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Dreaded Unleaded

Claim:   A gas-siphoning thief gets a mouthful he'll never forget when he tries to drain the wrong tank on an RV.

LEGEND

Example:   [The Daily Record, 2004]

A bungling thief tried to siphon diesel from a camper van but got a mouthful of raw sewage.

The would-be raider missed the fuel tank in the dark and put a tube into the van's septic tank by mistake.

And after sucking up the foul-smelling waste, he threw up on the spot and fled.

Pensioner John O'Hare found a puddle of vomit and an abandoned petrol container when he stepped out of the van in the morning.

And last night he smiled: 'I hope the thief has learned from his experience and given up his evil ways.'

John, 73, and wife May, 69 of Arden, Glasgow had spent a week touring Scotland before stopping off for the final night of their holiday in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire.

John said: 'We made sure everything was safe and secure and settled down for the night. The following morning we were disgusted to find that under the cover of darkness a thief had attempted to siphon off diesel from the fuel tank.

'But fortunately for us, he was left with a nasty taste in his mouth.'

John found a plastic siphon tube and an empty fuel container next to their camper.

The contents of the septic tank had been drained and lay on the ground next to a pool of the thief's vomit. Also abandoned at the scene was a pile of pound coins which John believes may have been stolen from a vending machine earlier in the night.

John and May donated the abandoned pound coins to Oxfam.

John said: 'We hope this thief will give up robbing visitors and tourists seeking a peaceful and pleasant holiday after what happened to him.

 

Origins:   When the story detailed in the above-quoted account about a would-be gasoline thief who tried to siphon from the wrong tank on an RV, appeared in the [Scottish] Daily Record in May 2004, it sounded awfully familiar to us. And with good reason — the very same story had made the news back in 1991:
A thief who tried to siphon gas from a motor home got a mouthful of sewage instead, police said. Police got an early morning call from Dennis Quigly, the owner of the vehicle. Quigly was inside the parked motor home when he heard strange noises outside. "Apparently, the suspect was attempting to steal gasoline and got the sewage tank instead," Officer Tom Umporowicz reported. Officers found sewage and what looked like vomit on the ground. Nearby they found a 14-year-old boy curled up ill next to a car. Quigly said he declined to press charges in the incident, figuring the boy, who was not identified, had been punished enough.
And even back in 1991 that story sounded familiar, because folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand had described it as a well-known example of the 'hilarious accident' genre of urban legend in a book published ten years earlier:
[Another] accident story provides only the visual evidence of an injury, though the preceding accident is obvious. A camper-trailer owner has converted his spare gas tank into a holding tank for the camper toilet. One morning he comes out and finds a siphon hose on the ground next to the vehicle, and alongside it is clear evidence that some would-be gasoline thief has been very, very sick.
Is this story "true"? In a technical sense it's an urban legend whether or not the event described ever actually happened in real life, because what makes a tale an urban legend is not its underlying truth or falsity, but that the same story is told over and over with differing details of time, place, and person. Note that although the three examples we quote here supposedly relate three different occurrences of similar incidents taking place over a span of more than twenty years, they all tell the same story in the very same way: The would-be gasoline thief is never caught in the act — his attempts are always discovered after the fact, his actions are always inferred from visual evidence, and the visual evidence is always the same (siphoning equipment and a pool of vomit).

Moreover, the putative explanation seems rather improbable for a couple of reasons:
  • The incident would make sense if the entrances to both the septic and gasoline tanks on an RV were located together on the side of the vehicle. However, it's nigh impossible to confuse an RV's gas cap with its septic tank release: the former is on the side of the vehicle, while the latter is underneath it. Though the gas cap is in clear line of sight on the side of the vehicle (same as for a car or truck), the waste tank's gate valve is invariably on the underside of the beastie, out of sight unless one gets down on the ground and looks for it. It's located there to make the draining of its contents into an in-ground septic tank a simple matter: the RV owner attaches a hose to the waste outlet, puts the other end into the dumping tank, then flips open the gate valve and lets gravity do the work (or turns on a pump to push the waste fluid into the septic tank).

    A thief attempting to breach the wrong tank would have to bypass the obvious gas cap on the side of the vehicle in favor of crawling around on the ground and looking for valves on the underside of the motor home. One would think this activity would awaken in even the dumbest the realization that something is not at all right. ("Geez, how are you supposed to get the nozzle from the gas pump into this thing? The guy who owns this rig must end up covered with gasoline every time he tries to fill his tank, and that's only if he can get the hose from the gas pump to stretch this far.")
  • Nobody really wants a mouthful of gasoline any more than he wants a mouthful of sewage, so anyone who has ever siphoned before (as a gasoline thief presumably has) should know to be ready to stop sucking and pull the hose away from himself once the fluid starts coming down the line rather than letting the flow enter his mouth. In any case, even if the siphoner were a bit slow on the draw, getting a mouthful of a nasty fluid isn't nearly the same thing as swallowing a nasty fluid — a bit of gasoline or sewage taken into the mouth and immediately spit out may leave an unpleasant taste behind, but it won't necessarily induce vomiting. (Of course, just the thought of having had something yucky in one's mouth, no matter how briefly, is sufficient to cause some people to vomit.)
On the other hand, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one ever lost money underestimating the stupidity of common crooks, especially those who might be operating under the additionally handicapping effects of alcohol or drugs.

Whatever the underlying truth, the "gas-siphoning thief" story is a classic urban legend — a tale just plausible enough to maybe have played out in real life, but one too improbable to have occurred as many times (and always in the same fashion) as commonly reported.

Barbara "bawl of yarn" Mikkelson

Last updated:   25 March 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 82-83).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (pp 181-2).

    Lacitis, Erik.   "Rumors? Erik Sets the Record Straight."
    The Seattle Times.   13 June 1997.

    Macdonald, Calum.   "Camper Van Thief Siphons Off Raw Sewage Instead of Diesel."
    The [Scottish] Daily Record.   17 May 2004.

    Orlando Sentinel-Tribune.   "Boy Siphons Wrong Pipe, Gets a Gulp of Sewage."
    8 August 1991   (p. A20).

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   "Theft Attempt Leaves Sour Taste."
    7 August 1991   (p. A12).

Also told in:

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1984.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 156).