Four persons from the Northeast Valley and southeast Los Angeles were arrested by Santa Monica police after a witness said he saw them stealing a catalytic converter.

The four suspects allegedly stole a catalytic converter from a 2020 Nissan on the 1500 block of Harvard Street in Santa Monica on April 15. They were later arrested by police during a traffic stop, when officers recovered numerous power saws, a vehicle jack, radios, masks and other tools from their Tahoe SUV.

A stolen converter was also later recovered, police said.

Two of the suspects — 36-year-old Jesse Gonzalez and 29-year-old Samantha Loaiza — are from the City of San Fernando. Also arrested were Jesus Guerrero, 33, from Pacoima, and Aleisha Lee Jasmine Schmitz, 24, from Bellflower. 

(left to right) 36-year-old Jesse Gonzalez and 29-year-old Samantha Loaiza — are from the City of San Fernando.

All four were charged with grand theft and conspiracy among various other charges. Schmitz was also charged with false impersonation, allegedly pretending to be San Fernando resident Alexandra Garcia. Police said Schmitz had an active no-bail robbery and felony hit and run warrant for her arrest.

Guerrero’s scheduled court date is May 3, Loaiza on May 5, Schmitz on May 17 and Gonzalez on May 26.

Thefts on the Rise

This case is among the latest in the thefts of catalytic converters — a smog-control device underneath cars that turns toxic pollutants into less harmful gasses — that have skyrocketed nationwide.

A report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that in 2020, catalytic converter theft claims jumped to 14,433 — a 325 percent increase from 2019, which had a reported 3,389 claims.

The LAPD Mission Hills Division, which patrols the neighborhoods of Sylmar, Mission Hills, Arleta, North Hills and Panorama City — reports an estimated five to 10 converters have been stolen every week since January. 

In the City of San Fernando, police say that 35 converters were reported stolen since the beginning of the year; even City vehicles have been the target of thefts.

“It’s frustrating,” said San Fernando Police Department (SFPD) spokesperson Lt. Irwin Rosenberg. “We know it’s happening in a lot of other cities as well and everybody’s trying to figure out ways of coordinated efforts to try to combat these thefts.”

One of the main reasons for the numerous thefts is the expensive precious metals that make up the device: platinum, palladium and rhodium. The price for platinum is $1,000 per ounce; palladium is more than $2,300 and rhodium is $19,000. Depending on the model of the car, stolen converters can be sold for $300 up to $1,500 at a scrap yard. 

Another reason is how easy it can be to steal them. Converters can be removed with battery-operated tools — and in some cases simple hand tools — in a few minutes or even seconds.

Trucks are at a higher risk due to the converter being easier to access.

“These guys are out there and looking for the best place that they can find one and they’re taking them,” said Lt. Joseph Kalyn, commanding officer of detectives at the LAPD Mission Hills station. 

“We actually saw a Ring video of these guys walking into a driveway, and within 28 seconds, they had the car jacked up, two people slide underneath, they took the catalytic converter and they’re gone,” Kalyn said

One of the more worrisome aspects about converter theft cases is how difficult they can be to prosecute.

Converters lack an identifiable mark that ties them to their vehicles. Unless there is a witness to the theft, or the suspects are caught in the act, it can be hard to prove that the person in possession of the converters knew that they are stolen.

“I remember one recent [case] where the officers actually arrested somebody in possession of these catalytic converters they believed to be stolen property. But the district attorney’s office would not file because they couldn’t identify a victim that was associated with the stolen catalytic converter,” Rosenberg said.

For car owners, replacing a stolen catalytic converter can be costly, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Even if the owner’s insurance covers the theft, they are still responsible for the deductible.

“I would encourage anybody if they see that kind of activity to please report it,” Rosenberg said. “Sometimes people do witness crimes like this and they’re hesitant to call; we certainly want to encourage them to call because we want to prevent these types of crimes from occurring.”

What is Being Done

There are some ways for car owners to deter potential thieves.

You should make sure your vehicle is parked in a well-lit area if you don’t have a garage and report suspicious behavior. Protection shields and alarms can also be purchased online for converters.

The recommended method is to permanently mark the converter with the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at a muffler shop.

Police departments also host free events to engrave the vehicle’s VIN on the converter for the community. The Mission Hills Division is holding one such event on Saturday, April 30, at the Facey Medical parking lot; but the registration has already hit its 40-person limit.

The division is planning for future events, but there are no concrete dates at this time.

New State Legislation Being Considered

State Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) introduced Senate Bill 919 in February to tackle catalytic converter theft in three ways:

— requiring new and used vehicle dealers to permanently mark the (VIN) on the converter before they sell it;

— Allowing metal recyclers to only buy converters that have a clearly visible and untampered VIN on it, and to keep detailed records of who sold them each specific catalytic converter that would be accessible to law enforcement, and;

— require sales documentation and VIN on the converters as well increasing fines meant to discourage theft.

If signed into law, these crimes would be classified as a misdemeanor.