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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Catalytic converters await their fate at Utah Metal Works in Salt Lake City. They contain numerous precious metals.

Randy Vantienderen was busy this year getting under other people's cars, according to investigators.

Armed with a reciprocating saw, the man would find an unoccupied vehicle, typically at a TRAX station parking lot, crawl underneath, make two quick cuts, and walk away with the vehicle's catalytic converter.

The auto part, standard on vehicles since the '70s to reduce harmful engine emissions, contains small amounts of precious metals — some of which sold for thousands of dollars an ounce over the summer. That turns the part into a hot commodity for criminals looking to make a fast buck at junkyards.

In Utah and nationally, this year's earlier spike in the price of copper and precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium lured thieves to the underbellies of vehicles, construction sites and rail yards.

In Vantienderen's case, authorities believe he started his converter theft spree in April. The frequency of his thefts increased over time: A converter was stolen on Sept. 22. Another on Sept. 24. Three on Sept. 26. Two more on Sept. 30.

By the time the law caught up with him, prosecutors allege he'd stolen 119 catalytic converters and sold them to recyclers. He now faces prosecution in 3rd District Court on 38 criminal offenses.

Catalytic converters are by no means the only targets. Major companies along the Wasatch Front have been hit with metal thefts, including Kennecott, the Utah Transit Authority, Rocky Mountain Power and Qwest. Even cemeteries, with brass vases used to hold memorial flowers, haven't been off limits.

The allure is quick and sometimes big money. In Vantienderen's case, investigators estimated he pocketed $13,000.

"We saw catalytic converters in May, June and July at unprecedented heights," said Mark Lewon, vice president of operations for Utah Metal Works. "The larger foreign pieces were almost $200 a piece, and that's going to attract some criminals to it. There's no question those high markets are going to attract some theft."

Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Fred Burmester estimated the losses in Salt Lake County due to metal thefts since 2007 have been about $1 million.

"It's not just the value of things taken, but also, and more serious, is the damage which we could charge a criminal mischief case," he said.

In Washington County, sheriff's detective Nate Abbott said there was a rash of copper and aluminum wire thefts over the summer, especially since copper was selling at four times the regular rate. Thieves were taking their chances not only with being caught but being injured themselves by stealing metal wires out of circuit boxes, he said.

Springville Police Lt. Dave Caron said over the summer his city had a problem with thieves going into homes under construction and selling the wiring and copper piping.

"It's absolutely a problem. It has been for a number of years," he said. "It's gotten worse. It's gotten worse nationwide."

Caron recalled an incident in his city more than a year ago when someone hooked up a large spool of wire to the back of a truck and drove forward to unwind it and lay it out flat. The thieves then cut up the wiring, collected it and left.

Some of the damage caused by metal thieves create public safety risks, especially when critical infrastructure is affected. Thefts along TRAX and Union Pacific lines have resulted in exposed wires and wires being taken out of crossing arms.

"It's a public safety concern, it's a concern for the trains, it's a homeland security concern really," said West Jordan police criminal analyst Nikol Mitchell.

And for many vehicle owners, replacing a converter can cost them anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,000 or more for SUVs and trucks, which are often targeted because of their high clearance from the ground.

Hard to catch

While scrap metal thefts along the Wasatch Front are not new, the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office is revamping its efforts to combat the problem, giving it renewed attention.

One of the challenges, however, is the number of recycling businesses combined with the number of different police jurisdictions, said Deputy District Attorney Alicia Cook. A thief moving around the valley can steal scrap metal in one area and sell it at the opposite end of the valley before word gets out.

Metal recycling companies were also frustrated, and, despite the perception of some, Lewon said recyclers are not turning a blind eye.

"I will put our record up against anyone's in the country in terms of our willingness to handle stolen material and deal with it properly," Lewon said. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has created a "theft alert" system in which recyclers are warned to watch for reported stolen items. A summary of the theft and a description of the "hot" items are posted on the Web site, in addition to contact information for the investigating agency.

Still, stolen scrap metal and catalytic converters are nearly impossible to trace to original owners, unlike vehicles that have vehicle identification numbers or electronic equipment stamped with a serial number. Legitimate "junk" trade has been going on for centuries.

"If it was that easy, there wouldn't be any crime," Lewon said. "You can go ahead and make snap judgments on the people coming in ... 'He looks crazy,' 'He's dressed funny' ... in some places I'd be right probably more times than not, and in some places I'd be wrong. (Their items) may be stolen and they may be someone's legitimate business."

Metal recyclers deal with hundreds of people and thousands of pounds of metal, Mitchell added.

"There's been a large misconception," she said. "There's no way to tell (a person's) scrap metal is stolen. If a customer comes in and has a story that sounds legit, and no one has told you something is missing, there's no red flag."

Some thieves will even take steps to make their stolen metal look old and weathered and not something lifted from a hardware store or new home under construction.

"(Recyclers) are not interested in being fences for stolen property," Cook added.

Communication

In an effort to find a solution to the metal thefts problem, the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office this year held a series of meetings that brought together police, prosecutors and members of the metal recycling industry to share ideas and open lines of communication that previously weren't there.

Mitchell, whose resume includes work with the Drug Enforcement Administration, suggested coming up with a database similar to what that agency created with store owners who sell iodine, a chemical used to make methamphetamine.

"Why aren't we doing a similar deal?" she asked the group. "What basically we did was make a cooperative effort with retailers and law enforcement and get them information as soon as we have it. It has made a huge difference in catching these guys."

Now, if wires or catalytic converters are stolen, Mitchell sends out notice to metal recyclers immediately about what items to be on the lookout for. In return, retailers have gotten more comfortable about reporting suspicious activity, she said.

"It's a huge benefit to us," Lewon said. "Whatever information we can get to narrow down what to look for is a big help."

Already the new system has resulted in the arrests of a group trying to sell catalytic converters to Utah Metal Works and the arrests of several people stealing wiring from Union Pacific and crossing arms on TRAX lines. Beer kegs someone tried to sell to Utah Metal Works ended back with the rightful owner at a tavern on State Street.

"They were tickled to death," Lewon said. "We were out the 150 bucks, but to me it is doing the right thing and getting it back to the guys it belongs to. This where the system worked."

Legislation and other solutions

Lawmakers have also taken note of the problem. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring the Copper Theft Prevention Act, a bill that would require scrap dealers to keep records of the names and addresses of people who try to sell copper, as well as force companies to make all payments over $250 in checks rather than cash.

But scrap metal dealers are worried too much legislation will hurt their industry. Recyclers in Utah are already required to keep track of the vehicles and license plate numbers, as well as get a photo ID, from customers selling several types of precious metals, including copper, aluminum and brass. Recyclers have to keep records of those transactions for a year, and they must be available for law enforcers to look through at any time.

Lewon said he's even heard of a proposal for metal recyclers to hang onto their purchased items for four days before selling them. In a business that is determined by an ever-fluctuating market, he said his company could potentially lose a lot of money under that proposal.

A couple of auto dealers locally are working with police on a plan to have registration numbers placed on catalytic converters. Elsewhere across the country, police departments have hosted "etch and catch" events in which officers volunteer to etch identifying information on the auto parts.

Residents, too, can invest in commercial theft deterrent devices that make removing the part more difficult or ask a mechanic to weld the converter to the frame.

Next month, a conference on metal thefts will be held by the district attorney's office for prosecutors, law enforcement and recyclers. Hosted by the district attorney's office, the Jan. 7 event is intended to draw in participants from across the state, particularly corporate victims.

With prices of precious metals faltering like the rest of the economy, some of the metal-theft problems have started to resolve themselves.

"The risk-reward has fallen off," Lewon said. "If it's not worth as much, most won't take the risk. It doesn't mean the thefts will stop altogether."