Police and fire chiefs say careless crooks who have been drilling into petrol tanks and draining fuel are now playing ‘Russian roulette’ with their lives – and that of their victims.
Since the spate of fuel thefts began in the Boxmoor and Chaulden areas of Hemel Hempstead last August, 56 cars have been targeted in 28 different streets, across six separate police beats in the town.
Crimestoppers are now offering a reward of up to £1,000 to help bring the culprits – who are believed to live in the same neighbourhoods – to justice.
At a police briefing held this afternoon (Monday), authorities appealed to the public to help identify suspects and put an end to the dangerous practice, which involves using screwdrivers and even power tools to make holes in the tanks of cars.
Hemel Hempstead fire station commander Bob Jackson, also present at the briefing, said: “The fire service has three main concerns about these thefts. Firstly, the use of power tools can generate heat and produce sparks, creating the potential for fire or even an explosion.
“The next morning there is a secondary risk for fire when the engine of the car is started, and thirdly there is an environmental factor in the spilling of the fuel.
“We believe the fuel theft is for personal use, but if large quantities of petrol are being stored this is also a grave concern. It is a case of keeping an eye open and spotting anyone walking around with containers or storing fuel in their vans, cars or sheds.
“With the amount of incidents that have taken place, it has got to the Russian roulette stage now where each crime could lead to a fatal accident.”
Chief Insp for Dacorum Glen Channer said he too was concerned about the ‘safety aspects of drilling into petrol tanks using power tools’ but moved to reassure the public.
He said: “We have been doing house to house enquiries, using automatic number plate recognition and other force resources and working alongside Neighbourhood Watch, and have introduced a mandatory attendance policy to these crimes – taking photos and searching for forensic evidence at all scenes.”
The last recorded incident took place overnight last Tuesday in Pixies Hill Crescent. But according to Chief Insp Channer, the “hot days” for the highly-damaging offences to take place are from Sunday night to Monday morning, when 18 incidents are believed to have taken place.
There is also a pattern of offending overnight between Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings when a further nine have been recorded.
The Poplars, Jocketts Road, Lucks Hill and Gadebridge Road are among streets targeted in the last month alone.
Just five of the reported crimes have involved a diesel theft so it is mainly petrol vehicles being targeted. But police said there is no pattern as to what car make or size the thieves go for.
Police also identified a lull in the thefts between mid-December and early February which the force said ‘suggests a lone offender or a small group from the area, who may have gone away during this time’.
The epidemic has seen £1,800 worth of fuel stolen but has caused a total of £14,500 worth of damage, with one car having had to be written off because the costs of repair outweighed the value of the car.
But the thieves could be making off with even more fuel, if they weren’t spilling most of it on the road.
Chief Insp Channer explained the unsophisticated nature of the thefts often means most of the fuel is spilled on the roadside – not only causing further risk for oblivious car-owners starting their engines, but also wasting fire service resources who respond to the reports as a ‘hazardous materials incident’.
If you have any information about a potential suspect, call police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 – but Chief Insp Channer is urging anyone who witnesses someone crawling underneath a vehicle or acting suspiciously around cars in these areas to call the emergency number 999.