Thieves target catalytic converters
CHAMPAIGN — The theft of a catalytic converter from a vehicle is more than just a noisy affair. At anywhere from $100 to upwards of $400 a pop, it can be expensive. And when fleet vehicles are victimized, the losses add up fast.
"Last year, they got me for about 37," said Bobby Parris, manager of the U-Haul store at 306 E. University Ave., C. "It's not just the cost. It's the problem of getting my customers served."
Parris said it was last spring when University of Illinois students were moving out of town that the catalytic converters were stolen from several trucks on his lot. His business was hit again this month but an alert Champaign police officer was able to minimize the loss this time.
About 2 a.m. on March 18, Parris said, an officer was driving by his business when he heard something that caught his attention.
"My understanding is the officer was driving by and heard metal hit the ground in the parking lot. When he swung around (to investigate), the guy threw his Sawzall down and took off running," said Parris.
Police arrested Christoper Balls, 39, of Chicago, and charged him that same day with unlawful possession of stolen vehicle parts and theft of between $500 and $10,000.
The day after Balls' arrest, another U-Haul dealer across town in Champaign reported the theft of catalytic converters.
A Champaign police report said converters were stolen off six U-Haul trucks at the Mail and Parcel Plus business at 2206 W. Springfield Ave., C, which is also a U-Haul rental facility. The report said those converters were stolen between 5 p.m. Sunday and 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Operations manager Rita Nelson said they didn't notice the theft until Tuesday, when they went to start a truck for a customer and heard the loud rumbling from the damaged exhaust system.
"Then we tested the others and found five others that had been hit," said Nelson, who estimated the trucks will be out of commission one to two weeks for repairs. Two other trucks on the lot were not damaged, she said.
A regional U-Haul center in Springfield tries to accommodate requests when they don't have trucks available, Nelson said.
Champaign police investigations Lt. Robert Rea said police believe the thefts may be related but he hasn't spoken about the case with the investigator who's assigned to it. Rea said prior to the recent thefts, it had been several months since there had been any.
Parris estimated that the average cost in parts and labor to fix his trucks last year ran about $500 per truck. Because of the elements in the catalytic converters, which are used to reduce the emission of pollutants into the air, the converters are popular targets for metal scrappers.
"This isn't just random drug addicts looking for money," said Parris. "This is going on nationwide and they've been doing it about three years heavy."
Parris said a converter can fetch anywhere from $200 to $2,500 from a metal recycler, depending on what kind it is.
"It's got platinum in it, used to make expensive jewelry. That's what they're getting them for," Parris said.
An article from Nationwide Insurance said it's those precious metals that act as the catalysts.
"Since 1975, all vehicles produced in the United States must have a catalytic converter as part of the exhaust system. The precious metals inside act as catalysts; when hot exhaust enters the converter, a chemical reaction occurs that renders toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, into less harmful emissions," the article said. "Stolen catalytic converters are sold to scrap yards for around $100 to $150, and when you consider the current prices for precious metals you can understand the demand. Rhodium sells for roughly $9,500 an ounce, while platinum pays at about $2,000."
Parris said he's aware of other recent catalytic converter thefts from U-Haul businesses in Illinois and Missouri.
"Our Peoria center was hit three months ago for 20-something in one night. Our Bloomington location got hit a few months ago for 17. Two years ago, St. Louis was hit for 100-something. It's a group that's doing it," he said.
Parris said since last year's theft, he has beefed up security with extra cameras around his University Avenue business and plans to add even more.
"This whole building is going to be surrounded. I have state police, city police, and campus police that watch my parking lot, especially since last year when they hit me big," he said.
Assistant State's Attorney Lindsey Clark said Balls has prior criminal convictions, including one for armed robbery, but does not appear to have any connections to Champaign County.
He was released from jail Wednesday after posting $750 cash bond. Balls is due back in court May 14.