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Residents report rash of catalytic converter thefts

With a portable power saw, thieves can quickly remove a catalytic converter from exhaust pipes — as happened to Interfaith Assistance Ministry's box truck. With a portable power saw, thieves can quickly remove a catalytic converter from exhaust pipes — as happened to Interfaith Assistance Ministry's box truck.

On a recent morning, Eva Ritchey went outside to crank one of the passenger vans she operates as part of the Trolley Co., her event transportation business.

“I went out there to start the vehicle that was parked in the back and it just like exploded,” she said.
A mechanic who answered her call for help diagnosed the problem instantly.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” he told her. “They stole your catalytic converter.”
“When you start a vehicle like that and the catalytic converter is gone," the newly schooled business owner said, "that’s what it sounds like coming out of the exhaust."
Ritchey is not alone.
Across Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, law enforcement agencies are responding to a rash of catalytic converter theft, sparked by opportunistic thieves looking to cash in on the increasingly valuable metals harvested from the pollution-reducing tubes.
“We’ve had reports spread out over multiple states and we’re just trying to track down leads and see if we can find out who’s doing it,” Henderson County Sheriff’s Maj. Frank Stout said. “We have got some tips and we’re pursuing those leads. It’s just a rash of thefts of these catalytic converters. Our guys have put in a lot of hours. It’s taking many different directions.”
Stricter emissions standards around the globe have stoked production of catalytic converters at the same that the pandemic’s constraining effect on mining in South Africa has curbed the supply of the precious metals that go into the honeycomb innards of the converters.
The New York Times reported this week on the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts across the U.S. — spiking more than eightfold in St. Louis, from 50 in 2019 to 420 last year, and more than tripling in the last half of 2020 in Lexington, South Carolina, where sheriffs deputies responded to 144 catalytic converter thefts. Coated with precious metals like palladium, rhodium and platinum, the catalytic converter is designed to scrub toxic pollutants from a car’s exhaust. Those metals have skyrocketed in price. One of them, Rhodium, has gone from about $640 an ounce five years ago to a record $21,900 an ounce this year, roughly 12 times the price of gold, the Times reported.
The thefts have become so common that detectives have formed “an informal task force” across agencies in Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties to share case information, surveillance video and tips, Hendersonville Police Capt. Dale Patton said.

“It could be just one of those crimes of opportunity,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to keep your eyes open, keep your vehicle parked in a well-lit place, ask neighbors to keep their eyes open.”
The city has received calls about catalytic converter thefts from private homes and from car dealerships, which, even though well-lighted, are left alone at night. Taller vehicles are popular targets.
“They don’t have to jack them up,” Patton said. “Access is easier.”
With a sawzall, a portable reciprocating saw powerful enough to cut through metal exhaust pipes, a thief can make off with a catalytic converter quickly.
“It’s seconds,” Maj. Stout said. “You get a portable sawzall and it’s just, honestly, zip zip. It could even be 30 seconds if you’re quick and know what you’re doing.” When they target larger vehicle with a high chassis, thieves “can slide in, you’ve got plenty of room to work, plenty of room to operate, be in and out in seconds.”
Although they had no way of knowing how quickly the thief acted, managers at Interfaith Assistance Ministry know the thief used a power saw. They caught an image of it on surveillance video.
“They came in the night and we discovered it when our volunteers drove it,” said Elizabeth Willson Moss, executive director of the crisis services agency. “They thought it was a muffler issue, it was so loud. We investigated and found out that indeed our catalytic converter had been cut off the bottom of our box truck. That’s the only box truck we have. It transports critical food for hungry people.”
Stout recommended that people be on the lookout for vehicles moving slowly through neighborhoods or commercial areas, possibly driven by thieves scoping out easy targets for a catalytic converter theft.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a photo with your cellphone to get a tag number,” he said. “We really want people to be nosy neighbors if they see something suspicious in and around their home.”
If law officers don’t catch a criminal in the act, they may catch a break when the thief shows up at a scrap metal yard.
“A lot of the places that you would sell that item here, they have to put it on LeadsOnline, which we have the ability to look at,” he said.

LeadsOnline is a private company that bills itself as “the link between investigators and missing items” that a thief is trying to hock at a pawnshop or sell at a scrap yard. LeadsOnline says the service helps law enforcement agencies recover stolen items and solve crimes and gives businesses as easy way to log in transactions they’re required to report under state laws.

“If they’re doing in right they have to put information into a database that is shared, that we have the ability to look at,” Stout said. Scrap yards also are required to make a record of the customers who drop off metal for cash.
For Ritchey, whose home and business are on the same property on U.S. 64 west of Laurel Park, the catalytic converter theft from the belly of a 24-passenger bus was just the beginning. Next, thieves sawed one out from under a 14-passenger limo. A catalytic converter in a third vehicle was damaged but left behind when the thief apparently got spooked.
The losses have come as the coronavirus pandemic has crippled her business, which relies on weddings, anniversaries, corporate get-togethers and other celebrations.

“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” she said. “Our business is down 60 percent.”