"As the price of gas climbs, people's values decline," said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Lenard said the death of Husain "Tony" Caddi, 54, has 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.
Police say Caddi, owner of the Fort Payne Texaco, was killed when he grabbed hold of a vehicle and the driver dragged him across a car park and onto a highway. 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.
The Petroleum & Convenience Marketers of Alabama tells gas retailers to "never try to take action themselves" during robberies, 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 cost retailers nationwide $237 million in 2004 - more than twice the $112 million loss in 2003, according to NACS.
On average, one in every 1,100 gasoline fill-ups was a gas theft last year, the group said. With about one cent per 1 gallon as profit, a retailer would have to sell an extra 3,000 gallons to offset each $30 stolen, Lenard said.
Both retailers and consumers are beginning to lash out, experts warned.
"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, Georgia, which operates 114 Favorite Markets 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.
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 - 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?'"
By Samira Jafari