, then drives away without paying - was the primary mode of stealing gas, Lenard said.
But the move to "pay before you pump" has cut the amount of fuel stolen nationwide from convenience stores each year by more than half, from $300 million in losses in 2005 to $134 million in 2007, he said.
However, Lenard said, over the past few years the industry has seen the emergence of gasoline theft rings where specially designed trucks are used to siphon large quantities of fuel.
Most of the thefts happen at night, once stores are closed, when passers-by would assume that gas is being delivered.
But they also can happen at busy times, like rush hour, when customers and workers are hurried or distracted. In 2005, several South Florida men were arrested after a multiagency investigation determined they were using trucks to siphon gas during business hours, unbeknownst to station attendants.
Thieves may try to transfer the gas into smaller containers, then sell it to individual consumers - a risky endeavor because of flammability, Lenard said.
More likely, the fuel is sold for a low price to a willing gasoline retailer, who resells it at a profit.
"If you're stealing 4,000 gallons of fuel, you have a customer lined up who can handle it," Lenard said.
In the Clearwater theft, a citizen reported a large tanker trailer, possibly silver or gray, heading south on Belcher Road from Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard with a hookup hose dragging from behind.
Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts declined to divulge how the BP storage tank was breached, but said, "They definitely knew what they were doing to get into them."
A spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that her agency is not investigating any similar crimes.
But Pasco County recorded five similar thefts in April and May. Those cases have not been solved, Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said Wednesday.
How to help
More than 10,000 gallons of gasoline was stolen over the weekend from stations in Clearwater and Largo. Anyone with information on the cases:
Largo: Call Detective Chris Keeler at (727) 587-6728.
Clearwater: Call the Clearwater Police Department Tip Line at (727) 562-4486.
To remain anonymous: Call Crime Stoppers toll-free at 1-800-873-8477 or submit a tip online at www.crimestoppersofpinellas.org.