City water thief pays $5 for crime

Tony Stettler knew the gig was up when he saw the lights flashing. Two police cars and “a big honking” municipal truck pulled in behind him.

He was busted. And he realized he could be in some serious trouble from the impressive show of force.

“I was waiting for the SWAT team to arrive,” the North Whidbey resident said.

Stettler stole two large barrels of water from the city’s RV park. The 57-year-old writer won’t try to argue his innocence. After all, he was pulled over with 100 gallons of guilt in the back of his pickup truck.

“I regret what I did,” he said. “A person is capable of desperate deeds when he’s in need of a shower.”

He questions, however, whether it was appropriate — and a wise use of city resources — for two police officers and a municipal employee to spend an hour hassling him over what he calculates to be 14-cents worth of water.

“It was just too Kafka-esque,” he said with a giggle.

On the other hand, Police Capt. Rick Wallace points out that it is a crime to take city water and officers are obliged to deal with crimes. He said the police officers responded responsibly.

“It’s a crime similar to staying at the campground without paying,” he said, “or using a dumpster without permission.”

City Public Works Superintendent Cathy Rosen said Tuesday that she wasn’t aware of what occurred.

The unusual tale of the water heist began last week when Stettler’s well pump went on the blink, leaving him high and dry. He remembered seeing water faucets at the RV park; he decided to fill two 50-gallon tanks so he could take a shower.

Stettler said he was filling the second tank when a public works employee spotted him and demanded that he stop. Stettler said he offered to go pay for the water after filling up, but the man wouldn’t let him.

“He was really insistent,” Stettler said. “He was the guy who was going to say no.”

Stettler made a rude gesture to the man and left. But instead of going home with his misbegotten water, he said he decided to “do a sneaky” on the city employee. He parked nearby and waited for the public works man to leave. When he did, Stettler returned to the faucet and filled up the tank.

Apparently he wasn’t sneaky enough. Just as he was leaving, the police officers pulled him over on Pioneer Way. A large public works truck pulled in behind.

Steller claims that the police officers kept him there for about an hour, trying to figure out what to do with him, all the while blocking a lane of traffic on Pioneer Way.

Stettler said a police sergeant sat in his car while the other officer, a serious fellow, kept walking back and forth from the sergeant to his pickup.

People driving by slowed down to see what was happening. “They probably thought I was a terrorist,” Stettler said.

Wallace said it’s standard procedure for two officers to respond to a traffic stop that lasts longer than normal and the suspect isn’t secured in a police car. It’s about safety.

“He knows who they are,” Wallace said, referring to Stettler and the officers, “but they don’t know who he is or what he’s capable of.”

In the end, the officer told Stettler he could either go to City Hall and pay $5 for the water he stole, or he would be cited for theft and a “judge could determine the justice in the matter.”

Stettler said he gladly went to City Hall, where he was met by “a very stern-faced woman.” Since he didn’t have any cash on him, he was glad to find that the city takes credit cards.

He’s not sure where the $5 figure came from. “I think it’s something kind of punitive to teach a miscreant a lesson,” he said.

After returning home with the goods, Stettler called the city utility office and found that residential customers pay $0.0014 per gallon. In other words, the 100-gallons of water was worth 14 cents.

He was dumbfounded and amused. “We went through all that shenanigans and brow-beating for 14 cents of water,” he said, laughing.

Stettler estimates that the hour worth of work — in apprehending him — by three city employees cost taxpayers at least $40. If he would have refused to pay the $5, it probably would have cost far more.

“Terrorists should be warned by this example of vigilance,” he joked. “The water caper was broken up before it could evolve into a major water smuggling conspiracy.

Stettler, a self-proclaimed “geezer,” has a sense of humor about the situation, but he also feels it was a ridiculous waste of time and money for all involved.

Of course, it’s up to individual interpretation as to who created the situation in the first place.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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