After an Alabama gas station owner was run down and killed by a driver who police believe was escaping with $52 worth of fuel, industry experts predict it could be a sign of more stolen gasoline or possibly violence.
The death of Husain "Tony" Caddi, 54, captured national media attention for two reasons: It shows that soaring gas prices make people angry enough to steal, and gas retailers are tired of putting up with it, according to Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores (search).
"As the price of gas climbs, people's values decline," Lenard said.
Caddi, owner of the Fort Payne Texaco, died Friday after he grabbed onto the vehicle and the driver dragged him across the parking lot and onto a highway, police said. Caddi fell from the vehicle and was run over by the vehicle's rear wheel. A search for the driver and a gold or tan Jeep-style SUV continued Monday.
A gasoline industry group has tried to make a point over and over to its members: losing money during a drive-off isn't worth losing your life.
The Petroleum & Convenience Marketers of Alabama (search) tells gas retailers to "never try to take action themselves" during robberies and drive-offs, said Arleen Alexander, the group's executive director.
"But I can understand why someone would want to fight for their property," Alexander said. "Fifty-two dollars doesn't sound like that much, but with the little they're making these days that's a lot."
Gasoline theft costs retailers nationwide $237 million in 2004 more than twice the $112 million loss in 2003, according to NACS.
Lenard said on average, one in every 1,100 fill-ups was a gas theft last year, the group said. With about a penny per gallon as profit, a retailer would have to sell an extra 3,000 gallons to offset each $30 stolen.
"It's a very difficult situation and you're never sure how people are going to react," said Sam Turner, president of Calfee Co. of Dalton, Ga., which operates 114 Favorite Markets (search) convenience stores in the South.
"It's something on everybody's mind right now because it's a commodity that virtually everybody uses. You're talking about a heck of an impact to their billfold," he said.
Theft combined with gas prices that have jumped this summer by as much as 18 cents to an average of $2.55 a gallon nationally, and both retailers and consumers are beginning to lash out, experts warned.
Lenard and Turner said safety and theft concerns have pushed most gas stations in the region to shift to a prepay policy, but even that is not a perfect solution. A prepay policy cuts down on browsing, and buying in gas station stores is a big chunk of owners' profits.
"We're in uncharted territory. We're seeing more people going to prepay than ever before," Lenard said. "I think we'll look back on 2005 and say 'Remember when we used to be trusted to pay for our gas?'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.