New Jersey officials yesterday announced the indictment of a dozen government employees on charges of stealing gas from government pumps, the latest evidence that rising gas prices are prompting motorists to turn to crime.

Some of the defendants used magnetic swipe cards or fuel keys to steal between a few and several hundred gallons of gas, the state Attorney General's Office alleged.

Thieves across the Philadelphia region are apparently helping themselves to a commodity at record-high prices. In South Jersey, the price of regular gas averaged $3.98 per gallon yesterday, according to AAA.

Nationwide, auto-repair shops are reporting instances of thieves drilling into fuel tanks - at the risk of sparking an explosion - along with the more traditional gas-station drive-offs and siphoning.

The New Jersey indictments, which were returned Tuesday, accuse six employees of the City of Camden and the city's Board of Education of gassing up vehicles for personal use at government pumps. Also charged were six current or former employees of the state Department of Children and Families, and one private citizen.

The 13 face a variety of charges, including second- and third-degree counts of official misconduct. The maximum penalties are 10 years in state prison and a $150,000 fine for a second-degree count and five years and $15,000 for a third-degree count.

Attorney General Anne Milgram accused the defendants of taking a free ride at the expense of state and local taxpayers.

"These thefts are a slap in the face to taxpayers who are struggling to afford the gas they need to get to work and to the grocery store," she said.

After the indictments, state comptroller Matthew Boxer's office will audit vehicle and gas use in the Department of Children and Families, which has about 2,500 vehicles and uses tens of thousands of gallons of gas a week.

Among those indicted were Patrick L. Freeman, 66, of Camden, superintendent of Camden's Bureau of Recreation. He is accused of stealing about 37 gallons of gas for his own car and his son's car on four occasions in September and October.

Freeman has been a city employee for 30 years; his salary is about $72,000. A woman who answered the phone at Freeman's residence said he could not take calls because of an abscessed tooth.

Some Camden City employees are authorized to use government pumps to fill personal vehicles for city business. The two indicted employees, Freeman and Terrance Mayo of Lindenwold, did not have that authorization.

The Rev. Tony Evans, spokesman for Camden, did not return a call for comment. Evans, who also is director of the city's Department of Health and Human Services, supervises Freeman and Mayo, who is accused of stealing about 20 gallons from city pumps for a friend's SUV.

Camden school board employees Urshell Pearson of Philadelphia and Charles Rice, William Elliot and Sandra Ingram, all of Camden, are accused of fueling personal vehicles at city pumps without authorization or taking more gas than they were entitled to and then falsifying records.

The employees have been suspended pending school board action, board spokesman Bart Leff said. Those with tenure will be suspended with pay and those without tenure will be suspended without pay, Leff said, but he was unable to find out which employees had tenure.

The indicted employees of the Department of Children and Families have been suspended pending the outcome of the criminal charges, said Kate Bernyk, a department spokeswoman. For now, they are being paid; a union hearing will determine whether that will continue, Bernyk said.

In January, five employees of Newark, N.J., were charged with stealing gasoline from city pumps. One worker allegedly stole 15,302 gallons, worth about $45,000, by letting other people fuel their personal vehicles at government pumps.

David Weinstein, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Hamilton, N.J., said one of the organization's tow-truck contractors in that Mercer County township found his tank "siphoned completely dry" last week.

"You could say that we had to call ourselves for a tow of a tow," Weinstein said.

And in Parsippany, N.J., $3,000 in diesel was stolen from tractor-trailer tanks in a trucking company parking lot in late May, police said.

According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, gasoline theft from retailers peaked just after Hurricane Katrina, when gas prices topped $3 per gallon.

Soon after that, convenience-store owners started requiring customers to pay before pumping, which has cut down on drive-offs, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for the association.

"People are still stealing. It's just harder to steal from pumps," Lenard said.

Sales of locking gas caps, which are intended to dissuade would-be gas thieves, have spiked in the last two or three months at Stant Inc. of Connersville, Ind., one of the largest manufacturers of the devices in the country. Monthly sales of locking gas caps are three to four times what they were a year ago, said Chris Hoffman, product marketing manager for the company, which sold more than a million to the aftermarket last year. Most retail for $5 to $25.

In Audubon, Camden County, locking gas caps "have been flying off the shelves" of Napa Auto Parts on the White Horse Pike, assistant manager Glen Dimitri said.

"With thieves siphoning gas out there, they're panic-stricken," he said. "They put $50 to $60 in the tank and don't want anybody stealing it."

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Rita Giordano and Matt Katz contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.