Gas stations irked by drive-offs

 Business owners say they have few options to go after gas thieves

A half hour before closing time at PennMobil on 60th Street and Penn Avenue, Jenna Heilman was counting packs of cigarettes behind the counter, part of her routine as cashier at the gas station. Outside, a woman fueled up on pump five, and a beat-up, light-blue Pontiac pulled into the parking lot and stopped at one of the pumps furthest from the store. Jenna authorized the sale on her cash register and went back to her task. A few minutes later, she heard squealing tires and looked up just in time to see the Pontiac peel out of the parking lot and head south on Penn Avenue.

Jenna ran outside, but the car was long gone. The fuel nozzle attached to the pump hung loosely on the ground. The woman who had been filling up on pump five saw the Pontiac’s license plate number, but aside from writing it down, there wasn’t much that Jenna could do.

“I don’t have any support out here,” says Rick Bohnen, owner of PennMobil and co-owner of the BP across the street. “The police have a way of looking at this like they’ve got better things to do.”

Bohnen estimates that he loses $2,500 a year to gasoline thieves. They slip behind less-visible pumps, fill their tanks with an average of $20–$40 worth of fuel, and barrel out of the parking lot, narrowly avoiding pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Each time it happens — usually once a week at PennMobil — the police refuse to come out and take a report.

Calling in a drive-off

When station managers call 311 — the city’s nonemergency help line — to report a gas ‘n’ go, they’re referred to the Minnesota Service Station Association (MSSA), a nonprofit organization for independent gas station owners. The member-exclusive group takes down the make, model and plate number; looks up the identification of the offending driver; and mails an affidavit to the driver’s home. But without any police support, the perpetrator isn’t under threat of being arrested for failure to pay up.

“If you’re dealing with somebody who’s been through the system before, they know what that is. They’re not stupid. They’re not going to pay it,” Bohnen says. “A piece of paper is not going to scare them. Contacting a parole officer will.”

Bill Westover, the store manager of Holiday Stationstore on 54th Street and Nicollet Avenue, usually has a similar experience calling 311. His station gets roughly two to three drive-offs a day, but as part of a corporate franchise, his store isn’t a member of the MSSA. “You give [the 311 operator] all the information as far as make, model, color, description of the person, the license plate and the direction they’re traveling, and we never hear anything about it,” he says. “They [say] ‘Well, if we see him, we’ll pick him up.’”

According to Minneapolis Police Lt. Chris Hildreth, who patrols several Southwest neighborhoods, the Police Department isn’t interested in pursuing petrol thieves, because technically, drive-offs aren’t even a crime. “When a driver pulls up to a station, and somebody activates that pump for them, you’re essentially giving them credit,” he says. “Under the statute, it is not a crime until you don’t get paid.”

Once the perpetrator ignores two affidavits from the MSSA, it becomes a civil matter, and station owners can take the issue to court. But that rarely happens, says Hildreth. Police officers used to take reports for drive-offs, but “all the owners, they didn’t want to go to court and prosecute, they just wanted to get paid,” he explains. “So they were using the Police Department as their collection agency.”

Lance Klatt, executive director of the MSSA, isn’t buying the notion that gas stations give “credit” to patrons. “They’re saying that when you authorize the pump, you’re giving them authorization to use the product,” he says, but “I can go into Target and they’re giving me authorization to shop, right, when I grab a cart? And if I stole something, well, the police show up.”

Hildreth says that the difference between retailers like Target and an independent gas station is “Target has security. They always show up in court for prosecution, always. And they have everything on videotape, and they follow all the legal procedures.” Smaller stations, he goes on to explain, buy the lowest-quality surveillance to save money. “It’s a business practice,” he says. “How do you run your business?”

Ramsey County cracking down on gas thieves

Police in other parts of the metro area, however, have taken measures to help gas stations deal with fuel theft. The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department is setting up a website where attendants can report drive-offs the moment they occur. A copy of the report will get e-mailed to the local police department and entered into a countywide database.

“These people that are driving off, in our opinion, are tied to other criminal activities,” says Ramsey County Sgt. Eric Bradt, who helped create the website, which should be active in August. “When we get the drive-off, it pays to do a little investigation legwork on it and see what you come up with.”

To test their theory that gas thieves are often connected to other crimes, Ramsey County officers investigated a couple incidences and wound up arresting a man with a $20,000 Hennepin County warrant.

“There’s some good intel here,” says Bradt. “When we have a homicide in St. Paul or any of the surrounding communities, if all we have is a blue Dodge Caravan, well, let’s go see if this person’s ever created a gas drive-off before. Type in the plate, type in the description, and from that we [might] be able to retrieve some [information off] it.”

Many gas station owners in St. Paul are excited about the program, but Bradt is careful to note that the system isn’t designed just for them. “We’re not out to be a huge collection agency for the gas station,” he says. “We will probably solve some of these and ultimately help them get some reimbursement for driving off, but the vision of it [we have] is that these people are tied to other crimes.”

Ramsey County’s drive-off website will also keep officers on the street, rather than forcing them to spend hours knocking on doors — one of the key concerns among the Minneapolis Police Department.

“It ties up too much police resources,” says Hildreth. “The bottom line is you know this happens all the time. Don’t turn on the pump.”

Mandating prepay

Forcing customers to pay for their gas in advance or with a credit card at the pump may be the only way to end drive-offs. “I think we’re going to try to mandate prepay so this stuff goes away. I mean, that’s the only answer,” Klatt says. “It takes the game away from the crooks.”

Some station owners are worried that turning prepay-only would be bad for business. “We try to have a very friendly family atmosphere around here,” says Lonnie McQuirter, assistant manager of LJM Amoco on 36th Street and Lyndale Avenue. “We’re not going to punish everyone else for, you know, [certain] people’s dishonesty.”

Giving customers the option to pay inside opens the door to other purchases, and stores could lose that money if patrons stay outside. But Klatt thinks that some owners would rather lose $50–$100 of in-store sales than suffer from regular drive-offs. He compares their fear to the switch from full-service to self-service gas stations several decades ago. “We got through that OK,” he says. “People will be getting used to it and conditioned.”

The MSSA is attempting to talk with legislators to make Minnesota gas stations prepay-only like some Western states. “[Station owners] are just tired of trying to collect money from people who don’t have it,” Klatt says. “Enough is enough.”