Michael Cacciotti knew right away something wasn’t quite right one recent morning when he started up his battery-powered Toyota Prius.
Trouble was loud and clear after turning on the engine.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” exclaimed Cacciotti, a longtime member of the South Pasadena City Council, currently serving as mayor pro tem.
He instantly became another statistic, among a growing number of victims who have had their catalytic converters, an exhaust emission control device that reduces toxic emissions and pollutants, stolen from their vehicles.
Thieves go after catalytic converters because they contain precious metals – platinum, palladium or rhodium – that pay huge dividends. The metals are then sold to scrapyards for big bucks.
Removal can make them racecar loud – really, really loud like Cacciotti experienced, listening as his car sat motionless in front of his South Pasadena home. “I felt like I was drag racing at the Indy 500,” he said. “Bump, bump, bump, bump! I know people were outside looking around, turning their heads.”
He then turned the ignition off, climbed on his bike, rode to his appointment that morning, came home a couple of hours later and started up his Prius, hoping it would return to normal when, “Same thing,” he explained. “Again, it was the most frightening sound I had ever heard. I turned it off thinking it was going to explode. I checked the oil, looked around the vehicle and said, ‘Ah oh, when I looked under the car and there it was, a big hole where the converter is supposed to go. It was just blank.”
Cacciotti summoned the police and soon a small saw blade, roughly nine to 12 inches in length used in doing the cutting the catalytic converter, along with a Dodgers’ baseball cap, were recovered under the vehicle. The hat was taken by police as evidence, with the potential of tracing its DNA to a possible suspect.
To replace the key car part, plus a valve, Cacciotti’s mechanic informed him it would cost nearly $2,000 for a replacement. For another $200, he paid for a shield to help protect the catalytic converter. After submitting pictures and a police report, Cacciotti is hopeful his insurance company will absorb a portion of the cost after his deductible.
“I would immediately order one of these guards, which acts as a cage to protect it,” said Cacciotti in a recommendation to vehicle owners. “Otherwise, you better get your insurance deductible to zero because these devices are being stolen everywhere. It’s going on all over the United States. These rare metals are worth so much. They’re taking them to the metal recycler who is making more than $2,000 an ounce, more than gold!”
The week Cacciotti had his catalytic converter removed, two others were stolen in town – one on Amberwood Drive and another on Magnolia Avenue, adding to the 34 and two attempts since the beginning of the year, according to Richard Lee, the South Pasadena Police Department’s crime prevention officer.
An AAA spokesperson, Doug Shupe, told the Los Angeles Times that replacements of catalytic converters throughout California had climbed more than 90 percent in 2020.
Three suspects were caught last Sunday in South Pasadena after police officers responded to the 600 block of Fair Oaks Avenue of a report of an in-progress catalytic converter theft.
As referenced in a news release issued by the city, the first officers arrived on the scene at 1:54 a.m. and observed the individuals attempting to drive away in what was later determined as a stolen van. Searching of the vehicle authorities discovered several other stolen catalytic converters, along with cutting tools used to remove the parts.
Brought into custody by the SPPD were Miguel Leon of Los Angeles, Katie Vrendenburgh of Julian, and James Blackwell of Texas, arrested for auto theft, grand theft, narcotics violations, and outstanding warrants.
“They will do everything they can to steal catalytic converters and hawk them anywhere they can,” said Cacciotti, who has asked the South Pasadena police officials if there’s a strategy in place along with state legislation to go after thieves. “We know they are selling them to recyclers. People know what is going on, so there’s got to be a way to break this multi-million dollar criminal-cycle down.”
Most of the thefts, noted Lee, continue to occur during the nighttime or early morning hours. Since catalytic converters are located underneath the exterior of a vehicle, it makes them difficult to secure.
“The thief simply crawls under your vehicle and with two simple cuts, removes your catalytic converter,” said the SPPD officer. “The process only takes a few minutes.”