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Catalytic converter thefts a growing problem for Upper Valley auto shops, car owners

  • Mechanic Reb Bates closes the last bay door at WAWECO in West Hartford, Vt., after bringing as many vehicles as possible inside for the night to protect against catalytic converter theft on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. The shop has lost over $20,000 in repairs and parts since March due to the theft of the exhaust component, which uses super-heated precious metals to burn unconsumed fuel and gasses from exhaust before reaching the tail pipe. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Lengths of exhaust pipe cut by a catalytic converter thief with a reciprocating saw and damaged oxygen sensors top a pile of scrap removed during repairs at WAWECO in West Hartford, Vt., Monday, July 12, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Mechanic Charlie Piper, right, installs a double catalytic converter assembly on a truck with help from Mike Downer at WAWECO in West Hartford, Vt., Monday, July 12, 2021. The truck was in for an oil change and brake work when the catalytic converter was stolen for its scrap value. Because of the precious metals inside, the parts can fetch up to $300 as scrap on the black market, and can cost over $3,000 to replace. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mechanic Charlie Piper installs an oxygen sensor after replacing double catalytic converter on a truck at WAWECO in West Hartford, Vt., Monday, July 12, 2021. The truck was in for an oil change and brake work when the catalytic converter was stolen for its scrap value. Because of the precious metals inside, the parts can fetch up to $300 as scrap on the black market, and can cost over $3,000 to replace. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

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    Merv Martin, of Granite State Automotive, listens for any sounds of an exhaust leak after replacing the catalytic converter on a Southwestern Community Services bus in Charlestown, N.H., on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. The bus, which had only 300 miles on the odometer and was not yet in service, was one of six at the SCS building on Charlestown Road that had catalytic converters cut off by thieves last Monday night. "It's kind of a shame for a new bus," said Martin. "This is what happens when people get greedy." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Don Beam, a driver for Southwestern Community Services, left, greets Edward Goodell, his fiancee Lisa Kimberly, third from left, and daughter Vanessa Goodell, right, at the end of Goodell's Claremont, N.H., driveway to give him a ride to a doctor appointment in Lebanon on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Goodell gets rides from SCS two to three times a week and after the theft of catalytic converters shut down the bus service earlier in the week, he was worried he might miss an appointment. Enough busses were repaired on Wednesday to restart two of the services regular routes and resume scheduled pickups on Thursday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • In the parking lot at a convenience store in Barre, Vt., Conor Margison, speaks with a reporter about catalytic converters being stolen from Margison Metalworks, his shop in Barre on Friday, July, 9, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:38:39 PM
Modified: 8/3/2021 12:07:50 PM

WEST HARTFORD — When Wade Willis opened the doors of his auto repair shop on a Tuesday morning in March, he had no way of knowing his Hartford business was the latest victim of a serious national crime trend.

It wasn’t until one of his employees started up the shop’s flatbed wrecker that day and was met with a deafening roar that Willis realized: He’d been robbed.

That was the first time a catalytic converter was stolen from one of Willis’ vehicles at WAWECO, his repair and auto sales shop in West Hartford. Over the next four months, that number would climb to nearly 10, with a total repair cost of $20,000.

Some of those vehicles were customers’ cars, meaning Willis had to make an uncomfortable call to the owners and then speak with their insurance companies.

“Luckily, I have very understanding customers,” he said.

Other victimized cars were ones that he’s trying to sell off his lot. Willis said there have been multiple times when he’s attempted to take a customer for a test drive only to be met, again, with the telltale roar that indicates a converter has been ripped from the vehicle.

With increasingly skeptical insurance companies wary about paying out for every converter and Willis fearful of losing the business of customers reluctant to leave their cars with him, the problem has only grown worse.

“Since March 9, every day I come into work, I never know whether there’s a vehicle without a ‘cat,’ ” Willis said, using the colloquial term for catalytic converters. “It’s very disheartening to come in here every day and check all our vehicles and customers’ vehicles.”

Willis’ problem is one felt around the country and throughout many parts of the Upper Valley in the last year as catalytic converter thefts have been on the rise, largely due to the value of precious metals found inside the part itself.

Catalytic converters work to reduce harmful vehicle emissions by converting them into less harmful gases. Most cars have been equipped with them since the mid-1970s, shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency started regulating vehicle emissions with the Clean Air Act.

Exhaust from the engine that includes hydrogen, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide enters the converter, which has a ceramic, honeycomb-structure interior that’s treated with precious metals — such as rhodium, platinum and palladium. As the gas passes through the honeycomb, the metals work as catalysts to create a chemical reaction that removes carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons, according to Auto Express.

What’s left — hydrogen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen — is emitted from the tailpipe.

“We’ve had several complaints between all the businesses around White River Junction,” Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail said of the thefts in an interview.

Since the beginning of March, his department has responded to at least 17 reports of stolen catalytic converters.

In Hartford, the problem is exacerbated by the abundance of auto dealerships and mechanics in town, especially along Sykes Mountain Avenue.

But the issue is not exclusive to Hartford. Lebanon police reported three catalytic converter thefts so far in 2021, compared with only one all of last year. In April, Dartmouth College issued a warning to community members in and around Hanover, announcing a surge in the thefts after two converters were stolen from cars in Norwich.

In May, Scott Irish, a 40-year-old homeless man at the center of controversy over thefts in Chelsea, was charged with larceny after he was found with two catalytic converters that police believe he took from an East Montpelier storage facility, according to court documents.

Then, just last week, the Sullivan County Transportation transit service had to suspend operations for a couple of days after discovering catalytic converters had been stolen from six of its vehicles. Four of the buses were repaired and resumed service by Friday morning.

It’s an issue sweeping the rest of the Twin States, as well; in Barre, Vt., Conor Margison, owner of Margison Metalworks, said he had two catalytic converters stolen from his business recently.

“I feel pissed and violated,” Margison said in an interview last month, adding that he’s had a hard time finding replacement parts. “It’s a loss of business for me.”

Where converters go

Though awareness about the thefts is growing, little is known about the specifics of what happens to the converters after they’re stolen.

Upper Valley authorities have not been able to penetrate the black market where the stolen car parts are sold.

“We’re not sure what the whole process is, but we see locals cutting them and then selling them for quick cash,” Vail said.

The money in converters comes partly from the platinum and palladium, metals which are both worth around as much as the price of gold per ounce.

But the big money is in rhodium, a precious metal contained in catalytic converters that’s worth more than $18,000 an ounce, around 10 times the price of gold.

Willis explained the cutting process takes just a matter of minutes, and involves getting underneath a car — usually in the middle of the night, when no one is around — and sawing off the converter with something as simple as a hack saw or reciprocating saw.

“We’ve found broken saw blades lying around,” he said.

Often the thieves, who are understandably in a rush, will damage the surrounding parts — including the exhaust pipe and oxygen sensors — to free the converter.

But that means the cost of replacing the converter can climb into the thousands, Willis said, because it involves replacing surrounding parts, too. One used car in his lot was hit by thieves twice, resulting in $3,200 in repairs both times, he said.

After stealing converters, most thieves want to make quick cash and frequently sell the parts to a middle man — such as a scrap dealer — for around $200.

“They’re not selling them to legitimate buyers,” said Coral Willis, who co-owns WAWECO with her husband.

The scrap dealers will often try to gather multiple converters before reselling them in bulk, pocketing between $1,000 and $2,000, Vail said.

He added that police don’t know exactly who the end buyers are, but that they might be anywhere in the country.

“Scrap dealers are often the middle man. They sell (converters) by bulk to folks who actually melt them down,” Vail said.

Tony Gosselin, a Claremont-based scrap dealer, said the buyers — whether a scrap dealer or someone else — typically send the converters to refineries that will “de-can” the converter, meaning dismantle the body, crush up the materials inside and separate the precious metals.

Other times, Vail said the converter thief will sell it online or to a parts shop so it can be reused on a car, even though it’s a federal offense under a 1990 Clean Air Act amendment to attach a used catalytic converter to a car. Websites like Facebook Marketplace and Craiglist have posts about catalytic converters for sale, with most of the items ranging from $200 to $500.

Police response

As catalytic converter thefts continue to rise, many residents and mechanics are turning to the police for help, but authorities say putting a stop to the thefts is difficult, especially when investigators don’t know how the stolen parts are being fenced.

“We’re responding to calls on a case-by-case basis and increasing patrols around our automotive dealership and garages,” Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts said.

But even if the police department posted an officer overnight at every dealership and repair shop, Roberts said, the thieves could just as easily target cars in residential neighborhoods.

“We rely on people calling us if they see suspicious activity,” he said.

In Hartford, where the problem is especially pressing, police have already made some arrests, including one on July 6 near the Upper Valley Honda dealership off Sykes Mountain Avenue.

An officer driving in the area around 3 a.m. heard metal falling to the ground at the Honda dealership and allegedly saw Steve Simonds, 32, underneath a car that was parked outside, holding a reciprocating saw, according to a police report by Hartford Officer Randy St. Peter.

A bag containing three catalytic converters was found nearby, according to the report.

Police charged Simonds with grand larceny and suspicious persons.

For now, the approach to the crisis looks a lot like the Simonds arrest; police are responding to individual calls from businesses and residents who suspect they may have been robbed, and they’re patrolling around the areas that are most often targeted at night.

“We’re trying to do a whole culmination of things,” Vail said, adding that includes trying to keep track of the scrap dealers who are buying and reselling or melting down the converters.

Many times, Vail believes, scrap dealers might have an inkling of who is stealing the parts. Vail said they aren’t focused on investigating the dealers themselves, largely because it’s hard for operators to investigate if the converters that people are bringing to them were obtained legally.

He urged scrap dealers to keep detailed records of the people who sell them metal.

“It’s kind of like running a pawn shop. It’s at your own risk,” Vail said. “You have to assume some of what’s coming in is probably stolen.”

Gosselin said he usually buys scrap metal and catalytic converters from the repair shops themselves, to lower the chances that he’s purchasing a stolen item. He also keeps detailed records of every sale and customer, turning away those who don’t give him a proof of identification.

“It’s really hard to tell,” he said of the catalytic converters that have been stolen. “Even legitimate customers use battery-operated saws to cut” converters off.

Looking ahead

Over the last few months, Wade Willis said he’s developed a new routine. After he closes up the shop and goes home, he’ll turn to his computer, where screens display a live feed from the cameras outside WAWECO.

“I spend a lot of time at home in my chair watching my cameras after night at dark,” Willis said. “It’s always on the back of my mind.”

He hasn’t caught any thieves in action yet, but Willis said he’s turned over recordings he has of people outside his shop at night to police officers.

“I was a little frustrated with police,” he said, explaining that some of what he considered “clear” surveillance video hasn’t led to an arrest. But, he added “I understand they have their limitations.”

As for how to stop the issue, Willis said he hopes it will come to an end on its own when the precious metals like rhodium decrease in value.

Until then, Willis said, he and other mechanics have to let customers know ahead of time that leaving their cars overnight may result in a catalytic converter theft. He said he’s had to post notes around his shop about the liability, and he’s had to increase his safety efforts, adding more cameras to the area around his shop.

“It’s embarrassing; it’s frustrating,” his wife, Coral Willis said, adding that she has growing concerns about whether their insurance company will continue to cover the costs. “We’re a mom-and-pop place. This is our business, our pockets.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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