Sheriff’s deputies arrest suspect in fuel theft

The cooperative efforts of employees at a local construction site, a brave female undercover officer and a tip from a concerned citizen allowed Big Horn County Sheriff’s deputies to nab a suspect accused of stealing large quantities of red diesel fuel on at least three occasions beginning around Thanksgiving from construction vehicles parked at a GK Construction site.

The accused, Robert Walker Hummel, 27, a resident of Powell, allegedly sold the stolen fuel, which was contained in 55-gallon drums, to a female undercover officer, who posed as a farmer’s wife during a sting operation. The transaction culminated in his arrest at around noon on Friday, Dec. 20, just outside of Lovell.

“We are always dealing with the theft of fuel from vehicles at the bentonite pits. It’s a chronic problem we’ve been dealing with for a long time,” said Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn. “This most recent theft was substantial, in the 300 to 400 gallon range. We knew we had someone out there stealing, so we set up this sting operation after we received a tip last week (on Tuesday) that a Robert Walker Hummel was attempting to sell red diesel for an extremely discounted price. We had an officer go undercover and offer to purchase a significant quantity of the fuel. He followed through and completed the transaction.”

The female officer is married to a farmer and drove an old farm truck to meet Hummel while wearing a recording device. Blackburn said the officer, who is quite intelligent, played the role of a “dumb blonde,” which actually got the accused to implicate himself with statements he made during the transaction, including the statement that he was running the fuel in his own truck, which is illegal. In an act of chivalry, he even offered to deliver the fuel and unload it at the undercover officer’s ranch.

Hummel met the undercover officer in Big Horn County in the Lovell area for the alleged sale. Blackburn said intelligence received indicated that Hummel may be armed, so deputies waited until the transaction was complete and Hummel left the populated area where it occurred before stopping him on the highway outside of town.

“Several deputies from the sheriff’s department made a felony traffic stop where they arrested him once he was outside of town,” explained Blackburn. “The subject was not armed at that moment. The officers then conducted an investigation and matched several items of evidence to link Hummel and his vehicle to the scene of the crime. A chemical analysis is also being done for additional evidence linking him to the theft.”

Blackburn said that Hummel was cooperative when questioned by deputies. He did not resist when he was arrested and transported to Big Horn County Detention Center in Basin, where he was being held at press time. He was expected to appear in court on Monday.

“Multiple charges are being considered by Big Horn County Attorney Michelle Burns, who is reviewing the evidence, however at this time the official paperwork has not been completed,” said Blackburn. “All persons, of course, are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

Blackburn praised the fine work of Deputies Darold Newman and Roger Haney, who he said did an outstanding job on the case.

“A lot of our guys were taking vacation time because of the end of the year, holidays and such,” said Blackburn. “All of them, without exception, left their vacations to respond and assist in this operation and I’m really proud of their commitment to the community.”

The Lovell Police also assisted in the case.

He said he was especially appreciative of the female undercover officer, who given the circumstances, performed her duties at great risk.

“I’d like to also express our gratitude to the citizen who gave us the tip that led us to the arrest of this suspect,” said Blackburn.

Blackburn noted that fuel thefts are becoming a more common crime with diesel fuel prices running as high as $4 per gallon.

“At $4 a gallon, 10 gallons worth of fuel equals a $40 bill,” said Blackburn. “We are very trusting in areas like this, especially in rural areas, but the reality is right now, with the economy the way it is, we are seeing more and more of this type of crime.”

by Patti Carpenter