A woman who is associated with a local Christian day-care was convicted by a Rockdale County Superior Court jury on Friday for stealing gasoline in a 2011 incident but was acquitted of charges from a second 2011 incident.
Sarah Yvonne Morton, 54, had pled not guilty to six charges associated with what authorities believe was a gasoline theft ring that involved breaking gasoline pumps and stealing hundreds of gallons of gas. Morton allegedly pumped gas without paying for it at the Shell Station located 1437 Ga. Highway 138 on Aug. 17, 2011, and the at the Shell Station located at 1800 Ga. Highway 38 on Aug. 22, 2011. She was charged with two felony counts of damaging, destroying or secreting property to defraud another; two misdemeanor counts of drive away without paying for gas; and two misdemeanor counts of theft by taking.
She was found guilty of the charges associated with the Aug. 17 incident but not guilty of the charges from the Aug. 22 incident. The video evidence from the Aug. 22 incident showed her car but was inconclusive as to whether she was the one driving it.
The maximum sentence she can receive on the property damage felony is five years in prison and 24 months in jail for the theft misdemeanor. A sentencing date has yet to be set. Morton's codefendant, Robert James Curtis Jones, 36, had several charges dropped when he pleaded guilty in March. Jones testified in Morton’s trial.
Considered by authorities to be the mastermind of the scheme, Jones told the court that he would receive a phone call from an acquaintance who knew of gas pumps that had been tampered with in order to dispense gasoline without the pump registering. Jones said he would then call people who would notify other people who would then meet Jones at the pump. Though he did not admit so on the stand, authorities believe Jones was paid a fraction of the actual fuel costs in exchange for letting Morton and others obtain gas from the disabled pumps.
Morton’s black Hummer was identified by store employees and was also shown in surveillance video at the Shell Station located at 1437 Ga. Highway 138. Though Morton and her codefendant claim not to have known each other, they are both seen in the video and were seen at the gas stations in close proximity to the gas pumps used in the scheme. Morton’s defense attorney, Jack Nebl, said Morton was unaware of the theft and assumed her husband had paid for the gas in the store prior to her pulling up to the pump.
"I don’t have time to take gas from anybody,’ Morton was seen telling investigators during a 2011 interview shown to the jurors Thursday. "I am not a criminal. If I go up in a court and I’m guilty, I’m going to have a problem with that."
Morton and her family established TGS, a Christian ministry and day-care located on Old Covington Highway. Her husband and several ministers took the stand as character witnesses for the defense Thursday before Superior Court Judge David Irwin gave the case to jury Friday morning.
The first witness called by Assistant District Attorney Paul Stalcup when the trial started Wednesday was Zane Miller, who was dispatched by LLC Testing to investigate shortage issues at the two Shell Stations in August 2011. He testified he had confronted Jones least 12 different times in Rockdale, Gwinnett and Fulton Counties after witnessing Jones breaking into and disabling dispensers. Miller further testified he saw Jones on Aug. 22, 2011, and he also saw the black Hummer registered to Morton for the second time. Miller said the usual method Jones used to steal the gas involved purchasing a small amount of gasoline either in cash or by debit card inside the store, then driving to the pump furthest from the entrance of the store and disabling the pump by opening the door or cutting blocks and gaining access to the computer that registers the flow of gasoline to remove the connection between the computer and the measuring device. Once the pump starts, the computer then allows the dispenser to freely dispense gas without measuring until the hose is returned to the pump. Miller said there were typically 300 to 400 gallons taken at a time.
Though other vehicles were identified as participating in the scheme, Morton and Jones were the only two charged in Rockdale County.