They crawl under your vehicle and hack away at its tender underbelly. Then they sell the severed parts.
It’s a good living if you don’t get caught. And most catalytic converter thieves …
They crawl under your vehicle and hack away at its tender underbelly. Then they sell the severed parts.
It’s a good living if you don’t get caught. And most catalytic converter thieves never get caught.
Enter the Catalytic Avenger.
“These guys don’t want to put an honest day of work in,” Daniel S. Walser III said Monday. “I’m working hard over here. I’m here every day just busting my butt to make the money they’re making while stealing.”
Last week, the FBI raided Accurate Converter, a more than century-old Branch Avenue metal recycler in Providence. Providence and Cranston police were on the scene.
Though federal and local law enforcement won’t reveal details from the raid, the business was linked to a catalytic converter theft from Walser’s Warwick business last year.
As a small business owner, Walser has been forced to deal with more than his fair share of larceny.
Back in 2016, the Johnston man and entrepreneur behind Walser Mobile Refrigeration used Facebook to track down the culprits who swiped more than $25,000 in tools from his operation’s original location in Johnston.
He had only a grainy image of a vehicle, taken from his landlord’s low-quality surveillance camera. But he posted it, offered a $500 reward and tracked down the offender. Justice served.
Then in September 2022, thieves struck his business’s new location on Brownlee Boulevard in Warwick. Someone cut a hole in the fence surrounding the property and snuck in, swiping a pair of catalytic converters, but leaving two others behind.
“We reported it to Warwick Police,” Walser recalled. “They’re like, we’ll look into it. It was a ‘We don’t know who it was — nothing’s going to happen’ sort of thing.”
Walser knew the burglars would be back for the other two, so he drove to Target, bought a pair of Apple AirTags, and attached them to the remaining car parts.
Soon after, the parts were stolen and the AirTags led Walser on a wild ride.
First, one of the tags pinged at Accurate Converter. He went to the business to find out who sold them to the scrapyard. Employees matched the converter with the man who sold it — William E. “Hacksaw” Hazard Sr.
Walser contacted Providence Police. They arrived on the scene.
Walser said workers at the business were a little rude to police, but together they found Hazard on camera and matched it to the man seen on video surveillance stealing the converters.
“They were given a warning by Providence Police Department that ‘Hey, look you need to get paperwork,’” Walser said. “I’m guessing this whole raid had something to do with them not following that order. Again, that’s just my guess.”
Several days later, on Sept. 21, 2022, the second AirTag pinged at a local gas station.
Walser said he “wasted no time” getting to the scene.
“I know the police have their hands tied with the ways the laws are written,” Walser said. “They can’t just show up and raid your house. I knew nothing was going to happen from prior experience.”
At the Mobil gas station on Jefferson Boulevard, he spotted the same beat-up Toyota captured on video at the Providence scrap yard. The small car’s passenger seat had been removed and in its place, a large exhaust system was riding shotgun.
“I got there and I blocked him in until the police arrived,” Walser recalled. The police report mentions a “tussle,” but notes that Walser merely held Hazard in place until police arrived.
“Surveillance from the Mobil verify (Walser’s) story, (Hazard) was not assaulted, Daniel just attempted to detain and hold him until Police arrived to solve the matter,” Warwick Police Officer Normand G. Guilbert wrote in Hazard’s arrest report.
“The guy was known to them,” Walser said. “They knew who he was. When I found him at the gas station, they knew who it was right away. They’re like oh, that’s Hacksaw … that’s his nickname because he’s just done it so many times.”
Hazard faced two charges: Possession of Stolen Parts and Habitual Offender Shoplifting, Larceny or Receiving Stolen Goods (after three previous convictions).
According to court records, Hazard entered a plea of Nolo Contendere (no contest) to Possession of Stolen Parts. The Habitual Offender charge, however, was dismissed by the prosecution.
Hazard received a three-year sentence, and as of Tuesday, remains incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), according to Warwick Police Chief Col. Bradford Connor.
“He even told the police later, ‘When I get out I’ll do it again and I’ll go right back to his property,’” Walser said. The police report noted the threat. Walser said there have not been any incidents since Hazard’s arrest.
Catalytic converter theft has been soaring in frequency throughout the Ocean State.
In 2021, Johnston Police “recorded 30 incident reports in reference to catalytic converter thefts with a total of 47 converters stolen,” according to Chief Mark A. Vieira. Last year, Johnston Police received 36 converter theft reports (43 stolen in all).
“In 2022, the Johnston Police Department arrested just one suspect for catalytic convert theft,” Vieira explained Wednesday. “These thefts can be carried out in just a couple minutes making it easy to commit these crimes undetected. When these thieves are captured on video surveillance, their faces are regularly concealed protecting their identity and the vehicles they utilize are often stolen or unregistered. If catalytic converters exhibited vehicle identification numbers it would aid law enforcement in connecting these cases to suspects.”
In 2020, Cranston Police investigated 38 reports of stolen catalytic converters. That number more than tripled by 2021, when Cranston Police received 133 reports, and 108 in 2022.
“Catalytic converter thefts remain an issue in Cranston and cities/towns across Rhode Island and the country,” said Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael J. Winquist.
So far this year, Cranston Police have had just 13 reports.
The vast majority of catalytic converter thefts are never solved. Only a tiny fraction of a single percent of the reported thefts typically results in an arrest.
According to Winquist, Cranston Police arrested just four suspects for the theft of catalytic converters in 2021, and made only a single related arrest in 2022.
“It is not very often we are fortunate to make an arrest in these cases,” Winquist explained via email earlier this week. “The individuals involved in this criminal activity are well-versed in removing the catalytic converters quickly (less than a minute) and block the field of vision of any surveillance cameras and witnesses with their vehicle. If we stop a person with catalytic converters, we must be able to track it to a crime that was previously reported to bring charges. Without any identifying numbers, it is rare to make the connection.”
A soaring metals market has contributed to swelling larceny rates in Warwick.
“Warwick has seen a significant uptick in catalytic converter thefts since 2017 as the prices for precious metals increased,” said Warwick Police Intelligence Officer Sgt. Nicholas Reay. “Some of these metals, including rhodium, palladium, and platinum can be found inside catalytic converters. In 2022 alone, WPD responded to over 120 reported incidents. Some of these victims reported multiple thefts at one time. One particular business reported approximately 60 catalytic converters stolen during one incident.”
In 2020, Warwick Police logged 65 catalytic converter theft incidents; 92 in 2021; and 123 in 2022. So far this year, the department received at least 15 reports, and Reay projects around 180 for 2023 if the pace continues.
“Catalytic converters are not typically installed by the manufacturer with unique markings, such as serial numbers or color-coding,” Reay said. “I've seen some reports where people serialize, or paint their catalytic converters in order to identify them in the event they are stolen. In the case of the Brownlee Avenue incident, he used Apple Airtags to track them. Unfortunately, his business was targeted multiple times and the victim took measures on his own.”
Several state laws have been passed to specifically address the theft of catalytic converters. The first prohibits the removal of catalytic converters, except to replace a defective part. Offenders face a $500 fine for violating the law.
Rhode Island also passed legislation requiring anyone “purchasing a converter to obtain either the vehicle registration or VIN from which it was removed and provide the information to law enforcement upon request,” according to Winquist.
That law, however, is only effective paired with vigilant enforcement.
“There is a need for routine checks or reseller facilities to ensure they are following this, which is difficult due to limited police department resources,” Winquist explained. “Vehicle owners can also seek to have their vehicle’s VIN number inscribed on their catalytic converter, which will assist police if we stop a person who has possession so we can match it to a prior theft and bring charges. Ideally, federal law needs to be passed requiring vehicle manufacturers to stamp the VIN on the converters of all new vehicles.”
The exact items seized and the reasons for the raid at Accurate Converter have not been made public.
“The FBI was conducting court-authorized activity in connection with an ongoing federal investigation,” said Kristen Setera, spokeswoman for the FBI Boston Office. “To protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation we will refrain from commenting on its substance.”
When asked to comment on the criminal trend of catalytic converter theft in general, and in New England specifically, Setera still had no comment.
“Given that there’s (an) ongoing investigation, we’re going to decline comment at this time,” she wrote via email.
Cranston’s connection to the pending FBI case remains unclear.
“The Cranston Police Department assisted the FBI and Providence Police in searching a catalytic converter reseller dealer in Providence last week,” Winquist said on Monday. “I cannot comment further on this activity and would defer to the FBI.”
Walser recommends local businesses arm themselves with high-quality video surveillance. He suggests investing in lighting for exteriors and urging employees to remain vigilant.
In most cases, however, there’s not much you can do to stop would-be catalytic converter thieves.
“That guy didn’t care about lighting,” Walser said. “He came right in — in the middle of the day.”
If you show up at Walser Mobile Refrigeration, however, the crime won’t be the end of the story.
“I’m not going to let you get away with it, if I can do anything about it,” Walser said. “With social media … If you can get some information you can find people now. I’m going to use technology as best I can to make sure these guys don’t get away with it. You can’t always stop them prior to it happening, but I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen … It’s more about protecting my own property and not letting these guys get away with it.”
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here