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Record high prices fuel theft of gas, diesel in the region

Crime manifests itself in many ways. One of the most popular items to steal of late is gas or diesel fuel and those in the know say the situation is only going to get worse.

Deputy Tom MacKenzie, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said a Delhi trucking company reported 250 gallons of gas was stolen Sunday. With gas-diesel prices escalating, more of these thefts are expected in the months to come.

"This is not an isolated incident," MacKenzie said. "With the price of gas increasing, more and more people are tempted to steal from farmers, shipping companies, gas stations and even from private vehicles."

Diane Westmoreland Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said fuel thefts are getting worse and worse as the economy continues to decline. It costs the county's farmers and ranchers millions of dollars every year.

"There's no serial number on a gallon of gas," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said. "It's a sign of the times, the 'crime du jour'. What's heartbreaking is it's hard to link the suspect with the crime."

MacKenzie said last year in Merced County there were 84 fuel theft reports. So far this year 13 such incidents have been reported. However, the number of gallons stolen is significantly higher compared with last year at this time.

Since March 17, 2007, a total of 10,470 gallons of fuel have been reported stolen. At today's average price for regular unleaded, the cheapest price for a gallon of gas, that comes to more than $36,000 in losses.

Westmoreland Pedrozo doesn't see things getting any better soon. She said fuel theft incidents are "very underreported" lately.

"There is no way to recoup this," Westmoreland Pedrozo said. "More people are getting desperate these days. It's totally a no-win situation."

Sgt. Vern Warnke, a patrol supervisor in the sheriff's office, predicts gas thefts will increase substantially as the recession deepens and unemployment grows. Now hundreds of gallons of fuel are stolen at one time where it used to be in five-gallon increments.

"It's a substantial hit to farmers," Warnke said. As farmers and ranchers struggle to keep their operations going, it's possible some will resort to stealing gas or diesel from their neighbors.

Detective Roy Tighe, a member of the department's Ag Crimes Task Force, said thieves are selling stolen fuel to farmers or truckers at $2 a gallon, half of the going rate at the pump.

Sgt. Paul Roseman also believes the fuel theft problem is only going to get worse. He said thieves have become "very creative," using vehicles with large tanks and electronic pump systems to quickly drain the tanks of parked big rigs or the fuel storage tanks on area farms or ranches.

Westmoreland Pedrozo said the Farm Bureau supports the efforts of the sheriff's office ag crimes unit. Pazin said the department's two ag crimes detectives are "working feverishly" to combat the problem.

Farmers and ranchers are somewhat lax, Pazin said, about security around their fuel wagons or tanks. With fuel costs hovering between $4 and $5 a gallon, they can no longer afford to be complacent.

MacKenzie said the hardest hit are rural farmers and landowners who store and use large amounts in tractors, trucks and farm equipment. This raises production costs which in turn means higher prices for consumers. That's not counting the cost in damage to the owner's property during the theft.

Westmoreland Pedrozo thinks the fuel theft problem is more pronounced on the county's Westside where farms are more remote and isolated.

Nationwide, gasoline theft cost convenience store retailers $122 million in 2006; that's down from the $300 million lost in 2005 and $237 million the year before. These "drive-off" thefts have declined since many retailers now require prepayment for gas purchases.

Warnke once was an ag crimes detective and formerly in charge of the ag crimes unit. He said farmers and ranchers should notify deputies when their dogs start barking loudly or if they see suspicious vehicles on their property. They also should be willing to press charges against anyone found stealing fuel.

In some cases, farm employees may be stealing fuel from their bosses. Warnke said deputies are going to have to be more cognizant of fuel theft situations, when they see someone with a fuel hose and a gas can.

Warnke said while it's difficult to trace stolen fuel, in the past there were perfumes or fragrances that could be added to gas to give it a distinctive odor. He's not sure how cost-effective this might be.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or