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U Police crack string of campus catalytic converter thefts

This past year, the thefts from personal vehicles parked on campus became a real problem. Learn how the case was solved.

Catalytic converter thefts from personal vehicles parked on campus became a real problem this past year. University of Utah Police Department (UUPD) officers responded to 18 thefts between August 2021 and May 2022. But the crime spree is now mostly at an end, thanks to the hard work of investigating officers.

“Cases like this illustrate the importance of teamwork, collaboration and dedication needed to protect our community,” said Maj. Heather Sturzenegger of the UUPD. “Since these arrests, thefts of catalytic converters have dropped significantly across campus. Criminals are spreading the word for us, don’t come to the University of Utah campus because we’ll catch you.”

Over the past three years, the number of converter thefts increased across the state, likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Victim reports were in the hundreds in 2019 and skyrocketed to over 600% in 2022. There were 1,361 thefts reported by April 2022, according to KSL.

A catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, which filters emissions coming out of a car’s tailpipe. Converters are a prime target for theft because every unit contains small amounts of three precious metals: platinum, palladium and rhodium. Criminals target converters for the quick cash they can receive when selling them for scrap. Each converter can be sold for upwards of $300-$500 each.

As the number of thefts on campus increased, U detectives also increased their efforts in reviewing hundreds of hours of surveillance footage from across campus, trying to identify a pattern. This proved difficult. Thefts occurred in large parking lots like Rice-Eccles Stadium and Merrill Engineering, as well as in smaller lots near Red Butte Gardens and  Research Park. Finally, came the break the team was hoping for: A full license plate was clearly identified.

“We were all extremely excited when we were able to identify that plate. Excited but wary. Now the real casework began. We needed proof that the vehicle hadn’t been stolen and proof that the registered owner of the vehicle was behind the steering wheel when the crimes were being committed,” said Sturzenegger.

Pulling records from the Department of Motor Vehicles, U detectives identified the vehicle’s registered owner and their home address. U detectives began electronic surveillance of the home and over a three-week period they were able to confirm many details of the case. On March 23, several U detectives were conducting surveillance of the suspects and caught the suspects in the act of cutting off a catalytic converter.

The detectives called for reinforcements from the West Valley City Police Department and within minutes had arrested both suspects without incident. Both suspects were booked into jail and later released on bail to await official charges to be filed by the District Attorney’s office.

“Our partners in agencies like West Valley, Murray, Salt Lake City PD and the District Attorney are invaluable in solving cases like these. Collaborating and sharing information can make all the difference,” said Sturzenegger.

But the work is never done. Campus police continue to be vigilant and ask the same of the campus community.

Recently, two suspects were arrested on campus when a member of the community witnessed two suspicious individuals peeking into the windows of parked vehicles. An individual called campus police and the two suspects were arrested when officers found they were in possession of tools that can be used for vehicle break-ins.

“We want to remind every member of our community that if you see something, please say something,” said Sturzenegger.

To learn more or to provide feedback, visit the University of Utah Safety Department website, or call U Police at 801-585-2677 or 911 in case of emergencies.