Gas thefts a problem in Greenville

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 9, 2002

For the past few years, gas drive-offs have increased, and the problem may now be at its worst as there are several gas drive-offs in Greenville each month.

According to Greenville Police Chief Lonzo Ingram, many of the gas drive-offs are purely accidental, but some are theft and perpetrators are made to pay the merchants the money.

He said arrests are rare because the subjects usually choose to go back and pay. If a subject is arrested for a gas drive-off, the charge is theft of property, third degree.

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Ingram also said he feels the problem began to increase when full service gas stations became self-serve stations. "I think the problem initially started historically when the country got away from full-service stations and convenience stores started selling gas," he said.

He added that most of the people who steal gas are traveling through Greenville on the Interstate and the number of occurrences varies, depending on the time of year. He said the biggest problem with drive-offs occurs during the summer months because people travel more then.

The chief also said he feels that a lot of times, people are busy or in a hurry and simply forget to pay. "A lot of times, before we can get the tag number and information and get to the person, they are already on their way back to pay for the gas," Ingram said.

He said that usually when a person is stopped for attempting to steal gas, they are usually just made to go back and pay for the gas and no charges are pressed.

"Basically, all the merchant wants is for the person to pay for the gas," Ingram said. "If the person can go back and pay, there is usually no problem."

When charges are pressed, it is considered theft of property, third degree, and is a misdemeanor. A new law that came into effect in December states that anyone convicted of two counts of gas theft are subject to have their driver's license suspended.

Ingram said that sometimes a person has a legitimate excuse for not paying for the gas, and sometimes they simply are attempting to steal. "Sometimes they say they forgot," he said. "Sometimes they don't even have an excuse and they really are trying to steal gas. Those are the people who end up in jail."

Ingram said he feels that stronger penalties for gas theft most likely would not affect the number of occurrences. "I don't see where a stronger penalty or charge would help the problem," he said.

Terrie Mills, manager of the BP station on Fort Dale Road, said she has seen several gas drive-offs during her career in Greenville. She said she became manager at the BP station five weeks ago and she also worked at the Exxon station off of I-65 exit 128.

She said when a drive-off occurs, the station attendant calls the police with a vehicle description and a tag number, if they are able to get the number in time. Mills said most people come back to the station to pay for the gas and are very embarrassed that they forgot to pay.

Mills said, however, that some subjects who come back to the station actually were caught stealing gas and do not have the money to pay for their gas, so they attempt to borrow money from other customers.

"Others who come back were truly stealing gas and do not have any money, so they try to bum off of other people in the store to try and pay for the gas," she said.

She said that the problem at the BP station is not as bad as the problem was at the Exxon station, and this is most likely due to the location of the Exxon service station. "The problem is not as bad as it was at the Exxon," she said. "We used to see at least one a week there," Mills said.

She said there really is not much that can be done when people steal gas except alerting law enforcement officials. "There is just not much you can do when people attempt to steal gas except call in the information to police," she said.

Ingram said that gas stations do what they can to prevent the drive-offs, and law enforcement agencies do what they can to respond quickly to a gas drive-off.

"The stations do all they can but when they have one attendant on and they have several gas pumps and get crowded with a rush of customers, it's very difficult for the person to keep up and try to watch the gas pumps and handle the people who are already in the store," he said. "It puts them in a bad situation. What try to patrol the best we can and respond as quickly as we can when we are called and apprehend these people."

Ingram said he is thankful for those who report crimes and this helps law enforcement officials apprehend suspects.

"We appreciate the people who call us when crimes occur and give us the opportunity to apprehend those responsible," he said.