TAMPA — There is a resale market for anything at the right price.
A local gas-theft ring banked on this belief in February when it turned vacant Tampa lots into impromptu gas stations for selling stolen fuel, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said on Monday.
The group of seven enjoyed success initially, Chronister said. More than $60,000 in fuel was illegally pumped from two Circle K stations in Apollo Beach and Ruskin on Feb. 25, then transported to vacant lots near Tampa International Airport and the Orient Road Jail to be sold at a discount.
Chronister says the operation came to a close last week, however, when six men involved were arrested on racketeering and grand theft charges. The sheriff said a seventh suspect, 44-year-old Willian Penate-Arencibia, likely fled to Cuba.
Those arrested are: Luis Alcalde-Hernandez, 35; Albert Aleman-Gonzalez, 42; Nestor Flores-Rodriguez, 42; Javier Penate-Berbe, 20; Jesus Andres Perez-Cueto, 54, and Danys Vazquez-Sosa, 36. The men were taken into custody in Hillsborough, Sumter, Orange and Marion counties.
The Circle K’s involved were at 3702 Highway 41 in Ruskin and 5904 Highway 41 in Apollo Beach, Chronister said, but the group is likely behind several more fuel thefts throughout the region.
Chronister detailed how the “organized crime ring” was able to steal so much gas: Seven trucks using a single pump on and off for 12 hours while a homemade pulsar device kept the bill near or at $0.
The group’s homemade pulsar, which replaced the equipment on gas pumps that regulates price, was made with a block of wood, a steering rod, a battery and an electrical board, Chronister said. The men used it to pump thousands of gallons into “large bladders” inside the beds of their pickup trucks that stored the fuel. The drivers would then take the fuel to the lots to be dumped into a gasoline reservoir.
Seven trucks were used at each gas station, Chronister said, with the men ensuring they kept other vehicles away from the pump with their homemade pulsar.
Hillsborough deputies were alerted to the ring in February when both Circle K’s reported more than $25,000 in fuel discrepancies. Detectives then responded to the stations and reviewed surveillance video, which showed the group’s process and the trucks they drove.
Chronister said he was perplexed how employees at both gas stations were unaware of what was happening, but conceded they are busy with customers for food inside and fuel outside.
Detectives then conducted surveillance of the group while they sold the fuel. Chronister said the pricing was discounted but the group still “lined their pockets” when local gas prices were at their highest. He said the group sold fuel near $3 per gallon at one point.
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Those who purchased gas from the men likely knew it was stolen, Chronister said, but “it would be a stretch” to say they acted criminally, so no charges will be filed against customers. He said they were likely just taking advantage of a way to save money amid the recent hike in gas prices.
The Sheriff said the six arrests don’t mark the end of the investigation. He says similar thefts that occurred in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties are unsolved and are likely connected to these men and deputies will continue to search for leads.
Of the seven men known to be involved, Chronister said five lived in Hillsborough County and two in Orlando.