By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Like a growing number of Marylanders, Les Barker recently fell victim to the catalytic converter crime wave: Someone crawled under his Toyota sport-utility vehicle, sawed off the device and probably sold it for its valuable platinum innards.
Barker wasn't about to let it happen again.
He got the catalytic converter replaced. Then he called a metal fabricator in Ohio and ordered a CatClamp, a contraption made of metal plates and thick cables that creates a cage around the converter. He and a buddy attached it to his Toyota 4Runner at Barker's house in Howard County.
Now, Barker says, "I can sleep at night."
Throughout Maryland, vehicle owners, law enforcement officials, insurance adjusters and muffler shop owners are reacting to a crime that police say has multiplied with an increase in the costs of platinum and other precious metals in catalytic converters that help scrub out pollutants. A converter is a filter connected to a car's exhaust system that is designed to curb air pollution.
Prices for platinum were $2,040 per troy ounce this month, up from $664 five years ago, according to Platinum Today, a business unit of Johnson Matthey, a specialty chemicals company.
Apparently, no Maryland counties are immune from the catalytic crime wave.
In Montgomery County, investigators tracked 61 converter capers last year, at least some of which involved more than one device per incident. In Prince George's County, mechanics such as Joseph Kim, who works at a Meineke Car Care Center in District Heights, have seen as many as five motorists a week come roaring in with a section of their cars' exhaust systems cut out.
Howard and Anne Arundel counties have been hit, as have St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties in Southern Maryland. One day last month, someone sawed off converters in cars at Calvert Middle School and Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick. Another converter was stolen about the same time from a Prince Frederick commuter parking lot.
In St. Mary's County, catalytic converter thieves struck last weekend and have hit several times this year.
Thieves typically use an electric reciprocating saw and often travel with charged batteries. They like pickups and SUVs, which have high ground clearance for easy access.
Once under a vehicle, thieves can remove the devices in minutes. They often hit park-and-ride, commuter or car sales lots.
Barker's converter was stolen in December after he pulled his Toyota into a commuter lot near routes 216 and 29 and boarded a bus for the World Bank headquarters in Washington, where he works as a senior information technology specialist.
Barker said he returned to the lot that evening, turned the SUV's ignition and heard what sounded like a race car. He knew about other commuters' cars being vandalized, so he figured out right away what had happened. He roared home and called police. He took his car to a dealer to be repaired. The bill -- $1,825 -- was covered by insurance, but he said he had to pay a $250 deductible.
Barker put the incident in context: At work, he is go-go-go, working on computer systems for projects around the world. At his Clarksville home, with his wife and three daughters, he values safety and serenity.
"Someone had breached the perimeter," he said, laughing, although the theft made him furious.
Barker said he thinks the CatClamp works. Two months ago, someone stole the catalytic converter from a commuter friend's Honda SUV, which was parked in a lot next to Barker's SUV. The Toyota was not touched.
Barker is one of 15 Marylanders who have bought a CatClamp, said Jim Dusa, owner of American Welding, the Toledo manufacturer of the patent-pending device. He said it would take 30 to 45 minutes to saw through the cables of the device, and most thieves aren't willing to do that.
"If they wanted to work, they wouldn't be stealing stuff," Dusa said.
Without such devices, "it's a crime of opportunity," said John Eggener, a Montgomery detective who said he witnessed a theft. Early on the morning of March 20, he was staked out undercover in a Rockville industrial park when he saw a green pickup pass by.
Another officer in a different part of the park saw the pickup's passenger, with a power tool in his hand, crawl under a vehicle, Eggener wrote in a charging document. The passenger "removed something" from below the vehicle, carried it to the pickup and placed it in the truck's bed, Eggener wrote.
A short time later, officers pulled the driver over. Eggener said officers found 14 catalytic converters along with power tools and flashlights. Back at the parking lot, detectives found that 13 vehicles were missing catalytic converters, a charging document said.
Detectives charged Leo Griffith, 54, the pickup's passenger, and Wesley Shears, 41, the driver. Both are from Baltimore.
Griffith pleaded guilty to one count of theft. He was ordered to pay $1,500 in restitution and was placed on three years' probation. Shears, 41, was acquitted when a judge ruled that prosecutors could not prove that the converters in the pickup had been stolen from the industrial park.
Eggener said anyone who sees suspicious activity in parking lots or garages should call county police at 301-840-6160.