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MILLCREEK — Unified police are investigating an alleged fuel theft ring in which thousands of gallons of diesel fuel were stolen from gas stations in at least four counties and then sold at well below market value to local trucking companies.
So far, detectives have been able to document at least $10,000 worth of fuel, or about 2,500 gallons, taken from gas stations in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber Counties, said Unified Police Sgt. Melody Cutler. Police believe that gas was then sold to at least four small trucking companies, she said.
As of Wednesday, no criminal charges had been filed in connection with the investigation, although one man was arrested in November. Police believe after that man's arrest, others in the group may have fled the country. Cutler said the investigation was still very active as of Wednesday into both the alleged fuel thieves and the trucking companies to determine the extent of their alleged involvement. Police believe that based on what they were paying for diesel from the group, the trucking companies should have realized something wasn't on the up and up.
Investigators were also trying to determine how long the group had been operating. Detectives began looking into the case after employees at Top Stop, 3890 S. 2300 East, discovered while balancing their books that the amount of fuel coming out of their pumps was significantly higher than the amount of revenue collected for it, Cutler said.
Detectives believe the group was using stolen credit cards to purchase the diesel fuel. But while most bank cards have security features that will only allow so much fuel to be purchased at one time, Cutler said investigators believe this group was able to manipulate the gas pumps so that even after the pump stopped charging the bank cards, it continued to pump gas.
After checking their surveillance cameras, Top Stop employees learned that two trucks with large tanks in their beds would show up between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. a couple of times each week and fill their tanks, Cutler said.
"Suspects would fill up a large external fuel tank with diesel fuel via credit card fraud, and then presumably sell that fuel to other people. Detectives have conducted physical surveillance to watch this occurring, as well as reviewing camera footage from gas stations," according to a search warrant affidavit filed in 3rd District Court in November.
Investigators were able to put a GPS tracking device on one of the trucks.
"This GPS tracker was showing vehicle movement every day throughout several Utah counties for roughly a month, and then the GPS tracker showed the truck has been parked at a diesel repair shop for an extended period of time without moving. Visual surveillance has been conducted and confirmed the truck is in the lot of this diesel shop," detectives wrote in the warrant.
Jose Lache-Ortega, 31, was arrested on Nov. 9 for investigation of theft and engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity. Police believe Lache-Ortega was filling up the gas tanks on his truck using different credit card numbers each time.
"In an interrogation, the suspect post-Miranda admitted that he has been involved in fuel theft, but claimed he hasn't done it in 'awhile,'" according to a police booking affidavit. "(He) was shown photos from the video of the suspects and admitted he may be the suspect. ... On at least four separate dates over the course of roughly a month, (he) is seen on video stealing diesel fuel or attempting to steal diesel fuel by tampering with the internals of the pump so that fuel flows without being charged."
As of Wednesday, however, formal criminal charges had not been filed against Lache-Ortega as the investigation continued.
"Lache-Ortega has a prior charge from West Valley City Police in 2020 where he was alleged to be in possession of 17 cloned credit cards. These are gift cards, hotel key cards, or other cards with magnetic strips that criminals will load fraudulent credit card information onto so that they are able to use a victim's credit card without physical possession of the card," the warrant states.
On Tuesday, the Mesquite, Nevada Police Department announced that three people had been arrested following a similar investigation in their city. Cutler said there was no evidence was of Wednesday that the three arrested in Nevada are connected to the Utah fuel thefts.