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As gas prices top $4, Sonoma County fuel thefts grow


Kirk Lokka bets he has spent nearly $7,000 repairing fences, buying better locks and replacing gasoline siphoned out of trucks by fuel thieves who have been sneaking onto his vineyard outside Sebastopol.

So Lokka, general manager of Emeritus Vineyards, was already fed up when he found the heavy-duty chain-link fence guarding his trucks had once again been cut this month.

"I can't even leave gas in the trucks anymore," Lokka said.

As gasoline prices soar toward $4 a gallon, fuel theft rises as well, authorities said.

Many cases involve thieves outwitting gas station pumps. Some Santa Rosa and Windsor residents are finding gasoline has been drained from the tanks of their cars parked on the street or even in driveways.

And an increasing number of ranchers are battling gas rustlers who sneak onto rural properties, armed with portable canisters, on the hunt for unattended work trucks and fuel tanks, said Sgt. Mike Raasch, who heads the Sonoma County sheriff's property crimes unit.

"The high price of gas — that's a direct correlation, no doubt," Raasch said.

The price of gasoline surged back above $4 a gallon in February for the first time since last May, turning fuel into liquid gold. Gasoline cost an average of $4.31 per gallon in Santa Rosa on Friday, 33 cents more than it did a year ago, according to AAA.

"When it crosses the $4 range, that gets folks' attention," AAA spokesman Matt Skryja said.

Thieves cut through chain-link fences, pull out heavy fence stakes and drive in with trucks carrying fuel containers, ranchers said. Some may be riding in on bicycles or walking on foot and leaving with what they can carry.

They drain work trucks and fuel tanks and often come back for more.

Vineyard managers have been reaching for thicker chains, bigger locks and adding lights and dogs to keep gas thieves at bay.

"We started out with regular Master Locks, then we went to the bolt-cutter-proof locks, and now they're cutting the chain instead of the locks," Lokka said.

The story is familiar among Graton ranchers.

"We put everything under lock and key," said Scott Zapotocky, director of vineyards for Paul Hobbs Winery.

Tanks of both gasoline and agricultural diesel have been repeatedly drained over the last two years, Zapotocky said.

Detectives with the Sonoma County sheriff's rural crimes task force, reinstated last year, have been tracking and mapping fuel thefts in unincorporated areas of the county.

People reported stolen fuel worth nearly $2,400 last year, with clusters in Graton and along the Sonoma Coast. That amount probably is nowhere near the total stolen from vehicles across the county, officials said.

"A lot of it doesn't get reported," said Pat Moffitt, a community service officer with the rural crimes task force.

Staff keep the shelves stocked with locking gas caps and spare filler necks at O'Reilly Auto Parts on Farmers Lane, said John Anderson, who has worked as a salesman for the auto supply store for three years. The most popular kind costs $13.99 and comes with a key, he said. The caps deter all but the most determined criminals.

"Some will just punch a hole in your gas tank," Anderson said. "I tell people to install motion sensing lights. It also helps to have a big dog and a BB gun."

Paul Hobbs Winery staff battled with repeated gas thefts throughout 2010 and into 2011 on the Graton winery's five properties in Sonoma and Napa counties, Zapotocky said.

Thieves resorted to cutting fuel lines after staff installed locking gas caps on work trucks at the winery, Zapotocky said. He found a truck's fuel line had been cut when he began filling up at a station and gas poured onto the ground.

Zapotocky described an early harvest morning in 2010. After working a 1 to 10 a.m. shift, he returned to his vehicle and found his tank had been drained. The culprit spilled gas, which had already begun eating away at the asphalt.

"Adding insult to injury, I had no gas and I had to put on the work list to fix the asphalt," Zapotocky said.

Vineyard staff now park most vehicles inside garages and no longer keep large tanks of agricultural diesel.

Neighbors have banded together to share information and are working with sheriff's detectives to catch the still unknown thieves.

"We thought we were the only ones until we talked to our neighbors," said Eva Dehlinger, ranch manager at her family's Dehlinger Winery on Vine Hill Road.

An errant tube dangling from a winery truck's gas tank was the first inkling people had been sneaking onto their property and tapping into fuel stores, said her father, Tom Dehlinger.

It was a day or two before Christmas when Tom Dehlinger drove onto the property and noticed the siphon tube in the early morning light.

"People were stealing gas, and they saw me coming," Dehlinger said. "They left a siphon tube in the car."

Evidence indicated the winery had been hit before.

Dehlinger's staff scanned financial records and found the winery had bought about 100 more gallons of gas than last year. They installed locking gas caps.

Then a Dodge Dakota went missing during the first week of February. The vineyard manager happened to spot it parked in front of Oak Grove School on Bower Street in Graton. The window had been broken, the locked gas cap wrenched off and the tank drained, Dehlinger said.

They've since moved work vehicles to areas with locked gates and dogs.

"How would you feel about someone stalking around your house?" Dehlinger said. "Just the lack of peace of mind is worse than the financial loss."