By Jeff Lehr
Globe Sports Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Loretta Yocom came out of Hollywood Theaters in Joplin a week ago after watching “The Life of Pi” and may have thought for just a millisecond that she had a tiger in her Toyota 4Runner.
“I went to start the car and it roared like it didn’t even have a muffler on it,” Yocom said.
She drove it down to the Fletcher Toyota dealership, where she was told what the trouble was: Someone stole her SUV’s catalytic converter while she was at the movies.
Plucked it right out of the exhaust system.
In broad daylight.
In a jam-packed parking lot.
The Neosho woman soon learned from police and others that the theft of catalytic converters is a growing crime nationwide.
“My daughter lives in Kansas City, and she says they’re doing it up there like mad,” Yocom said.
Rachele Davis, a crime analyst with the Joplin Police Department, confirmed that catalytic converter thefts are on the uptick locally as well. Since Aug. 1 there have been 19 such thefts reported in the city, Davis said. Ten of those were committed in December. Of the 19 thefts, 16 involved trucks or SUVs.
“We have been replacing and repairing quite a few of them that have been stolen,” said Mike Fogerson, owner and operator of Comer’s Muffler at 901 E. 15th St. “We did two (Monday). There has definitely been a rash of them.”
Fogerson said SUVs and trucks tend to be the most popular targets because they sit up high, allowing thieves to get under them more easily than most types of cars. Imports seem to be targeted more often than domestic vehicles, but Fogerson said he also has seen them removed from church buses and delivery vehicles.
Robert Jarnigan, of J&M Muffler, with shops in Joplin and Webb City, said people are getting them stolen while parked in shopping centers, at work and at other locations, and at about any time of day. He said it only takes a couple of minutes with a power saw. Getting under the vehicles is the hardest part.
Nevertheless, Jarnigan is a little perplexed how they are getting away with it since cutting them out is a noisy proposition and should attract attention, he said.
Cpl. Chuck Niess said police suspect the thieves in Joplin are using cordless Sawzalls.
“We haven’t caught anybody doing that yet, but their cuts are all clean, straight lines, not done by hand with a hacksaw,” he said.
He said they usually cut the exhaust pipe both in front and behind the converter. Or they cut in front of the converter and take the whole back part of the exhaust system with them. In Yocom’s case, they removed some bolts, she said.
Niess said officers were ordered recently to begin noting in their reports what the make and model is on each vehicle so the department can determine which vehicles are at greater risk, and for purposes of identification if any suspected stolen converters are recovered.
Thieves find the converters attractive to steal because they contain trace amounts of pricey metals — platinum, rhodium and palladium. Platinum is worth more per ounce than gold, and palladium is worth more than $700 an ounce.
Detective Darren McIntosh, who has been put in charge of the city’s cases, said the converters — dubbed “loaves” or “bread loaves” — bring the thieves anywhere from $15 to $150 apiece. He said on the average they are probably receiving about $70.
Several local scrap yard operators who declined to be identified said that either they don’t take catalytic converters or they offer only a token price of $5 to discourage thefts, but noted they can be sold online.
McIntosh said vehicles left in commercial lots for extended periods of time are the most vulnerable to this type of theft. That’s why rental car agencies, auto repair shops and car dealerships are among the most frequent victims.
Fogerson and Jarnigan said it can cost a vehicle owner a minimum of $200 and perhaps much more to replace a converter, depending on the make and model of the vehicle. Yocom said she was told hers was going to cost her a little over $200.
Globe Metro Editor Andy Ostmeyer contributed to this report.