HAMPSTEAD -- Residents who notice that town police spend a lot of time at the Jiffy Mart Shell station shouldn't assume their finest are just stopping for doughnuts.
They're usually investigating a "gas 'n' go," as Chief Kenneth Russell calls the thefts.
People gas up, and then they go. Without paying. It happens 25 to 30 times a month at that station, and almost never at the other two large stations in town, Chief Russell said.
New video cameras installed may help, he said, as soon as the staff figures out how to iron out one kink: The title showing the date and time on the screen obscures the license plate of the cars it is filming.
But this is a small town of less than 3,000 residents, and that helps. Chief Russell caught one young man because a witness went to school with him. It turned out the chief knew him, too, and paid him a visit. The man went back to the station to pay his bill.
"We don't want to be collection agents for Jiffy Mart," Chief Russell said.
The Carroll County Sun was unable by deadline to reach a spokesman for the Jiffy Mart or its owner, Tevis Oil in Westminster.
The E-Z Minit Mart and the new Amoco station haven't had much of a gas 'n' go problem, Chief Russell said. It seems the Jiffy Mart has some special handicaps that don't plague other stations, such as no clear view from the cash register to the gas bays. Also, it has probably developed a reputation as an easy target, Chief Russell said.
Councilwoman Jacqueline J. Hyatt asked Chief Russell at the Town Council meeting Monday whether he had suggested any changes for the business. He already has suggested that the management make customers pay first, then pump. But they don't want to discourage sales to people who come in to pay for gas and then remember they need, say, a gallon of milk and a bag of pork rinds, too.
He also suggested the station have one cashier strictly for gasoline, to keep track of customers. The management didn't want to do that, he said.
Often, the cashiers don't realize what has happened until long after the culprits leave, he said. A machine spits out a receipt with the amount of gas, time and date. Meanwhile, there might be four or five customers in the store, and the cashiers assume one of them will claim the gas.
"Then the store is suddenly empty, and nobody paid for the gas," Chief Russell said.
Once, he said, he bought gas for his own car, went in and took a quart of oil to the cash register. The cashier rang up only the oil, until he told her about the gas.
"I could have gotten away with it," he said.
Chief Russell caught one other culprit -- a middle-aged woman who really just had other things on her mind when she neglected to go inside to pay for her gas, he said.
"She had a half-million-dollar house. She could have bought the gas station," said Chief Russell.