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When Jeff Booth turned the key to start the white Pontiac Aztec parked in front of the West Toledo auto repair shop he manages, the car made a jarring, thundering sound.
In the wee hours of the night this week, someone slid underneath the vehicle and, using small saw blades, cut off the catalytic converter. The thief or thieves also took the converter from another vehicle at the shop, a blue Chevrolet Impala.
The criminals, who left behind their blades, caused thousands of dollars of damage to the cars, both belonging to Earl Brothers' customers.
Earl Brothers, 4216 Secor Rd., is only one of more than a dozen Toledo businesses that have been plagued recently by catalytic converter thefts.
Jim Earl, who owns the repair shop, said this week's theft is the fifth time he's been hit in three months.
"Do I hire an armed guard to stand there with a shotgun all night long?" Mr. Earl asked.
A catalytic converter is like a muffler, Mr. Earl explained. It helps to minimize pollution by pulling out harmful gasses from a vehicle's emissions.
But why steal them?
The converters, once they have been removed from a vehicle, are likely being scrapped for the valuable metal -- including platinum -- inside, that the thieves are likely taking to scrap yards, Toledo police property crimes Lt. David Schmidt said.
"Like some guys like to do stickups, some like to do catalytic converter thefts," the lieutenant said.
Police have made some arrests for these crimes in the past, but oftentimes there are no usable fingerprints, no clear video surveillance, and no witnesses, Lieutenant Schmidt said.
A review of Toledo Police reports from the latter half of September shows at least 37 catalytic converters were reported stolen in the city.
One of the hardest-hit businesses appears to be Manatee Motors, 1470 W. Alexis Ave., which, on Sept. 23, reported 12 catalytic converters valued at $4,000 stolen over a five-day period, according to the Toledo police report.
Black Diamond, a garden center and lawn-care company at 1964 Tremainsville Rd., has reported 10 catalytic converters stolen from the company's service vehicles -- seven on Sept. 9 and three more on Sept. 16.
In the earlier incident, the perpetrator cut a hole in the chain-link fence at the West Toledo business and climbed in, according to a Toledo Police report.
According to the report, the suspect drove a vehicle across the parking lot at Start High School, over cement blocks and parking barriers, and then over the garden center's lawn to back up to the chain-link fence.
The suspect or suspects even used one of the center's tools to haul converters from the damaged vehicles to the getaway car.
Whatever the method of thievery, it is taking a financial toll on the victims.
"These converters can run $500 to $1,200 a piece in replacement value," Mr. Earl said. "In a small business like myself, we can't afford this. It's hard enough for a small business to survive, and we have no insurance coverage against this.
"I can't tell my customers to drive into a bull pen. That puts up a pretty crappy message that it's not a very safe area and I don't want that," Mr. Earl said. "That's not my type of business. We're a family business and have been for 77 years in Toledo and now we have a problem and I don't know how to solve it."
Mr. Earl said he's spent thousands of dollars replacing customers' catalytic converters.
The business owner said the public needs to be aware of the problem and to call police if they see something out of the ordinary.
"You can't put an officer out in front of every shop in Toledo," Mr. Earl said. "We just have to bring attention and awareness. If you're driving down Secor and you see lights and sparks under cars, it's not a bad idea to call the police and say something funny is going on. These guys are criminals."
Contact Taylor Dungjen at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6054.
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