Four unknown suspects removed and stole catalytic converters from two student vehicles parked on Veterans Way, near Washington Terrace, on Wednesday, Oct. 26 around 3:45 p.m., according to an all-campus email from Public Safety (PSafe) Director Scott Rohde. A passerby and a student reported the theft to PSafe and the Middletown Police Department (MPD), who are currently investigating the theft. A witness saw four people wearing ski masks and dark clothing get out of a black Nissan Altima, remove the catalytic converters from the two vehicles, and drive away.
A catalytic converter is a part of a car’s exhaust system that works to decrease pollution from the car’s carbon emissions. According to Rohde, catalytic converters are often stolen from cars because they are made of platinum and palladium, metals that are in high demand due to a global shortage.
“What happens is the thief steals the catalytic converter and typically sells it on the black market to someone that can extract the materials, then ultimately sells those materials unofficially for a comparatively low price compared to what someone could obtain them legitimately for,” Rohde said.
After removing the catalytic converters, thieves will sometimes sell them to recycling plants that can extract the platinum and palladium inside of them or to pawn shops, according to MPD Captain Brian Hubbs. However, recycling plants rarely require any form of identification from sellers, which makes it difficult for the police to track down where these converters have come from.
“No one from the recycling plant was responsible for identifying the person bringing in the material,” Hubbs said. “They weren’t responsible for tracking it…. So [thieves] would take in the materials, they could come in with 15, 20 at a time, and get the payouts for it.”
Middletown has recently pushed for legislation that would require recycling plants to check the identification of sellers in the same manner as pawn shops and would require individuals to register as licensed recyclers. This has led to a slight reduction in catalytic converter thefts in the area, but they remain a problem across Connecticut and the country. Between 2019 and 2020, insurance claims for catalytic converter thefts increased 325% nationwide. However, the incident on Oct. 26 is the first time a theft of this nature has happened on campus.
“It happens everywhere,” Rohde said. “In this case, it happened in broad daylight. There’s always a concern. Is it rampant in Middletown? I would say no. But does it happen? Yes.”
In addition to the lack of identification requirements at recycling plants, catalytic converters don’t have serial numbers that allow them to be traced back to their owners. Additionally, the speed with which catalytic converters can be removed also makes thefts difficult to solve.
“It also happens extremely fast,” Rohde said. “Catalytic converters can be removed in 30 to 45 seconds by an experienced thief from a vehicle.”
Savannah Ryan ’24 realized that her car’s catalytic converter had been stolen after she saw police cars parked on Washington Terrace, the same street she had parked her car on. When she started her car, it was louder than normal.
“[I] thought I was going crazy because [my car] was working perfectly a few hours ago,” Ryan wrote in an email to The Argus. “A police officer came up to me after hearing my car start and said I also might have gotten my catalytic converter stolen and then the other police officer checked under my car, and sure enough, it was gone.”
Because the parts needed to fix Ryan’s car have been discontinued, she no longer has access to a working vehicle. In addition to paying a $500 insurance deductible, she also has to purchase a new car.
“This theft has left me feeling vulnerable/taken advantage of,” Ryan wrote. “It is disheartening to pay $125 for a parking permit, park on what I think is a safe street with surveillance…and then come out of my class to a car that no longer works. I was completely blindsided.”
Although the MPD has continued to investigate the incident, there has been little progress. An MPD detective saw a black Honda with dark window tints leaving the area after the crime, but it did not have a front license plate and could not be tracked. Video footage was also referenced to investigate the incidents, but has not uncovered any new information.
“They attempted to find video footage using Wesleyan’s cameras in the area and they didn’t have any footage that was gonna be useful and it didn’t look like there [were] any city cameras in the area that were gonna capture the event,” Hubbs said. “At this point, the case is considered open but with no suspects or leads.”
PSafe and the MPD often work together to solve vehicle crimes, and Hubbs commended the usefulness of Wesleyan security cameras.
“[PSafe] has been instrumental in the past with even just some of our motor vehicle accidents where we had two conflicting statements from operators, and they try to have as many cameras on campus as possible for your safety and for everybody else’s,” Hubbs said. “And they are very quick to jump and help us out and ‘Hey, can you review it, see if you caught that intersection.’ And they’ve actually helped us out quite a bit.”
PSafe is taking steps to attempt to prevent further catalytic converter thefts while increasing safety for student vehicles in general.
“We are spending more time, especially on the night shift, checking parking lots and being more visible in parking lots,” Rohde said. “Our efforts are spent on increasing preventive patrols and being more aware of people that may be either checking or loitering around parking lots, especially after dark.”
Additionally, the police have been trying to focus prevention efforts in areas they feel are more at risk by increasing their presence there.
“For example, we have our industrial park road area; it’s not just personal vehicles out there, it is large commercial vehicles because it’s a commercial industrial area, so they tend to lose their catalytic converters a little bit more frequently because of how much more money the suspects can get from it,” Hubbs said. “So when we have an influx or we’re seeing like one or two pop up in an area, we try to flood that area for a period of time and…we just try to be diligent when we’re patrolling.”
Because these crimes are so widespread and difficult to prevent, Rohde recommends students who are concerned about potential catalytic converter thefts remain vigilant, keep up-to-date insurance information on hand, park in well-lit parking lots, and move their cars to different parking spots every few weeks.
“Do not leave your car unattended for long periods of time, ’cause if someone’s watching it they may target it more than if that car is moved,” Rohde said. “So if a student’s in, let’s say, the Vine Street lot and they haven’t moved their car for weeks, [it would] probably be a good idea to go up there occasionally and move [their] car to a different parking location, preferably a noticeable distance away from where they parked it.”
Hubbs reiterated the importance of remaining aware and reporting any crimes in progress.
“The biggest thing that people lose sight of is not calling in suspicious vehicles or not paying attention to their surroundings,” Hubbs said. “If you are keeping your head on a swivel and seeing someone getting underneath a vehicle, that should stand out for the average person and it should be reported immediately…. It could be something that is completely innocent, but I’d rather them respond and not be needed than be needed and not respond.”
Rohde emphasized that it’s extremely dangerous for anyone witnessing a theft to approach the scene due to the strength and sharpness of the tools used in the crime. Thieves use sharp mechanical instruments such as electric or battery-operated saws to quickly and efficiently remove the catalytic converters.
“The best approach is to call and not get involved,” Rohde said. “Do not approach the people. Do not try to stop them.”
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