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The missing-metals mystery

Valleywide spree of valuable-metals thefts have local authorities seeking out those fencing goods

Posted: July 30, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2011 1:30 a.m.
 

The recent rash of valuable-metal thefts — including small amounts of platinum contained in more than a dozen recently stolen catalytic converters — has prompted local investigators to ferret out the people paying thieves for the stolen parts.

“The thefts have occurred valleywide over the course of the past few weeks and have affected several of the zones,” said Sgt. Robert J. Lewis of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.

Each of the station’s eight newly created crime-prevention zones across the Santa Clarita Valley, from Castaic to Canyon Country, has experienced metal thefts.

Among the most coveted metals so far are platinum found in catalytic converters and brass.

In Newhall, thieves stole the brass whistle from the historic steam locomotive at William S. Hart Park and 13 brass vases from grave sites in Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary on Sierra Highway.

“I can assure you that the Santa Clarita Station detective bureau and the crime-prevention unit have been working together to identify trends which we can specifically target to put a stop to the thefts,” Lewis said. “I cannot provide you with specific information as the investigations are ongoing through our detective division.”

Valleywide trend
Although they wouldn’t provide specifics, investigators are going after the demand side behind the popular metal economics.

“You would make a big bite in the trend if you found the metal places they’re taking these parts to,” said Sgt. Gregg Lewison.

Lewison, who oversees and monitors crime trends for Zone 7 in west Canyon Country, said he recently logged three catalytic converter thefts in one night.

The thieves quietly snipped the catalytic converters from vehicles parked in residential driveways, he said.

“They’re using a specialized cutting tool,” said Lewison. “It cuts the muffler without having to make a whole lot of noise.”

Lewison said similar theft sprees are happening all over California.

“They’ll hit and then they’re gone, and you won’t see them again for months,” he said. “These types of thefts are happening all over the place.

“We’re not an isolated case here in Santa Clarita Valley.”

Since July 16, deputies have received at least 15 reports of thieves stealing catalytic convertors from the exhaust system of vehicles by crushing the connecting pipes first, then snipping.

In the first week of that period, most of the thefts occurred in parking lots — at least three thefts from Metrolink parking lots and three from shopping mall lots.

On July 22, deputies added two more catalytic converter thefts to their growing list of car owners reporting their cars being butchered for parts — this time cut from vehicles parked overnight in the driveways of private homes in Castaic and Newhall.

More valuable than gold
On Friday, two of the four precious metals highlighted on the Monex Precious Metals website, behind gold and silver, are metals contained in catalytic converters.

The highest-priced metal was platinum, listed at just under $1,800 per ounce. Comparatively, gold was listed at $1,627 an ounce.

Platinum and palladium are both contained in catalytic converters, with the latter metal listed at $829 an ounce.

Asked how much platinum was contained in a catalytic converter, Don Whempner, parts manager of Frontier Toyota on Creekside Road, replied: “Enough to make them worth stealing.”

One metal recycler reached by phone in Connecticut on Friday corroborated reports obtained from local law enforcement that the surge in catalytic converter thefts was a national trend.

“The business is brisk,” he said.

When metal recyclers break down catalytic converters — using chemicals, not foundries, he said — they obtain about 3 to 5 grams of valuable metal in portions of platinum, rhodium and palladium.

Although the Connecticut recycler didn’t know how much platinum one converter would yield, 3 grams of platinum, or 0.1058 ounces, would net at least $190 on the stock market, while 3 grams of palladium would yield about $88.

The math per ounce makes one catalytic converter worth almost $278 for just two of its metal components.

Theft sprees
“From the people we’ve talked to, we’ve found they’re getting paid between $150 and $200,” Lewison said. “You’ll see a spree of five or six thefts a night, so it’s probably pretty profitable for a night’s work.”

Investigators want Santa Clarita Valley residents to be on guard.

“Please advise the public to stay vigilant in reporting any crimes or suspicious activity they may see,” Lewis said.

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