Rise in catalytic converter thefts hits La Jolla

Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrids appear particularly susceptible to catalytic converter thefts.
Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrids appear particularly susceptible to catalytic converter thefts, which have been hitting La Jolla in recent months.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The costly crime of stealing catalytic converters from cars — which was rampant earlier this year in the North County area — has hit La Jolla recently.

Local residents say that in the past few months, catalytic converters — emission control devices that convert toxic gases and other pollutants in exhaust from an internal combustion engine into less-toxic pollutants — have been stolen from vehicles parked on La Jolla driveways and streets.

The precious metals inside the converters fetch “$500 apiece in recycled material,” according to Brian Henry, a master service adviser at La Jolla Family Auto Service.

La Jollan John Beaver, who drives a Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, said a friend of his had two Priuses parked on Draper Avenue and catalytic converters were stolen from both of them.

Another friend’s car was parked on Beaumont Avenue and its catalytic converter was stolen as well.

“I started hearing these stories in the last few months,” Beaver said. “I know it’s not just in La Jolla, but I don’t know how widespread it is. Wherever there is a suspected concentration of Priuses, that’s where the thieves are going.”

Beaver said his friends didn’t call police but just got another catalytic converter.

In September, Melaynie Patterson told The San Diego Union-Tribune that she slid into her Honda Element SUV parked in front of her studio apartment in La Jolla, turned on the ignition and was startled by a horrific sound.

“It sounded like the muffler had been ripped off,” she said. She peered under the vehicle and saw jagged pieces of cut metal hanging from where the converter had been removed.

It cost Patterson $1,000 to pay her insurance deductible to replace the missing converter and an additional $500 to buy and install a metal theft guard on the replacement device. Plus, she missed a week of work because her SUV was out of commission.

“I’m seriously struggling, and then this happens,” said Patterson, who makes and sells jewelry at local farmers markets and festivals. “I’ve tried so hard to live this California dream and, after this, it’s just a nightmare.”

Henry said La Jolla Family Auto Service “absolutely” has seen an increase in catalytic converter replacements — in fact, they’ve tripled in the past six months.

“We have Priuses coming in missing the whole exhaust system” because thieves cut the exhaust system to get to the converter, Henry said. “The thieves steal the whole thing. It’s a nightmare to replace.”

He said Priuses are particularly susceptible because “the converters are easily accessible if you know what you’re doing.”

As a precaution, shields can be purchased from a mechanic and installed to make the converter harder to access.

“The shields are very effective,” Henry said. “The cost is minimal compared to the repair. The shield is $300 to $400, whereas the repair is around $3,500.”

Beaver said he bought a shield knowing his friends had already paid the hefty price of replacement.

At the beginning of the year, police reported a “startling increase” in converter thefts in areas like North County, and the problem continued to spread.

In mid-August, police and other first responders rescued a man trapped under a Hyundai Accent in the parking area of a Mission Valley apartment complex. Police said the jack had collapsed while he was trying to cut through the car’s catalytic converter pipes.

Oceanside police Detective Chris James was asked this year to form an informal task force in conjunction with Carlsbad police to collaborate with law enforcement agencies throughout San Diego County to gather statistics and leads on converter thefts.

Reports showed 393 in 2020 and more than 1,000 this year.

Chris Howard lives in a Los Angeles neighborhood where catalytic converter thefts were rampant earlier this year. But his car wasn’t targeted until he visited his parents in Bird Rock.

“My car was parked right outside their house on the street,” he said. Several electric cars were broken into that night, according to posts on social media. “It was a small spree, it seems,” Howard said.

In September, two Priuses parked in Guido Baccaglini’s driveway on Exchange Place in La Jolla were broken into during the night.

The next morning, “when I started the car, I heard this huge noise,” he said. “I drove my car to a nearby garage and they took one look at it and knew right away that the catalytic converter had been stolen.”

He started the other car and heard the same sound.

He and his wife have since moved and made a point to have a garage where they could store their cars.

“Our mechanic said it takes less than five minutes to jack up the car and remove the catalytic converter,” Baccaglini said. “And even though they knew what they were doing and it happened quick, it still made us feel vulnerable. Someone came in the night, onto our property and violated our space.”

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Karen Kucher and columnist Diane Bell contributed to this report.