Catalytic converter bust capped off year-long investigation, prosecutors say

CHICAGO — When Chicago police arrested two men and seized 211 catalytic converters this week, it was the culmination of a nearly year-long investigation. That was one of the details revealed by prosecutors during a bail hearing for the men on Saturday afternoon.

Cops had a search warrant in hand for a storage unit in the 4500 block of West North Avenue when Marzel Woodard, called the “ringleader” of the operation, arrived at the storage facility with Vincent Parks on Friday, officials said. Both men are 36.

The undercover officers watched as Woodard and Parks started to unload catalytic converters from a vehicle into the unit, prosecutors said. They tried to run away when the cops moved in, but didn’t get far.

Police allegedly found five severed catalytic converters inside Woodard’s vehicle. Another 206 converters were found in Woodard’s storage unit after they executed the warrant, prosecutors told Judge Ankur Srivastava on Saturday.

Woodard had been under investigation since last August. Police have seen him handling, possessing, storing, and selling “large numbers” of catalytic converters since then, an assistant state’s attorney told the judge. The prosecutor said Parks had been handling and transporting converters with Woodard for about a week.

Saying the men were caught with a “kinda staggering number of catalytic converters,” Srivastava ordered Woodard to pay a $5,000 bail deposit to be released on electronic monitoring. Parks must pay a $2,500 deposit and will not be placed on an ankle monitor.

Chicago police released this picture of catalytic converters seized at the storage unit. | CPD

Both men are charged with aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle. Woodard is also charged with organizing an aggravated vehicle theft conspiracy. He has felony convictions for theft in 2019 and narcotics-related charges in 2008, 2010, and 2014.

Booming business

State Farm, the largest auto insurance company in the country, said late last year that insurance claims for stolen catalytic converters in Illinois increased by more than 500% since 2019.

The company said it paid out just $651,000 for about 480 catalytic converter thefts in Illinois during 2019. During the first eight months of last year, it paid $5.3 million for 2,770 claims. The company said Illinois ranks third in catalytic converter theft payouts, behind California and Texas.

Teams of thieves sell the stolen car parts, which contain small amounts of very expensive precious metals, on the black market.

Vincent Parks (L) and Marzel Woodard | Chicago Police Department

The slippery crews, who are increasingly armed and willing to shoot people who get in their way, are rarely caught. Thefts, which used to be reported mostly during overnight hours, now occur frequently in the daytime.

And, when someone is found with a couple of dozen severed catalytic converters in their car, Cook County prosecutors have typically charged them only with a misdemeanor like theft of lost or mislaid property.

That changed recently, however, when local prosecutors began filing felony charges of receiving or possessing a stolen motor vehicle against catalytic converter thieves, apparently under a section of state law that makes stealing an “essential part” of a car equal to stealing the entire vehicle.

Interstate operations

Meanwhile, there are indications that some catalytic converter thieves may be part of a nationwide network that ships stolen car parts cross-country, defeating local efforts to interrupt the sale of the devices.

Cops in Washington County, Oregon, said they broke up a $22 million operation last summer that trafficked 44,000 catalytic converters from the Pacific Northwest to recyclers on the East Coast. Prosecutors there charged 15 men in a conspiracy that allegedly stretched across six states.

Closer to home, Chicago police said in March that they found six catalytic converters inside a stolen car suspected of being used in a string of armored car robberies.

In January, the police themselves fell victim to thieves who stole five catalytic converters from trucks used by CPD’s mounted unit.

That same month, a group of Chicago residents was accused of traveling to Pittsburgh to steal more than $200,000 worth of catalytic converters from vehicles.

But, rather than target cars parked on residential streets, the group decided to take the easier route by simply going to car dealerships and taking the catalytic converters off of vehicles offered for sale, a Pennsylvania newspaper reported. One chain of dealerships had 35 catalytic converters stolen from Mitsubishi Outlanders. Total damage: $124,000. Another $20,000 worth of catalytic converters were stolen from tow trucks.

Two of the accused men were the subject of a CWB Chicago report eight years ago after they were found in a van with 24 stolen catalytic converters on the North Side. They all received probation for misdemeanor charges in that case.

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