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Thieves try to siphon gas; resulting fuel leak could have been disastrous

A bungled attempt to steal gasoline resulted in a "river of fuel" that flooded the thwarted thieves' own van.

Police said a major disaster was averted when unknown suspects tried to siphon fuel from a Valero gas station into their Chevy Astro van. However, instead of a clean gasoline getaway, they dumped more than 1,000 gallons of fuel from one of the station's underground tanks into their own vehicle.

The fuel filled the van up to its windows and pooled out into the street. Nothing ignited it before cleanup crews arrived.

Investigators from the Merced Police Department and Merced Fire Department described the incident as a "river of fuel" that cascaded into the street. Luckily, no one was hurt, and investigators said they were able to stop the leak before it could pour into storm drains.

Police don't have any suspects in custody.

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The incident occurred early Tuesday, after the thieves broke the lock off one of the station's underground fuel tanks and then tried to siphon gas from the tank into a black Chevy Astro van, said Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten.

The thieves apparently cut a large hole into the floor of the van and positioned themselves over the gas tank. They tried to siphon the gas into a 200-gallon tank inside the van, using a long rubber hose and a car battery-powered pump.

But the thieves were unable to control the flow of gasoline after they had begun siphoning it. The gasoline started spilling from the van. The thieves fled the scene, leaving the gas pouring from the van and off the station's property, said Merced police Lt. Bimley West.

A Merced police officer was driving by the station and noticed the spill at 12:06 a.m. The fire department and several police officers responded and closed off the area, West said.

About 1,014 gallons of fuel spilled from the station, entered the gutter and poured down the street, Mitten said. The level of fuel inside the van had reached the windows. "What did not go into (the 200-gallon tank) went everywhere else," Mitten said.

Cleanup efforts at the gas station lasted throughout Tuesday morning, as investigators placed mounds of absorbent material around the station to soak up the gas. The smell of fumes was pungent as men wearing gas masks and protective suits cleaned up. Investigators set up orange cones and closed Glen Avenue at Yosemite Park Way to traffic.

Mitten said an environmental cleanup company was called to help.

A spark or cigarette could have easily set off the gasoline, Mitten said. "All of the potential was here for a major disaster," he said. "It was a dangerous situation."

Merced police Sgt. Rodney Court said the van isn't stolen and police are making efforts to find the owner.

With the recent increases of gasoline prices to nearly $4 per gallon, West said it's likely that thieves will attempt similar crimes in the future. Police say the owner of the Valero gasoline station had already lost 250 gallons of gasoline to thefts.

Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman Tom MacKenzie said his department has investigated two reports involving about 1,000 gallons of stolen gasoline and diesel fuel -- both within the past two weeks.

As of March 17, the sheriff's department has reported a total of 10,470 gallons of fuel stolen this year in 13 incidents. Last year, Merced County reported 84 incidents, MacKenzie said.

Gasoline and fuel thefts have occurred at farms, shipping companies, gas stations and from private vehicles, MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie said while some thieves take the gas for their own use and farm vehicles, some sell it to truck drivers and others, charging half to three-quarters of the regular price of gasoline. "They know it's stolen, but they don't care," MacKenzie said.

Police are asking anyone with information about the crime to call the department's anonymous tip line at (209) 385-4725 or (209) 385-4702.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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