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As gas prices rise, so does fuel theft alert

MANATEE — With prices creeping up toward the $3 per gallon mark again, law enforcement is eyeing the possibility of a spike in fuel thefts — especially of diesel from farms in rural Manatee.

A gallon of diesel fuel Monday was going for $2.94. That, combined with the reported theft of about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel from an orange grove off State Road 62 in Parrish over the weekend, has officials on alert.

Manatee County sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said when diesel prices top $3 a gallon, theft becomes a growing concern, especially on farms, which are often deserted at night and lack surveillance cameras.

“We don’t think it’s high enough yet, but it’s getting there,” Bristow said of gas prices.

Sometime between Friday and Sunday, a barbed wire fence was cut at the L3 farm, and someone stole the fuel before driving away through the same cut in the fence, deputies said. Rain later washed tire tracks away.

In another incident Sunday night, two men were caught siphoning gas from commercial vans owned by Windows, Decor and Design, in a parking lot in the 3100 block of 53rd Avenue East.

A witness called deputies after seeing a blue truck pull into the store parking lot at 9:15 p.m. Sunday, and another man walk into the parking lot from nearby woods at the same time. Later, he saw the man on foot walking back into the tree line carrying two gasoline containers.

Deputies arrested Johnithan Chapman, 29, and Cole T. Roach, 20, on burglary charges after finding gas containers between the parking lot and the men’s home on 32nd Street East. Deputies found gas caps on the vans in the parking lot open, and a garden hose between the vans.

Bristow said gas siphoning cases are reported less often than diesel thefts in rural Manatee, but he urged securing both gas tanks on vehicles and large fuel storage tanks on farms.

In 2008, as gas prices skyrocketed to more than $4 a gallon, Manatee authorities were inundated with diesel thefts in rural areas such as Parrish and Duette. Deputies made arrests of several men believed to have been part of a statewide diesel theft ring that targeted farms across the state.

“Most definitely anything that can be done to secure these large tanks, and access points to them, should be done,” Bristow said.

The good news at least for the next couple of weeks is that gas prices are expected to remain stable, or even drop 2 to 3 cents per gallon, according to AAA Auto Club South spokeswoman Angie LaPlant.

Gas prices in Bradenton on Monday were higher than the national average of $2.82 a regular gallon, but lower than the Florida average of $2.84 a regular gallon, with an average of $2.83 for a regular gallon here. The cost for a gallon of diesel in Bradenton matched national and state averages at $2.94 a gallon.

LaPlant said fuel prices may drop, as crude oil prices have dropped 56 cents to $80.68 a barrel, and the dollar is performing stronger against the euro on international markets. Also, fuel consumption estimates showed a 7.8 percent drop for March, she said.

It is good news for the next two weeks, but beyond that gas prices are unpredictable, with many analysts in recent months predicting prices to top $4 a gallon sometime in 2010.