TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Several people were arrested after authorities busted a suspected fuel theft ring in Hillsborough County.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference Monday that his agency began its investigation on Feb. 25 after two Circle K stores—located at 3702 Highway 41 in Ruskin and 5004 Highway 41 in Apollo Beach—discovered tremendous fuel discrepancies.
Chronister said the suspects used seven different trucks to steal over $60,000 worth of gasoline.
Surveillance video showed the men pull their vehicles up to the pump and unlock it. They would remove the device that’s used to control the price display and replace it with a homemade device. Then they pumped the gas into “large bladders” that could hold more fuel at a time, Chronister said.
The gasoline was taken to a bulk sites near the Tampa International Airport and the Orient Road Jail, and sold at a discount, according to the sheriff.
“They were even wise to the fact that when gas prices rose, they would raise their rates,” and charged at one point $3 per gallon to fill a tank, Chronister said.
Chronister said six suspects were arrested. One is believed to have fled to Cuba. Their names were not released.
The men face various charges, including racketeering (RICO), conspiracy to commit RICO, grand theft and accessing computer electronics without authority. Additional charges could follow.
“I’ve definitely seen weird vehicles in the parking lot and a couple pumps down at a time and then it was all the pumps at the same time,” said Sarah Merwin who regularly pumps gas at the Circle K in Ruskin.
Merwin told 8 On Your Side she knew something had been off for the past month.
“I get times are hard, but you’re taking from everybody not just for yourself, so that just threw me back,” she said. “Even in this hard time of the pandemic and everybody’s struggling as is, you wouldn’t want to make people struggle even more.”
Investigators suspect the men may be responsible for similar thefts in Pasco and Hernando counties. They’re also looking into whether any crimes were committed by those who owned the properties where the bulk sites were located.
“All of us who are feeling the sting, feeling the financial pain from the fuel increase, we become the victims, because this corporation has to recover their losses. They’re going to cover these losses by dispersing the losses onto the ultimate consumer,” Chronister said. “So here in the Tampa Bay, we’ll be paying higher fuel prices because these thieves saw as an opportunity to take advantage of others during a time when we’re already feeling the financial pain and strain from the increase that all of us are feeling.”