From her third-floor Baltimore apartment, Katherine Lundy heard the whir of an electric saw carving metal. She looked out her window expecting to see construction workers but instead spotted a pair of legs sticking out from under her roommate's Toyota pickup truck.
She rushed down the stairs, but the thief and three accomplices had driven off with the truck's catalytic converter.
Catalytic converters are increasingly lucrative targets for thieves, who chop them off for the precious metals inside, such as platinum and rhodium, which are trading at higher prices than gold and fueling an industrial boom in Asia.
The thefts, which can take less than a minute, are an international problem and are committed in large part by drug addicts who sell the converters to backyard mechanics or scrap dealers for $100 to $150 each, said Baltimore County Detective Sgt. Bob Jagoe, a member of the Regional Auto Theft Task Force.
"When it's not your money, that's not a bad deal," he said. "Anybody can buy them. Anybody can sell them. The law is always five to 10 years behind thieves. Who would have known 10 years ago that we would have had a problem with people cutting off catalytic converters?"
The converters, which made their debut in the United States in the mid-1970s in response to stricter federal pollution standards, clean the most harmful pollutants from a car's exhaust. The cost to replace a stolen converter can vary from $400 to $1,400, depending on how much of the exhaust system the thieves remove.
"That was the first I had heard of people stealing catalytic converters," said Lundy, who witnessed the theft in her Station North neighborhood about 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday last month. "But now that I know of it, when I mention it, I've had people tell me, 'Oh yeah, that happened to my friend.'"
Area police departments do not track catalytic converter thefts and instead classify them as "thefts from motor vehicles," lumping them in with stolen car radios, hubcaps and windshield wipers. But police, junkyard owners and mechanics say that the thefts are up. The task force has started a catalytic converter theft project.
The crime is a tricky one to solve and requires the cooperation of scrap dealers, who can be at a competitive disadvantage if they decline parts whose origins are suspicious, Jagoe said.
To solve the crime, detectives would need to clean the equipment, which is difficult, search for a serial number that indicates what type of vehicle it came from - if rust has not obliterated it - and then "get underneath the car and see if it fits," Jagoe said.
By that time, most drivers would have replaced the part. Without a catalytic converter a car sounds louder than "the loudest motorcycle you've ever heard," said Ed Nemphos, owner of Brentwood Automotive in Hampden.
"It would take an ungodly amount of time to make the case," Jagoe said, if police tried to match a converter to its car without any other evidence. "I don't know of any agency that attempts to identify things" that way.
Joe O'Connell II, co-owner of Converter King of Maryland, buys and sells used converters at a brick industrial complex in Lansdowne.
Each week, his workers tear apart hundreds of converters and store their dirty, gray honeycombs, which are coated in platinum, palladium or rhodium, or a combination of them.
Inside the honeycombs, hot emissions combine with the metals and turn the harmful gases into oxygen or reduce them to government-mandated levels.
O'Connell sells the honeycombs to refineries in New Jersey and New York, where workers use a $250,000 piece of equipment to remove the dust and dirt, melt the valuable metals and sell the raw material, he said. No such refineries exist in Maryland, he said.
"The stuff inside them is carcinogenic," O'Connell said.
This week, rhodium was selling for $5,960 an ounce; platinum, $1,300; and palladium, $365. By comparison, gold was trading at $667 an ounce. Jagoe said that thieves often target foreign-made sport utility vehicles and trucks because they're easier to slide under and the converters are larger and thus contain more precious metals.
O'Connell and his sister, Deborah Rosskelly, who owns East Coast Catalytic Converters next door, have called police when they suspect someone is trying to hawk stolen goods. One man, whom they reported, was showing up four or five times a day in a taxi - one converter at a time, Rosskelly said.
Two wanted posters and four black-and-white photographs of men suspected of stealing catalytic converters hang on a wall in O'Connell's office. O'Connell wrote "JAIL" in blue ink next to one of the men, whom he helped police apprehend.
"We have regular customers," Rosskelly said. "So if we see someone we don't know pulling one converter out of the trunk of their car, it's fishy."
Parking lots with large numbers of cars sitting overnight are primary targets, Jagoe said.
Shannon Patterson, owner of Auto Recycling of Baltimore on Haven Street, which buys cars and sells the parts, said that his yard has been hit three or four times in the past year.
The vandals cut through a hole in his fence, used battery-powered saws to grind off a few converters and then sold them to a nearby scrap dealer.
Compared with other auto parts and metals, "catalytic converters are, pound for pound, the easiest and most valuable thing to get," Patterson said.