Three months ago, when Brian Gutierrez found that someone had sawed off his Toyota 4Runner’s catalytic converter, he didn’t report it to the police. His SUV, which was parked near Airport and Country Club roads, had only liability coverage, meaning he would have had to use his own cash to replace the converter.
“I figured it wasn’t worth our time,” Gutierrez says. “We didn’t have full coverage. It was going to come out of our own pocket.”
Gutierrez, the owner of Mr. G’s Recycling Team, a scrap metal recycling shop located just off of Airport Road, replaced the converter himself. Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium that help reduce an engine’s toxicity. The precious metals bring in the value.
“Scrap yards pay top dollars for those things,” Matt Sturgeon, a floating services manager at Brake Masters, tells SFR. “If you go to a junkyard, all the cars there won’t have converters on them.”
Catalytic converters can sell anywhere from $30 to $300 each and can cost as much as $350 to replace, Sturgeon says.
Around the time Gutierrez’ converter was stolen, the same thing happened to Danny Romero, who works as a dispatcher and weigh master at Associated Asphalt & Materials Company, just down the block from Mr. G’s.
After his converter was stolen, Romero, who lives on Santa Rosa Drive and is part of a neighborhood watch association, asked his neighbors if they’d heard anyone sawing it off. They didn’t. The thieves, who made three clean cuts in front of and behind his converter, likely did it quickly and quietly.
“I didn’t even know it happened until I went out to start the car and woke up the whole neighborhood,” Romero says.
Like Gutierrez, Romero didn’t report the theft to police and his 1987 Toyota pickup also has only liability coverage. Romero, however, opted not to install a new converter “so they can’t come back and steal it.”
Catalytic converter theft hit a high mark in Santa Fe between last fall and this spring. During that time, police estimate that 80 to 100 reported thefts occurred. Many of them were stolen from large Toyotas like those owned by Gutierrez and Romero, Miquela Gonzales, a crime analyst with the Santa Fe Police Department, tells SFR. That’s because large trucks are high off the ground and easy to crawl under. Thieves often use power saws and can cut off the converters with relative speed and minimal noise. The entire process can take less than five minutes.
SFPD has downplayed this type of theft since the April 15 arrest of Omar Sanchez, who was caught allegedly trying to steal a converter from the underside of a Toyota pickup. At the time, SFPD Sgt. Peter Neal, who is in charge of property crimes, told the Albuquerque Journal that the catch was the “first, good, caught-red-handed arrest” of a converter thief. Now he deems the problem almost, if not entirely, over.
“There’s a good chance that [Sanchez] was doing all of them or that the others think it’s a hot potato,” Neal tells SFR. “There’s too much attention on it. [The thieves] are looking for easier targets.”
But Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Calvert, who is working on a proposal to tighten restrictions on selling converters and other scrap metals, says the converter theft issue is far from resolved. To wit: On June 10, Calvert’s neighbor reported a stolen catalytic converter from an SUV parked on Cibola Circle.
One problem Calvert points to is a lack of awareness among converter theft victims. A mailman, Calvert was recently delivering letters when he came across a man who was unsure of what happened to his car.
“He said, ‘I think my tail pipe broke,’” Calvert says. “I got underneath the vehicle and, sure enough, they had taken his catalytic converter.”
Calvert’s plan would bar scrap dealers from collecting an immediate cash payment for a converter. Instead, they would have to wait for a check to be mailed to them.
A few weeks ago, Calvert sent a draft of the proposal to SFPD for review. Once the police give their input, Calvert plans to vet the plan with local scrap yards and dealers. He aims to present it to the city’s Public Safety Committee later this month.
Calvert views his plan as a building block in a line of actions necessary to curb catalytic converter theft.
“There’s no silver-bullet solution,” he says. “There are several avenues [by which] we try to attack these things.”
SFPD has made its own forays into solving the problem. First, police officers succeeded in convincing the city’s car dealerships to engrave catalytic converters for anyone who requests it. Then, in May, SFPD held a volunteer converter engraving event that yielded 129 newly engraved vehicles. Another engraving event is planned for July 17.
“When you have any type of proactive approach to stopping converters, like etching them, it makes people think twice of taking them because it’s identifiable now,” Gonzales says.
Gutierrez, however, remains skeptical.
“I don’t believe that’s going to make a difference,” he says of engraving converters. “Whoever’s stealing them isn’t dealing with honest people anyway.”
He’s also candid in his critique of local law enforcement.
“I don’t think the cops have solved anything,” Gutierrez says.
Nationally, scrap metal theft is difficult to track. Most police departments file it under property crimes.
“The vast majority don’t track them individually,” Gary Bush, director of materials theft prevention at the Washington, DC-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, tells SFR. “And unfortunately, property crime takes a back seat to major crimes.”
Bush says the amount of metal theft alerted to his organization doubled between 2010 and 2011. He attributes the spike to rising commodity prices, “coupled with a struggling economy and high unemployment rate.”
Bush, who tracked metal theft in his last few years as a police officer in Florida, argues for more cooperation between metal recyclers and law enforcement—an approach Gutierrez says could improve locally.
During Santa Fe’s period of high theft, Gutierrez says police only called his shop about it once. He also says the current regulations, which require scrap sellers to reveal personal and vehicle identification, don’t go far enough. “This law they made us put up,” he says, pointing to a large sign outside his shop that the state requires he hang—“I don’t think it has any bite to it.”
Capital Scrap Metals, another scrap metal shop within city limits, wouldn’t comment, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Recently, Gutierrez has had four different people attempt to sell him catalytic converters, but his company policy forbids him from buying them unless they’re from other shops or legitimate dealers.
“I tell them I can’t accept them [if] I don’t know the history of the converter,” Gutierrez says. “I think they know if you buy them, they can keep bugging you. If you don’t, they won’t.”
Scrap metal theft isn’t limited to stolen catalytic converters. Just two weeks ago, someone came to Mr. G’s looking for stolen car battery cores, copper pipe ends and an auto radiator. This person, who reported the theft to the police and prefers not to be identified, had lost approximately $150-$200 in parts.
Gutierrez says he gets between four and six people a month asking him to watch for their stolen supplies. He also gets suspicious people coming in and trying to sell stolen goods. “There are a lot of good customers coming in here [to sell scrap metal] for gas money,” he says, “but when someone shows up here with a new product and says they’re cleaning grandma’s closet, that’s an indication.”
Though Calvert’s plan is a bid to encourage other scrap dealers to be more discerning, Gutierrez says such restrictions shouldn’t be limited to the city, since thieves could always just go outside city limits.
“The law has to be on a broader basis,” Gutierrez says. “I think it would have to be at the state level or something of that nature.”