Suburban men charged with operating 8-county catalytic converter theft operation

Two suburban Chicago men operated a catalytic converter theft operation across eight northern Illinois counties until authorities arrested them following a two-year investigation, state Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office said in a press release Wednesday.

The office said Pedro Villegas-Mendoza, 22, and Octavio Goytia, 28, are each held in lieu of $35,000 bail deposits in DuPage County.

Between August 2021 and March 2022, the men worked together to steal catalytic converters from vehicles in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Will, DeKalb, Lake, McHenry, and Winnebago counties, according to Raoul’s office.

“In broad daylight [they] removed the catalytic converters by jacking up vehicles and using a saw to remove the converter,” the release said. They are accused of stealing more than 35 catalytic converters. 

Raoul’s office filed complaints against the men in DuPage County, charging each of them with two counts of theft of more than $10,000 and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle.

Villegas-Mendoza is charged with 38 counts of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, 38 counts of burglary, two counts of theft of more than $10,000, and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle. Goytia is charged with 36 counts of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, 36 counts of burglary, two counts of theft of more than $10,000, and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle.

Under Illinois criminal law, possessing a stolen critical part of a motor vehicle is equivalent to possessing the entire vehicle.

“While a vehicle can still operate without a catalytic converter, removing it will release toxic gases and pollutants into the air,” Raoul said in the statement. “These charges are the result of close collaboration by my office with multiple state’s attorneys and law enforcement agencies to investigate thefts in eight Chicagoland counties.”

Earlier this month, Chicago police recovered more than 200 severed catalytic converters from a storage facility after wrapping up a year-long investigation that ended with two men being criminally charged.

Teams of catalytic converter thieves sell the stolen car parts, which contain small amounts of valuable precious metals, on the black market. 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 under the state law that makes stealing an “essential part” of a car equal to stealing the entire vehicle.

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.

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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