A few months ago, security tapes from the Indianola Market captured images of a "decent-looking guy" rolling up to the gas pump in a White Jeep Cherokee. As the gas flowed like a river into the handsome man's jeep, he frantically looked through his pockets, side panels and wallet for his money. But by what happened next, one would guess that he didn't find any.
When the gas pump stopped at 71-something dollars, the handsome guy got out of his vehicle and rounded the total up to $72. But instead of paying that amount, the guy peeled out of the gravel parking lot in a large and obtrusive cloud of dust. The only thing owner Shelly O'Brien received from him that day was headshots on videotape.
She never saw the white Jeep or that guy again. Or her $72.
Gas thefts. They happened back in the 1970s when gas went up to $.55/gallon. People freaked. Some people freaked so much that they began siphoning it and stealing it and hoarding it.
And history repeats itself. National gas prices are going up again. National gas thefts are going up again. Last month, some self-entitled person stole a whopping 1,500 gallons of gas directly from underground storage tanks at a station in Laytonville. Whoa.
Although Humboldt has yet to see anything all that dramatic, gas thefts are occurring in scattered cases around the county. Local police from Arcata and Eureka say very few gas thefts have been officially reported since gas has become a very valuable product that as of a few days ago was running $4.59 per gallon.
But some victims of gas crimes in Humboldt County say that reporting a seemingly isolated incident to the police won't amount to much. So they don't. Therefore the police have no record of the crime.
When O'Brien called the Sheriff's office to report the handsome guy in the jeep's drive-off, an officer took his squad car down Old Arcata Road to interview her and file a report. But because the video camera had not accurately recorded a license plate number, the officer said it would be difficult to identify the man. "He came down, said, 'go ahead and report it if you want, but it probably won't amount to much'," O'Brien said.
So she didn't. "I didn't even waste my time," she said.
One locally famous biodiesel supplier said the same thing. Andy Cooper of Footprint Recycling said his locked grease tanks are "constantly broken into and pilfered," at least two to three times a month. But he doesn't bother even bother calling the police anymore.
"I gave up on the whole cop-battling thing," he said. "The cops don't do anything."
On three different occasions, the same thief took vegetable oil out of a Footprint Recycling grease tank at Cher-Ae Heights Casino. The thief was later identified in security tapes when police zoomed in on his face. However, Cooper said, the police told him that "a matter this small" wasn't worth their time. Cooper would have to take the guy to civil court and sue him because the police weren't charging him criminally. He didn't bother.
"I'm not going to waste that much time and money," he said.
Granted, unconverted vegetable oil in a barrel is worth a lot less than processed unleaded gasoline. But after it's converted into biodiesel, that grease is worth exactly as much as regular diesel — above $5.00 per gallon. "Nobody reports stealing garbage," Cooper said. "But this isn't on the same level as garbage."
When reached at the Humboldt County Jail last week, Public Information Officer Brenda Godsey couldn't think of any specific gas thefts in Humboldt County off the top of her head. She "heard of one" last week but could think of very few that stuck out in her mind.
However, Godsey said that it is very possible that gas thefts do occur and go unreported.
"We encourage people to call us whenever a crime is committed," she said. "Getting a more complete picture will enable us to do something about it."
Some people are taking matters into their own hands. At least five people come in daily to Ken's Auto Parts Store in Arcata to purchase locking gas caps, said employee Patrick Keller. In fact, he sells so many locking gas caps in his store that the distributor is consistently back-stocked.
Keller said that none of the customers have "too bad of an attitude" about their gas being siphoned, though. "No one's too mad," he said with a smile from behind the counter on South G Street. "It happens."
It happens, all right. Keller was still smiling as he described someone siphoning gas from his own work truck, outside his home in McKinleyville.
"I thought, wow, I just had a half tank in there." he said. "What happened?" Again, Keller didn't report the crime to the police.
Godsey encourages any victim of a gas crime, small or large, to call the police. Doing so will help accurately identify criminal patterns and ultimately stop it. "Many people think that calling us won't matter," she said. "But if it is happening to you it is probably happening to your neighbor."