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Police: Gas drive-offs common in Dickinson

Karlee Zach of Riverton, Wyo., fills up her vehicle at Simonson's North in Dickinson on Tuesday. Gas drive-offs have become such an issue that some stations have instituted a prepay-only policy.

Before it instituted a prepay-only policy in June 2011, the employees of the Cenex station in Killdeer suffered enough gas drive-offs that they started to feel bad alerting the police to them.

"(The customers) wouldn't necessarily do it with malicious intent, but just forget (to pay)," said manager Michael Maurer. "We have our camera systems track them down."

Maurer said gas drive-offs happened before the area's population grew due to western North Dakota's recent oil boom, but "it's become more frequent with more people."

Usually when gas drive-offs happen, it's an honest mistake, like a cashier forgetting to add the item to the transaction, said Grant Simonson, manager of Simonson's North in Dickinson.

"It's our responsibility to watch that person at the pump, whether it's writing down their license plate when they pull up or getting a make and model of a vehicle," Simonson said.

That's because not every drive-off is unintentional. Earlier this month, Simonson's North reported a gas drive-off when a man in a 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe allegedly drove away without paying for $86 worth of fuel. The vehicle was reported stolen from Dakota Motors.

"When there is an intentional drive-off, quite often there's something else associated with it, like somebody's on the run," Dickinson Police Det. Terry Oestreich said. "Quite often with the intentional drive-offs there's some other crime associated."

While service stations are not required to have cameras, many do. That makes police work much easier when chasing gas drive-offs, but also helps in many other cases as well, Oestreich said.

"Good surveillance cameras are really nice," Oestreich said. "And it's getting now where there's more and more surveillance cameras not only on gas stations but other businesses."

Driving off without paying for fuel is a misdemeanor, said Capt. Kyle Kirchmeier, southwest region commander of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. There are special classifications for this type of crime.

After the first offense, the court can suspend a license, according to North Dakota Century Code. The second offense can net a suspension of up to three months, and the third and following offenses can carry a six-month suspension.

Those from out of state are harder to convict, Kirchmeier said.

"A lot of state's attorneys won't extradite for small amounts," he said.

Fuel drive-offs happen fairly regularly in the city of Dickinson, Oestreich said, but it "usually ends up being a misunderstanding."

The Highway Patrol doesn't chase too many gas drive-offs, Kirchmeier said, but it will if a gasoline thief -- even an accidental one -- enters it's jurisdiction.

"Sometimes it's by mistake and some are obvious -- and then when we stop them and find out the reason ... in those circumstances, we normally just send them back to the gas station to make payment and then there's no charges pressed," Kirchmeier said. "But if they are actually doing a gas drive-off and if it's not by mistake or some other circumstance, then they're charged."

The Highway Patrol's success catching gasoline thiefs depends on how much information the gas station collects and reports, Kirchmeier said.

"If you have video on it, you can follow up on it more," Kirchmeier said. "Sometimes all we have is a vehicle color and description and that's all we get. It all depends on how much information we have to go on."

Simonson's North in Dickinson doesn't require prepayment, but it does allow them, Simonson said.

"A lot of people like to do the prepay, which is nice for us because we don't have to worry about it," he said, but when a gas drive-off happens, "a lot of the times ... we're able to find them."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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