Published on Tuesday, April 6, 2004
in the St. Petersburg Times
I'm gassing up my truck, wondering about the tough trooper glaring from the antitheft sticker we've all seen on pumps. Then reality pulls me over.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
EASTPOINT - I am one of those nitwits who wait until the needle points to empty before looking for a service station. So there I was in the Florida Panhandle, a long way from civilization, wishing I had brought my hiking books for what promised to be a long walk.
I felt less anxious once I escaped the lonely woods known as "Tate's Hell" near the Apalachicola River and drove onto U.S. 98. At least if I ran out of gas on the busy coast highway, I might be able to thumb a ride. Then, rising in the distance like an oasis, was a Chevron.
I did my credit-card stuff and pumped gas into my parched truck. As my anxiety ebbed and the gas flowed, my eyes were drawn to the sticker I see on almost every service-station pump in the state these days.
"Warning," the sticker read, "If You Don't Pay For Your Gas You Could Lose Your Driver's License!" Next to the warning, of course, was a photograph of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
Not just any trooper, but about the fiercest-looking trooper in the history of troopers. On the sticker he wears a Smokey Bear hat low on his forehead like one of those nail-eating Parris Island Marine drill instructors. Under the hat is a shaved head.
He has serious eyes, no-nonsense eyes that bore into yours, that make you want to drop down and give him 20 pushups. He has the neck of a bull and the shoulders of a linebacker and hands that could pop your skull like a cantaloupe if you gave him cause. Even if I were poor, even if I were desperate, even if I were a habitual criminal, I would not steal gas if I thought he might come after me.
As I stood pumping gas and musing about the trooper from hell, a Highway Patrol vehicle happened to drive up and park on the opposite side of the pump.
For some reason the coincidence bothered me. I stole a glance at the driver. My first glance wasn't enough so I tried a second, and a third.
Finally, with the hair rising on my neck, I walked over and cleared my throat.
"Excuse me," I said, trying not to squeak. "This might sound like an odd question, but aren't you . . ."
"Yes, sir," he said. "I'm him."
He introduced himself as Trooper Anthony Stone. Crushing my hand in a serious handshake, he said that yes, sir - certainly, sir - he would be glad to talk a few minutes. He is 34 years old, he told me, born in Clearwater and raised in Crystal River. After high school, he joined the Marines, and after the Marines he signed up with the Highway Patrol in 1997. Stationed in Quincy, near Tallahassee, he patrols U.S. 98 where people, frankly, aren't stealing much gas.
"Old-fashioned values up here, sir," he said. "It isn't much of a problem."
In the rest of Florida, especially urban Florida, stealing gas is a problem, especially when the price of gas is going up like right now. Service stations and convenience stores report losing about $1,000 a year each to gas thieves. Where I'm from, Pinellas County, service stations reported 451 "pump-and-runs" between Jan. 1, 2003, and last Thursday.
It used to be worse. In 1999, Florida stations reported losing about $3,000 apiece to gas thieves. That's when Florida Petroleum and Convenience Store Association communications director Rue Luttrell called Highway Patrol Deputy Director Ken Howes and asked for the loan of a trooper who might model for a public information campaign. Luttrell wanted a "serious-looking person" for her "don't steal gas" campaign. Howes didn't have to think long.
In North Florida, Trooper Stone is a well-known spit-and-polish straight arrow. Now his photograph is everywhere. It is slapped on 40,000 pumps at 9,000 stations in Florida. Jeb should be so lucky. I asked Trooper Stone about fame.
"I don't think about it, sir. But people do recognize me, yes sir. Not long ago, I was doing some off-duty work in Tallahassee and somebody asked if I were that guy. Every once in awhile people ask for autographs. I would rather give them an autograph than sign my name on a traffic citation."
I asked why he thought he had been picked to be the gas sheriff.
"I don't know for sure, sir," he said. "I do know I am serious about my work in the Highway Patrol. I love my job. It's more than giving speeding tickets for me. I enforce drug laws and just help people. I am also an ex-Marine. When you become a Marine right after high school like I did, you're like a puppy. They have trained you for life."
I told him he looked like a Marine.
"Thank you, sir. I still press my uniform every day. I still shine my shoes every day. I wash my car every day. It's a habit."
As we talked, I worked up my nerve. I wanted to tell him what graffiti artists do to his gas-pump photograph where I'm from. They write "I'm gay" over his picture, give him devil horns and vampire teeth. I was especially nervous about telling him the "I'm gay" part. So I told him about the Hitler mustaches.
"Yes, sir. I'm aware that people do that. But you know, they don't do that up here. We have small-town values up here. Plus, people know me. I'm around. When people know you, they treat you like a human being."
The cost of stolen gas
In the city, most of us are anonymous. Often we don't know our neighbors, much less the guy who sells us groceries or the woman behind the counter at Exxon. In the city, we often stop for gas at huge service-station supermarkets, where the aisles are jammed with bags of chips and beef jerky and where cars come and go every second. Recently, I visited Bob Scheidt, the manager at the Rally Gas Station on Clearwater's congested Ulmerton Road, and asked about stolen gas.
"It costs us $300 a month," he fumed. He has 20 pumps at his store. He said gas thieves usually favor pumps nearest the road. Typically, they fill their tanks and lay the hose on the pavement. Then they jump into their vehicles and flee. The interstate is less than a half-mile away.
In some cities service stations have eliminated "pay at the pump" services. Wally Maddah, who owns a Citgo where I sometimes stop for gas in St. Petersburg, is one of them.
"I hated to do it," he told me. "My customers think I don't trust them. Most of them, I do trust. But the thing is, if I get four or five drive-offs in a day, which has happened, I've lost my profit for the entire day. I might as well shut the pumps down. I can't afford it. So now people pay for their gas in advance."
I asked if he ever reported stolen gas.
"Sometimes," he said. "But it's almost not worth your time. You've got to get the license plate number, of course. And you've got to get a good description of the car and of the driver. Sometimes the police come, sometimes they don't. If they get somebody, you'd have to go to court for a $10 or $20 tank of gas. There's a lot of serious crime around here. I understand that. We're a low priority."
Not like in the city
Up in the Panhandle, up in Trooper Anthony Stone's territory, where kids still chase tadpoles in ditches, life seems innocent. As we talked, he waved at people who stopped for gas and greeted some by name. A tough guy on a motorcycle roared up, apologized for the interruption and showed Trooper Stone his license.
"Thank you for stopping me, Trooper," he said. "I paid my fine and got a new license. I wanted you to know I'm squared away now."
"Way to go, sir," said Trooper Stone. "I'm happy to hear that."
I asked Trooper Stone if he ever chased gas thieves.
"Yes, sir, it does happen, though not very often. Like I said, everybody knows each other around here. If you steal from this station, you're stealing from a person you likely know. It's not like in the city."
Recently he went after someone.
"Two couples were in the car. It was a man and his wife and that man's parents. But when I stopped them they had a credit-card receipt for the gas. One of the women had also kept a travel journal where she had written down how much gas they'd purchased and what kind of mileage they'd been getting. They had their gas purchase as well-documented as I have ever seen. My advice to everyone is to hang onto that gas receipt. Sometimes a clerk will make a mistake."
I thanked Trooper Stone for his time. He thanked me in return and crushed my hand again.
As I started to drive off, he suddenly reappeared at my window. For a terrible moment, I was afraid I had forgotten to pay for my gas.
"Sir, I just wanted to get one thing straight. I don't want it to sound like I think everybody who lives in the city is dishonest. Of course they're not. But up here in the country, you know, we still do believe in family values."
Reporter Meets Trooper