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C-Store Owner Cries Foul

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The owners of Country Trader convenience store, which raised its gasoline price to $4.99 a gallon on Sept. 11, have been called profiteers and worse.

On the day of the attacks, several Ohio gas stations, including Country Trader, raised their prices to more than $3 a gallon, according to the Columbus Dispatch.. The increase was a reaction to uncertainty, panic buying and a surge in wholesale cost.

"We got a fax from our supplier that the price was raising something like 15 cents immediately and that that was not a ceiling. We had no way of contacting anyone in that short period of time to find out what was going on with supply,'' said Debra Stephens, who owns the Country Trader store with her husband Jim.

At 8 p.m., with closing scheduled for 9 and traffic stretched beyond the parking lot, Stephens raised the price for the first time that day - to $4.99 a gallon. "That was just to get people to stop pulling in, more than anything else. People saw the price. They had the opportunity to leave," Stephens said.

Instead of leaving, irate customers placed calls to Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery alleging foul play. After an investigation, Montgomery's office threatened to sue any station that had charged more than $3 a gallon that day unless it donated money to the American Red Cross.

"Profiteering in the wake of a national tragedy of this proportion is unconscionable and unacceptable, especially when we know there is no shortage of gasoline," Montgomery said.

After at least 23 stations succumbed, Montgomery celebrated with a triumphal news release. But a few stations held out, including Country Trader, which faces a $125,000 fine.

The Stephenses have countersued Montgomery for slander, claiming the negative publicity has cost the store more than $100,000 in fuel sales.

On the day of the attack, "everybody was kind of, like, numb," Stephens recalled. "But as the day went on, it seemed like people started going crazy. By nighttime, people started lining up at the pumps. Customers said, 'Have you heard the pipelines are being shut down? Have you heard prices in Kentucky are $10 a gallon?' They were panicked and we were, too. We were afraid they were going to drain us."

On Sept. 12, when no supply shortage materialized, the station returned prices to normal, the report said.
"People are scary when they're enraged and think they're being ripped off," Stephens said. "And that's what Betty Montgomery is telling people. People trust her. And she's telling people we did this horrendous thing. I think she owes us a big apology."
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