Crime wave hits area heating oil supplies

Thieves target tanks at businesses

Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

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After pulling over a flatbed truck on Jan.11, sheriff's officers discovered an oil tank that had been stolen from a neighboring county.

He hadn't much used his video store's heating system this winter, but when Wayne Johnson recently tried to warm up the shop on a chilly day, he was surprised to learn it wasn't working.

"It was cold air blowing out," said the owner of Waldorf Video at Pinefield.

Johnson thought there was a mechanical issue — maybe a blocked pipe — until he learned the real problem was that his 275-gallon heating oil tank was empty. Thieves had stolen about $600 worth of fuel from the container, he discovered.

And according to the Charles County Sheriff's Office, Johnson's isn't the only tank to be tapped.

Thieves have been stealing heating oil from businesses and homes in Charles County in recent months, often filching small amounts at a time so it's more unlikely that people will notice their emptying tanks. Detectives believe the thieves are driving trucks or flatbeds to the tanks and siphoning several gallons of oil into barrels or drums.

But eventually, the victims started to take note of their depleting fuel supply.

"It seems [the thieves] were getting a little greedy and stealing more and more," said Diane Richardson, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office.

On Jan. 8, police learned that several businesses in the Pinefield Shopping Center, including Johnson's, had reported missing oil. Based on fuel analysis, police determined that the tanks were tapped between Dec. 3 and 17.

Michael Besche, whose company owns the shopping center, said a protective screen was put around the stores' oil tanks after the thieves siphoned the fuel. The screens prevented additional fuel theft, Besche believes, but someone later vandalized the tanks, cutting all the feed lines running to the shopping center.

"Times are tough. You've got to look out for yourself and your neighbor, I guess," said Quincy Wilkins, who works at Chester's Place Barber Shop, another one of the Pinefield businesses that thieves hit.

Investigators believe the thieves are probably selling the fuel at cut-rate prices or using it themselves.

This type of incident is also happening outside of Charles County, according to police.

On Jan. 11, sheriff's officers pulled over a truck after noticing it matched the description of a vehicle reportedly used to steal an oil tank from a home in a neighboring county. In the truck bed, police found the entire tank. Charges are pending against the driver and passenger, and investigators are trying to determine if the two men have stolen oil in Charles County.

Police are urging county residents to report unusual activity near oil tanks. Although locking mechanisms on the caps of the oil tanks might deter a thief, it's hard to prevent the tanks from being stolen.

Tank owners should consider screening the tanks with hedges or fencing or installing security lighting, according to police.