Local Surge In Catalytic Converter Thefts Reflects National Trend

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Pat Gryszka arrived at his shop on a Monday morning in mid-September to find he’d become the latest victim of a recent crime ring.

Gryszka and his brother own Athens Transmission. His brother had just taken a pickup truck the shop repaired on Friday for a test drive.

Something was wrong. The exhaust was way too loud. Gryszka said his brother told him:

“‘Hey, I think the catalytic converter’s been cut off this truck.’ We looked under it, sure enough, somebody cut it off, and then we started checking all the other vehicles. And they got seven.”

Gryszka is far from alone.

The Athens area has seen a rash of catalytic converter thefts in the past two months. And it’s not just happening here.

Google “catalytic converter theft,” click on the “News” tab, and you’ll find page after page of stories from around the country.

“I would surmise that scrap metal prices are up right now.” – Capt. Ralph Harvey

The recent uptick in catalytic converter thefts in the Athens area began around the start of September. In just the past few days, six catalytic converter thefts have been reported to Athens police, three of them at an apartment complex on Richland Avenue.

Catalytic converters are part of a vehicle’s exhaust system. The metal canisters clean up the exhaust on its way out the tailpipe, making it much less harmful to the environment.

The part is easy to access. A thief armed with a battery-operated reciprocating saw can crawl under a vehicle and cut one off in a minute or two.

Capt. Ralph Harvey of the Athens Police Department said that stolen catalytic converters are sold for scrap.

“A lot of times this is to fuel a drug addiction,” he claimed.

And as for the recent spike in thefts, he said, “I would surmise that scrap metal prices are up right now.”

Indeed they are. Scrap metal prices overall have been rising in the United States and around the world as the coronavirus pandemic has tightened the global supply of metals.

Catalytic converters contain precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, that command a premium price. For example, rhodium is trading at about $14,600 an ounce. That’s more than seven times the price of gold.

Catalytic converters contain only trace amounts of these precious metals, but it doesn’t take much to make the sale worthwhile.

A spot check of scrap yards in Ohio and other states found that depending on the model, a catalytic converter can easily fetch anywhere from $50 to well over $100. Some are worth considerably more.

Local law enforcement caught their first big break with the thefts at Gryszka’s shop.

When he discovered his shop had been hit, Gryszka started poring through hours of footage from his surveillance cameras.

Gryszka said that most businesses mount their cameras up high. “That’s great,” he said. “You’re covering a lot of area. But if they walk with their head down, it could be anybody.”

After the first time his shop was burglarized, Gryszka installed a second network of cameras mounted down low to capture faces.

It also helped that the thieves struck his shop while it was still daylight. When he found the thieves in action in the surveillance footage, their faces were recognizable.

Gryszka posted the video on Facebook, and within 20 minutes he was getting responses from people identifying the men in the clips. He turned this over to law enforcement.

“That was amazing,” he said. “That was like, one of the best things I’ve seen social media do. Other than that, social media is useless. That really helped us out a bunch.”

A few days later, three men were arrested in connection with the thefts. One of the men, who had just been released from prison a few weeks earlier, pleaded guilty to a felony charge. The cases are still pending against the other two.

Law enforcement have also been helped by the fact that catalytic converter thieves have in some cases been pretty brazen, stealing from cars parked in the open and sometimes in broad daylight.

It was one such brazen theft on a Sunday morning in early October that led to more arrests in what is believed to be a catalytic converter theft ring.

A customer pulled into the Valero gas station on Columbus Road in a Ford F150 pickup truck. While he was in the store, someone pulled up next to his truck, crawled underneath and cut out the converter.

It wasn’t until he fired up his truck that the customer realized his converter had been stolen, but he’d gotten a good look at the vehicle parked next to him as it left the station. His description combined with surveillance footage from the store’s cameras led officers to a home in Chauncey.

Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith
Rodney Smith, Athens County Sheriff

Sheriff Rodney Smith said several catalytic converters were found at the house and investigators believe that a man living there was buying stolen converters and then selling them somewhere outside the county.

“This guy, they would take it to his house and get a hundred dollars,” Smith said. “They would cut off four or five a night, you know, make four or five hundred dollars a night.”

The man was arrested along with another man who had driven to the house in a vehicle that matched the description from the Valero gas station. Cases against the two men are pending in court.

Catalytic converter thefts continue in the Athens area, but except for the spike over the past few days, there haven’t been as many as there were before the arrests.

Meanwhile, theft victims like Gryszka are left with a costly repair. A new catalytic converter plus installation can easily run $1,000 or more.

“I was fortunate that my insurance company covered the majority of it,” he said. “But not all of it, so I’m still out of pocket $2,500.”