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Cops, businesses team up with residents to prevent, prosecute catalytic converter thefts

Sheriff's deputies on Jan. 4 arrested three individuals in Santa Ana on suspicion of stealing catalytic converters.
Sheriff’s deputies on Jan. 4 arrested three individuals in Santa Ana on suspicion of stealing catalytic converters after suspects fled and collided with two police vehicles.
(Courtesy of Orange County Sheriff’s Department)

With the rampant rise of catalytic converter thefts across Orange County — a crime of opportunity that typically leaves vehicle owners footing costly replacement bills — stories about crooks coming to justice or victims reuniting with stolen goods are seldom heard.

But a recent effort by local law enforcement authorities to help car owners prevent such thefts and track down suspects who recycle the stolen parts for hefty sums may have marauders thinking twice.

Orange County Sheriff’s deputies on Jan. 4 arrested three individuals in connection with multiple catalytic converter thefts following an early morning traffic stop in Santa Ana, near the intersection of Euclid Street and McFadden Avenue, according to spokesman Sgt. Todd Hylton.

“Deputies attempted to stop the vehicle, and, at that point, the vehicle fled,” Hylton said Monday, describing how the suspects soon after rammed into two vehicles, including a K-9 patrol car.

Five catalytic converters were recovered following a Jan. 4 traffic stop ended in the arrest of three suspects in Santa Ana.
(Courtesy of Orange County Sheriff’s Department)

The collision disabled the suspects’ vehicle, described as an older Mercedes sedan, and its occupants peacefully surrendered. Peter Gonzalez, 18, of San Bernardino, was taken into custody along with two minors, whose identities are not being made public.

Deputies recovered five converters from the vehicle and tools used to sever the parts from the undercarriages of cars, Hylton said. The trio were arrested on suspicion of theft with additional charges for the driver who fled the scene and collided with deputies.

Among the recovered parts was one cut from a 2005 Toyota Prius owned by Santa Ana resident Gabe Villa earlier that morning. Unlike the others, it could be tracked to its owner because Villa had participated in a Nov. 13 “etch event” hosted by the Costa Mesa, Newport and Huntington Beach police departments.

A Nov. 13 event by Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach police offered free catalytic converter etchings.
A free event hosted Nov. 13 by the Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach police offered free catalytic converter etchings to the public.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Police Department)

He was inspired to act after his mom had the catalytic converter stolen out of her 2007 Prius in August, while it sat in the driveway of her Huntington Beach home. Working with the insurance company and getting it replaced was a headache. Villa was one of 130 residents to take advantage of the service, offered for free at ExperTec Automotive in Huntington Beach, according to figures provided by the Costa Mesa Police Department.

So, last Tuesday, when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door at 3:30 a.m. to tell Villa that someone had stolen his converter, he was soon connected with the recovered part.

“I’m so lucky because of that event,” he said. “At least I had the opportunity to get my goods back — that normally doesn’t happen.”

ExperTec Automotive in Huntington Beach at a Nov. 13 free catalytic converter etching event.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Police Department)

Hylton said when a recovered converter cannot be traced to its original owner, the crime is harder to prosecute. Etchings help agencies pinpoint the location of crimes and enable victims to press charges.

“If that owner of that specific vehicle filed a report, we know when and where the crime occurred,” he added. “Also, if you have an etching, it’s a major deterrent. [Criminals] can’t sell it, so there’s no value.”

Gary Frahm, vice president of ExperTec Automotive, said his company’s shops in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa are no stranger to catalytic converter thefts, a common occurrence.

“We had four vehicles within two days last week,” he said Monday. “These guys are stealing them and taking them in to recyclers. It’s a lot more profitable for them to do that than it is to steal a bicycle.”

A Mercedes collided with sheriff's deputies during a Jan. 4 incident that led to the arrest of theft suspects.
An older Mercedes collided with sheriff’s deputies during a Jan. 4 incident that led to the arrest of three theft suspects.
(Courtesy of Orange County Sheriff’s Department)

Along with Toyota Priuses, Ford F150s and Hondas are frequent targets for thieves, who may get hundreds of dollars for the precious metal inside a converter. Meanwhile, victims are stuck paying high insurance deductibles or spending upward of $3,000 on new parts.

“I see the frustration in people, and I don’t like that,” said Frahm, who was excited to Monday learn his etchings had helped connect Villa and his stolen converter.

ExperTec, on Talbert Avenue in Huntington Beach, is offering free catalytic converter etchings on the first and third Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to noon, to those who make an appointment by calling (714) 848-9222.

“The more people who do it, the safer we are,” Frahm said.

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