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The Indianapolis Star: To be candid, station has you on camera: Bobby Key's Shell station is equipped with 48 cameras to deter gasoline theft and catch people who drive off without paying. Images are displayed on three computer screens. "I would not be in business without the system," Key said.: “At his Cloverdale operation, there are 64 of them.” ( 28 March 05


Valley Mills Shell gets just about everything on video in an effort to prevent gas customers from leaving without paying.


By Cathy Kightlinger

March 28, 2005


Somebody is always watching at Bobby Key's Valley Mills Shell gasoline station, convenience store and banking center.


There are few places anyone can go in or outside the Southwestside business -- except the restroom -- that isn't monitored by one of Key's 48 cameras. At his Cloverdale operation, there are 64 of them.


The cameras are there primarily to capture the images of thieves who pump gasoline and drive away without paying, said Key, 64.


"I would not be in business without the system," he said Sunday from a table inside his Valley Mills station, 4887 Kentucky Ave.


When gas prices increase, as they have in recent weeks, such systems likely get more use.


After prices climb about 10 cents, you start hearing more about gas theft, according to Jeff Lenard, director of public affairs for the National Association of Convenience Stores.


Wholesale gas prices typically begin to increase in February as the petroleum industry prepares to convert operations to produce summer-blend fuel, and retail prices typically begin to increase in March, Lenard said in an e-mail interview.


The national average for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is about $2.13, according to the American Automobile Association's Internet site. A month ago, it was about $1.90; a year ago, it was about $1.74.


"It coincides almost precisely with the NCAA basketball tournament," Lenard said. "It really is true March madness, and there is a direct link between the increase in prices and theft."


Key knows.


"(You can) just expect when you get over $2 a gallon, you are going to have more drive-offs," Key said. "It has always been that way, and it's not changing."


Nationally, gasoline theft cost the industry an estimated $112 million in 2003, according to the convenience store association. But Lenard thinks that figure is low.


Key's surveillance system has helped him recoup losses and even come out ahead, at least one year.


When one of his stores experiences a drive-off, Key investigates by using computers to review pictures the cameras capture and looking up vehicle license plates. Then he sends the suspected culprit a bill for the price of the stolen gasoline, damages, plus additional charges for the time it takes to collect on the theft. Usually the invoice comes to more than $300, he said.


If the thief doesn't pay, Key takes him or her to small claims court, where legal costs are added.


All that effort is worth it, he said. He thinks it not only helps him recoup losses from theft, but also avoid them altogether.


"I think word gets around," he said. "You steal gasoline at this location, you get a bill for $400, and you have to pay it. You are probably going to tell your buddies, 'Don't do it there.' "


Key installed a video surveillance system in the late 1990s. About 11/2years ago, he got a more elaborate digital system that cost about $60,000 for both locations.


"It (has) probably prevented enough to pay for itself, but we have no way of measuring that," he said. "I'm convinced of that, naturally, or I wouldn't do it."


Key's elaborate system is far from the only one in the state.


Stores along I-80, in northern Indiana, also use them to track thieves, said 1st Sgt. David Bursten, of the Indiana State Police.


"It's perfectly within their rights," he said.


Pictures obtained from those cameras can help in criminal prosecutions, too, Bursten said.


Motorists who drive away without paying for gasoline could be charged with theft, a Class D felony. If convicted, they could face six months to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The crime also can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, Bursten said.


Paying customers at Key's Kentucky Avenue station on Sunday said they didn't mind fueling up under the watchful eyes of a surveillance system.


"Don't bother me, 'cause I'm an honest man," said Harlin Cobb, 65, North Vernon, "Don't bother me at all."


Call Star reporter Cathy Kightlinger at (317) 444-2609.


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