Catalytic converter thefts on the rise in the Eau Claire area

Drugs may be the motive for increased catalytic converter thievery

More stories from McKenna Dirks (She/Her)

A catalytic converter —  a part included in the exhaust system of a vehicle that converts pollutant gasses into less harmful ones —  is an essential piece to every vehicle’s body in order to make them run properly. The part is also an easy and illegal money-maker — for now.

A catalytic converter is a part included in the exhaust system of a vehicle that converts pollutant gasses into less harmful ones. (SUBMITTED)

Since the beginning of 2021, Eau Claire county alone has seen over 200 reported catalytic converter thefts, and the numbers aren’t slowing down. 

Don Henning, an Eau Claire county detective, said although a business might file a single report for catalytic converter thefts, it may have had multiple thefts within the report. 

“I mean, I can tell you, we had a couple in the county where there was between four and six taken from one business,” Henning said. “But it’s one theft report. So the number is a little deceiving.”

Catalytic converters are made up of precious metals, such as palladium, rhodium and platinum, which are the catalysts that create a chemical reaction to convert harmful gases into safer ones. These precious metals are what make the part so valuable and appeasing — Rhodium itself, per ounce, is worth over $16,000.

Low emission vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, are common targets because they have catalytic converters that contain more precious metals in them.

Henning said some of the suspects identified have been found to have a direct correlation with drugs in the thefts of catalytic converters, like methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin. 

In 2021, Eau Claire county reported 58 opioid-related deaths, which is more than double the number four years prior, according to WEAU

Henning said a 29-year-old Eau Claire resident has been arrested as a suspect of numerous thefts and possession of drugs. 

He said the suspect has around 12 or more open felonies between Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties. 

On Sunday, April 17, the suspect was reported to have allegedly stolen catalytic converters off of two customer’s vehicles at Peterson Automotive, located at 2335 Eddy Lane in Eau Claire.

Henning said suspects take the stolen catalytic converters and sell them for money, essentially used to buy drugs. 

“When you steal a catalytic converter, you take them to a scrapyard where there’s a local dealer here,” Henning said. “The scrap dealer, they’re getting anywhere from $200, you know, $600 a piece scrap-price for them, but if you’re a victim of it to replace it — your cars — probably $1,200 to get it replaced.”

He said a semi-load of catalytic converters taken to a factory for scrapyard owners to sell is about an $80,000 paycheck for them. 

Terry McHugh, the general manager and vice president of news station WEAU, said a catalytic converter had been stolen from one of their company vehicles earlier this year. 

McHugh said another news station in Eau Claire, WQOW, has its transmitter on a building in WEAU’s parking lot, which ironically had a security camera pointed in the direction of the theft. 

“They have a security camera on that building, and that’s who alerted us that somebody took the dumb thing,” McHugh said. “So we looked at the video and we could see the guy, but he was all masked up with a hat on and heavy coat.”

McHugh said they turned the security footage over to the Eau Claire Police Department to which they responded, “If we get lucky, we may find it, but probably not.”

Catalytic converters are difficult to track because unlike the vehicle, it doesn’t come with an identification number.

In hopes of preventing any more thefts, McHugh said they installed more cameras in the area where this theft occurred. He said the theft was on one of their old vans that sat in the back of the parking lot — where cameras are scarce — but most of their vehicles sit up against the building where there are more cameras. 

Henning also said Gander RV Service of Camping World in Eau Claire has had 25 catalytic converters stolen from their RV’s in the last six months. 

NOTE: Inside Eau Claire attempted to contact Gander RV Service for comment, but received no response.

Henning said he reached out to Wisconsin legislators to ask what is being done about catalytic converter thefts in a perspective of law to support this activity. 

The bill, Assembly Bill 415, was created as an act to regulate scrap dealer purchases of catalytic converter thefts. The bill failed to pass pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 1. 

Henning said to avoid theft of a vehicle’s catalytic converter, park in a garage or a well-lit area if possible. 

“It’s really hard to have advice on how to force this type of activity because no matter where you park your car, it’s really unfortunately a fair game for these people,” Henning said. 

Dirks can be reached at dir[email protected]