When Sue Vaughn showed up to work at Montana Coffee Traders’ south Whitefish location in early May, she and her employees noticed something hanging underneath the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter delivery van.
Somebody had stolen the van’s catalytic converter a few hours earlier at about 2 a.m., according to surveillance footage. Vaughn reported the theft to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, but the vehicle was parked too far from the camera, making it difficult to identify the perpetrator.
Now, the van is sitting in the muffler shop until mechanics can order a new converter, but Vaughn says they haven’t received an estimate for it yet and it will likely take a while.
Vaughn uses the van for deliveries and to install brewing equipment at Glacier National Park and other organizations, but now Coffee Traders is short on vehicles right before their busy season starts.
“We’re just gearing up for a very busy time of year,” Vaughn said. “We need those big vehicles to do installs so now we’re down a van. It’s really hard to juggle all of that and get installs done and do all of our deliveries. It’s wildly inconvenient.”
The catalytic converter theft at Coffee Traders reflects a rising local and nationwide trend and Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino says it’s been escalating since winter.
Heino says there were a few reports in February, mostly in Kalispell, and the thefts have gradually increased since. There were seven thefts reported to the sheriff’s office in April, three of which were in one day.
“We are seeing more and more of them,” Heino said. “We are working on leads.”
According to a National Insurance Crime Group report, catalytic converter thefts jumped 326% between 2019 and 2020. State Farm reported a 293% spike in thefts nationwide from mid-2020 to mid-2021 compared to the previous year.
Recycling centers and scrap yards buy the converters and break the part down for the precious metals inside, which contain small amounts of platinum, palladium and rhodium.
At Pacific Steele and Recycling in Kalispell, Assistant Manager Josh Goodwin says they buy converters at prices ranging from $5 to $100.
“We have a lot of legitimate people who bring them in from junk yards,” he said. “But we’re more than willing to do whatever the police need to help them. We have caught a few people.”
Pacific Steele requires sellers to submit a scan of their driver’s license and to fill out extra forms, which helps law enforcement connect stolen converters to reports.
Patrol Captain Jordan Venezio says the Kalispell Police Department (KPD) receives a handful of reports per week and they check in with Pacific Steele to see if their reports connect to any of the converter sales.
To avoid detection in Montana, some steal several converters at a time and sell them at different recycling centers in Spokane or Coeur d’Alene.
While converters are stolen from a variety of locations across the valley, Venezio says most are stolen at night from business parking lots, car lots and car dealerships. Larger vehicles like buses and box trucks are targeted most, and it only takes a few minutes for thieves to crawl underneath a vehicle and detach the converter.
“It’s safe to say it’s addiction-related,” Venezio said.
Both the KPD and the sheriff’s office often see similar crimes and many of the suspects steal and sell parts to fund drug habits.
“It’s back to that trend of addiction,” Heino said. “A couple of years ago, it was batteries. Prior to that it was copper. As metal prices increase, we see these types of crimes.”
Heino reminds the public to report thefts to law enforcement.
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