Three unknown suspects removed and stole a catalytic converter from a student vehicle on Brainerd Avenue on Thursday, Nov. 18 around 9:30 p.m., according to an all-campus email sent later that night from Public Safety (PSafe) Associate Director Tony Bostick. A student in the area reported hearing a loud noise and seeing two people jump into a gray Acura sedan containing a third person before they all fled the scene. All three people were dressed in black and wearing ski masks.
According to Director of PSafe Scott Rohde, this is the second time a catalytic converter theft has ever been reported to the University, with the first set of thefts occurring near Washington Terrace earlier this year in October. The repeat offenses on campus are part of a larger trend in the United States with catalytic converter thefts. Between 2019 and 2020, insurance claims for such incidents increased 325% nationwide. On Nov. 2, 2022, the Department of Justice announced the takedown of a national catalytic converter theft ring, in connection to thefts worth tens of millions of dollars in California, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Catalytic converters decrease the amount of pollution produced by a car’s exhaust system. According to Rohde, catalytic converters are often stolen from cars because they are made of high-demand platinum and palladium, of which there is currently 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 in response to the first catalytic converters theft in November.
PSafe and the Middletown Police Department (MPD) have been working to solve the case. Unfortunately, there is no video footage of the theft and only partial information for the license plate of the vehicle that the suspects drove away in. The MPD believes this vehicle may have been stolen.
“The one thing that stood out in the case is a student reported it and…another student walking by said he noticed a gray sedan parked alongside the victim’s vehicle,” MPD Captain Brian Hubbs said. “That witness saw the two suspects come out from under the car holding a metal car part and flee the area. And he gave a plate, but the registration provided did not match the suspect vehicle.”
Because there was no video footage of this crime, it is unlikely that a suspect will be found. However, with vehicular crimes, it’s often difficult to pinpoint suspects even with footage.
“Oftentimes, even with video evidence at night in a parking lot or an adjacent loading dock or something like that, unless the vehicle is relatively close to a light source, you may get some footage of what happened, but it’s not likely that you’re going to get a very identifiable picture of the suspect,” Rohde said. “And in this case, similar to the previous one, they were wearing masks. So while [footage] could be helpful, certainly more information to help work the case, it often is not definitive in itself.”
The stolen catalytic converter, in question, belonged to Blythe Guecia ’23, who did not see the crime happen. She received a call from her neighbor on Thursday, Nov. 17 around 10 p.m. notifying her of what had happened.
“I got a call from my neighbor saying that they had actually seen two guys underneath my car in black ski masks,” Guecia said. “It had made a massive noise when they were actually stealing the catalytic converter and they had heard it from inside the house.”
After having her car towed to a garage on Washington Street, Guecia was able to get her catalytic converter replaced.
“It was an inconvenience, especially because it happened right before a break and certainly the money aspect was not fun,” Guecia said. “I am thankful that insurance covered most of it.”
Guecia explained that she is scared that her car’s new catalytic converter will also be stolen because she has to park her car on the street, a sentiment echoed by her housemate Sophie Penn ’23.
“I’m glad my roommate was able to get her car fixed so quickly and get it covered by insurance, but it’s definitely alarming that there’s really nothing you can do to avoid catalytic converter theft,” Penn wrote in a message to The Argus. “I have a hybrid, which apparently has a different type of catalytic converter that’s worth more than non-hybrid cars, so I’ve been paranoid about leaving my car in places with little street lighting or foot traffic.”
Although Penn and Guecia think their cars are safe for the moment, they looked into a few methods to prevent theft of their catalytic converters in the future.
“Luckily for me, I don’t think it’s that likely that there would be two thefts on the same street,” Penn wrote. “My housemates and I also considered getting some hot pink engine paint because we read in a random article that painting your catalytic converter sometimes deters people trying to steal them because they’d then have to scrape the paint off. Also, that seems like a fun little house activity.”
In light of the repeated catalytic converter thefts on campus, PSafe has increased its presence in areas where students park more often.
“We have actually assigned some special details where officers have been monitoring parking lots and some of the streets, like Lawn Avenue for example, where students typically park,” Rohde said. “[We’ve] definitely made a more visible presence known…. They’re parked with their lights on, so it’s very obvious that there’s a security presence in that area.”
Although these crimes are common across the United States, catalytic converter thefts have decreased in the area over the past few months, according to Hubbs and the MPD, because of a push by Middletown to require stricter identification and licenses for those bringing items to recycling plants. Often, people who steal catalytic converters will take them to recycling centers so that the precious metals inside them can be extracted.
“I have not heard of an influx or an increase in that particular crime,” Hubbs said. “I would say that the pressure from the legislation to change that has probably worked ’cause I’m not seeing the same spike that we had for quite some time over the last summer.”
Rohde also emphasized the importance of recent legislation in bringing down crime in the area.
“I think part of why that is going down is that the state has made it more difficult to sell this material,” Rohde said. “Essentially a catalytic converter, if it’s going to be sold to a recycler, must be on the vehicle and must be intact with proper paperwork, i.e. a title and that sort of thing.”
Nonetheless, Rohde recommends that 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 in response to the first catalytic converter theft in November. “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 staying vigilant 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 in response to the first catalytic converter theft. “If you are…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.”
Since thieves use sharp mechanical instruments such as electric or battery-operated saws to remove the catalytic converters, Rohde emphasized that it’s extremely dangerous for anyone witnessing a theft to approach the scene or try to intervene.
“The best approach is to call and not get involved,” Rohde said in response to the first catalytic converter theft. “Do not approach the people. Do not try to stop them.”
Caleb Henning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.