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Gasoline thieves drain police resources

Motorists who drive off without paying for gas are growing in number and siphoning police resources, Fargo Police Sgt. Jeff Skuza said. "It's approaching a really nasty problem.

Motorists who drive off without paying for gas are growing in number and siphoning police resources, Fargo Police Sgt. Jeff Skuza said.

"It's approaching a really nasty problem. It's really starting to weigh us down," said Skuza, who added the problem escalated this spring when gasoline prices began flirting with $3 a gallon.

Crude oil prices set a new record above $75 a barrel Wednesday, prompting some analysts to predict average prices at the pump could top $3 a gallon by the weekend.

Gasoline was at $2.84 a gallon at many stations in Fargo on Wednesday, while 100 miles to the east, in Staples, Minn., the price at one station was $3.03, according to GasBuddy.com, an Internet site devoted to tracking gas prices nationwide.

An injured officer who has been relegated to the office is investigating drive-off cases for Fargo police, Skuza said.


"If we get to the point where we don't have someone like that, I don't know who we're going to find to do them all," Skuza said.

Before the rise in gas prices, Fargo police logged about four drive-off cases a month.

The number is now closer to four cases a week, Skuza said.

"We're encouraging gas retailers to take some kind of deposit or require that they (customers) pay before they pump, similar to what they do in other cities," Skuza said,

But he said business owners won't do that.

"Their position is, if they do that they're going to lose business," Skuza said.

Unless all stations in the area make the change, an individual business probably won't do it on its own, agreed Shivdev Singh, owner of Hase Petroleum in Fargo, also known as Laffen's Food and Gas.

Although drive-offs happen, Singh said his business hasn't had that many, so far.


City Prosecutor Tristan Van de Streek doesn't keep a tally on drive-off cases, but he said he's seeing "a whole lot more" than he has in the past.

Van de Streek handles cases when the value of gas taken is $250 or less, which is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"I'm not at the point where I'm declining cases. Every case I think I can prove, I prosecute," he said.

Things get cloudy in situations where a retailer has accepted partial payment or holds a credit card until someone returns with money.

"In that situation, it becomes more of a civil dispute. We can't very readily prove criminal intent," Van de Streek said, adding he, too, would like to see more businesses adopt pay-before-you-pump policies.

"It's just common sense," he said.

As a prosecutor, another problem Van de Streek runs into is proving who was driving when a car filled up but the driver didn't pay.

Better surveillance cameras at some stations are helping solve that issue, he said.


A digital camera system installed two months ago at the Little Dukes station in Fargo seems to be discouraging drive-offs, manager Tim Rhode said.

"They (drivers) can see the camera," he said, adding that people skipping out on the bill is a growing problem everywhere in the state.

"With gas prices going up, I think people are more prone to take that chance," Rhode said.

Not everyone who drives off without paying is intending to commit a crime, Skuza said.

While some are trying to get away with something, others legitimately forget, or don't understand how paying at the pump works," he said.

"Normally, we call 'em up and say, 'You didn't pay,' '' Skuza said.

"They say, 'I forgot.' And they come in and pay it," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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