Catalytic converter theft in spotlight after fatal shooting of 'General Hospital' actor Johnny Wactor

More than 150,000 catalytic converters were stolen between 2020 and 2022.

May 29, 2024, 11:48 PM

A nationwide crime trend plaguing car owners has gained renewed focus amid the unsolved killing of "General Hospital" actor Johnny Wactor who was gunned down when he caught thieves in Los Angeles ripping off the catalytic converter of his Toyota Prius.

The automotive part meant to reduce smog caused by combustion engines has become a preferred target for criminals as the prices of the precious metals inside the component -- rhodium, platinum and palladium -- have skyrocketed in recent years.

Rhodium, for instance, currently goes for $4,750 a troy ounce, the measurement for precious metals, or about twice the cost of gold, according to Trading Economics, a website that tracks economic indicators. Platinum is currently priced at $1,046 per troy ounce, while palladium is going for $957.

PHOTO: Actor Johnny Wactor is seen, Oct. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Actor Johnny Wactor is seen, Oct. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images via Getty Images

According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, a stolen catalytic converter can fetch between $20 and $350 on the black market.

Jim McDonnell, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff, told ABC News the quick money thieves are getting on the black market for the part outweighs the risk of getting caught because penalties have been historically low and the priority law enforcement agencies place on such crimes takes a back seat to violent crime.

"There's an incentive there, and if the consequences that they can look forward to don't outweigh the risk that they're going to take, certainly they're going to go after that kind of thing," said McDonnell, now the director of the Safe Communities Institue, a public safety think tank at the University of Southern California.

McDonnell said teams of thieves have become as speedy as NASCAR pit crews in stealing catalytic converters, in some cases using floor jacks and cordless saws to remove the part.

"You can go in with a Sawzall and hit the exhaust on both sides of the converter and be gone in relatively seconds," McDonnell said.

PHOTO: Illustration
States with the most catalytic converter thefts
ABC News, National Insurance Crime Bureau

The 37-year-old Wactor was fatally shot around 3:25 a.m. PT on Saturday when he interrupted three people, wearing masks and dressed in black, who had his car up on a floor jack and were attempting to steal its catalytic converter, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

No arrests have been made in the killing.

Wactor's death came about two years after off-duty Harris County, Texas, Sheriff's Deputy Darren Almendarez, 51, was gunned down in front of his wife in a similar incident. Almendarez was fatally shot while trying to stop three thieves from stealing his truck's catalytic converter in a grocery store parking lot, according to the Harris County Sheriff's Department. Three suspects in Almendarez's slaying were arrested and charged with capital murder. They all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

PHOTO: Illustration
Prices of precious metals in catalytic converter
ABC News, Trading Economics

Several suspected catalytic converter thieves have also been killed in confrontations with car owners. In April 2023, a suspected thief was stabbed to death in the Los Angeles suburb of South El Monte by a homeowner armed with a kitchen knife who confronted three suspects in his driveway trying to steal his vehicle's catalytic converter, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Since 2022, catalytic converters have been stolen from 153,000 vehicles nationwide, according to CARFAX, which provides vehicle data to consumers.

Between 2020 and 2022, more than 24,000 vehicles in California had their catalytic converters stolen, the most in the nation, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Texas followed California with more than 8,000 catalytic converters ripped off.

PHOTO: Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks with ABC News, May 28, 2024.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks with ABC News, May 28, 2024.
ABC News

"You have organized theft rings doing this as well, and they'll basically sub out to others and then buy from them as they seize these parts," McDonnell told ABC News.

He said many states have been cracking down on catalytic converter thefts by creating task forces to investigate such crimes and passing laws that increase the punishment for people convicted.

In 2022, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Comprehensive Catalytic Converter Theft law, requiring new car dealers to supply a catalytic converter serial number etching kit and creating a statewide database to track the sale and recycling of catalytic converters at scrap yards. In June 2023, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Deputy Darren Almendarez Act, making catalytic converter theft a felony and increasing the penalty for perpetrators who use firearms when stealing a device.

At least 39 states have proposed bills to tackle the problem, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

PHOTO: This image released by ABC shows Johnny Wactor in character as Brando Corbin from the daytime series "General Hospital."
This image released by ABC shows Johnny Wactor in character as Brando Corbin from the daytime series "General Hospital."
Scott Kirkland/AP

In February 2023, the bipartisan Preventing Auto Recycling Thefts Act was introduced in Congress, which, if passed, would make it a federal crime to steal, sell or traffic in stolen catalytic converters.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also taken action. In November 2022, the DOJ announced the takedown of a nationwide catalytic converter theft ring and the arrests of 21 suspects in California, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.

"This national network of criminals hurt victims across the country, FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the time. "They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process -- on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners."

Actions taken by states and federal officials to deal with the problem appear to be working. The National Insurance Crime Bureau told ABC News that catalytic converter theft dropped 57% nationwide in 2023 from 2022. However, the numbers are still higher than they were before the start of the pandemic.

McDonnell said victims of catalytic converter theft have to pay up to $3,000 to replace a stolen catalytic converter. He said hybrid vehicles, which come with two catalytic converters, can cost more to repair if both parts are stolen.

He said cars cannot operate without the parts, leaving victims without a ride as they wait for days, sometimes weeks, to get their vehicles fixed.

McDonnell said people could do things to safeguard their vehicles' catalytic converters, like installing special cages or clamps around the devices to make them tamper-resistant or parking their cars in a garage. However, they can be expensive.

“I think there are a number of things that individuals can do to safeguard their property, but those really are not achievable by everybody," McDonnell said. "Everybody can’t park in a well-lit block spot; everybody can’t have an indoor garage. All of the things that we’d like to say you can do to make it harder to steal your property are not realistic to our members of the community."

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