Updated 1/17/12 8:30 p.m.

Forest Park police are working with the Chicago Police Department Auto Theft Unit and West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) to target a two- or three-man catalytic converter theft operation that has struck at least three local businesses in recent months. “We’re going through all their arrests and see what they have,” said Detective Commander Mike Keating.

Catalytic converters were stolen from 24 vehicles at McAdam Landscaping, 2201 Desplaines Ave. overnight on Sunday, Jan. 9. The car parts were cut from pickups and one-ton dump trucks used for snowplowing. Police reports indicate that the thieves entered through a chain link fence separating McAdam from the Woodlawn Mausoleum property to the south.

“We started up a new truck that had been well maintained and it was very loud. We looked around underneath and there was a big gap in the exhaust system. The catalytic converter had been cut out,” said Sam Reed, manager at McAdam. “We need these trucks running for snow [plowing].”

This is the third large-scale catalytic converter theft from a business in the area in recent months. Over Thanksgiving weekend, 62 converters were stolen from Castle Buick, 7400 Cermak Rd. in North Riverside, and on Dec. 30 six units were cut from vans at U-Haul, 801 S. Harlem Ave. in Forest Park.

In both prior thefts, chain link fences were cut to allow thieves to enter the property. In the Castle Buick incident, the fence abutting a cemetery frontage road was cut and then re-attached with metal fasteners to make it appear intact. Police believe thieves loaded out the stolen car parts through the cemetery.

“There are obviously some parallels [between the McAdam and Castle Buick thefts] in regards to usage of the cemetery,” said Forest Park Police Chief Jim Ryan.

Catalytic converters are accordion-shaped metal units weighing 60 to 70 pounds with pipes on either end that hang underneath the back of an automobile.

“It’s like a roll of carpet, a big huge bulky thing,” said Keating. “To steal a large amount like at Castle Buick would take even a six-man crew four or five hours.”

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Thieves can cut off the converters with a power saw – often a Sawzall – in less than a minute. But the bulky, heavy converters take time to move and load into vehicles.

“You can tell your catalytic converter is gone when you start your car and it sounds like a Sherman tank,” said Keating.

Valuable metals including platinum, rhodium and palladium are inside the converters, which are sold to scrap metal dealers for between $100 and $200 each. Replacing a catalytic converter can cost car owners about $1,200 for parts and labor.

Thieves often target tall vehicles, such as SUVs which are easier to crawl underneath, although in the Castle Buick incident all different types of vehicles were targeted, including employee cars parked in the lot. U-Haul has had more than one incidence of converter theft in the past year, said Keating.

“Catalytic converters are the flavor of the day in regards to what’s being stolen,” he said.

The parts are not marked with identifying serial numbers and are “hard to trace back to the cars they came from,” he said. Also, because the thief removes the part from the outside of the car instead of, for example, a radio inside the vehicle, the crime is classified as theft instead of burglary, carrying a much lighter sentence, especially in Cook County, he said.

Scrap metal dealers in the area are required to collect identification from anyone selling catalytic converters.

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“[Thieves] could be selling these to scrap metal dealers anywhere from here to Indiana,” said Keating. “It would be a disreputable scrap metal dealer who would buy a pickup full of 24 catalytic converters.”

Surveillance videos at McAdam show two or three men walking from the Woodlawn Mausoleum and then stacking stolen catalytic converters to the west of the property, which abuts the Des Plaines River. The men appear in the videos between 4:46 a.m. and 6:20 a.m. “Every time a car goes by on Desplaines Avenue they hit the ground.”

Police believe the thieves parked near the river by the crematory.

“We think the truck was so heavy when it left, it shaved the dirt off a berm [between the two businesses],” said Keating.

Reed said the company had insurance, but the trucks had to be taken three-at-a-time to a muffler repair shop. “The fleet is now ready to go for the snow,” he said. “We want the community to be aware that this is happening.”

Two car dealerships in Forest Park with hundreds of vehicles have property next door to a cemetery. Currie Motors and Park Plaza Dodge are next to Forest Home Cemetery, but Keating says the graveyard locks its gates at night.

Keating believes the same people carried off both heists.

“I feel pretty comfortable it’s probably the same crew,” said Keating. “We’ve got our suspects. We’ll catch them with extra patrols and good old-fashioned police work.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...