Thieves looking for quick cash and possibly drug money are taking off with vehicle catalytic converters, especially school buses, according to area police. One of the latest targets was the Kenston Local School District bus garage.

Other school districts and businesses in Northeast Ohio are seeing similar thefts prompting police across the region to share information. Catalytic converter thefts were a trend a while ago, and now all of a sudden there is a rash of these cases again, Solon Police Lt. Joe Alestock said.

Catalytic converters cost between $800 and $1,200 to replace, officials said. It’s considered a quick and easy theft.

On Nov. 14, individuals cut through fencing at the Kenston bus garage on Bainbridge Road next to the Gardiner Center and were able to take catalytic converters from five school vans. The converters are part of the exhaust system.

“We appreciate three other school districts lending us vans,” Kenston Community Relations Director Katy McGrath said, referring to Chagrin Falls, Solon and Newbury. The vans are used to transport special education students.

According to Kenston Transportation Director Melody Coniglio, district officials discovered the hole in the fence and the damage to the vehicles that morning. She said because of the help from the other school districts, there was little disruption to the families. “We have wonderful school districts around us and we have emergency plans that include each others’ support. The plan for mutual aid and borrowing other vehicles worked,” Mrs. Coniglio said.

The theft was similar to an incident on Nov. 18 in the city of Westlake in Cuyahoga County where catalytic converters were stolen from vans used by Youth Challenge, a nonprofit group for transporting children and young adults with physical disabilities. Police said another business in the same area reported three catalytic converters were cut off vehicles.

The catalytic converters generally are sold to metal recycling companies and contain special metals including platinum, local police explained.

Bainbridge Police Chief Jon Bokovitz said the thieves are selling them for the platinum. Chief Bokovitz noted that department investigators have a possible suspect. “It’s a crew doing it.”

In Bainbridge, there was another theft at a business where the vehicle was parked near the road. “They cut the catalytic converter out with a Sawzall and it doesn’t take long,” Chief Bokovitz said.

In the past, there have been reports of such thefts from vehicles in Bainbridge shopping center parking lots.

Lt. Alestock said the thefts are happening all over Cuyahoga County. “We had some last week.” There were three different cases in Solon with five catalytic converters stolen. Thieves are very quick and generally target business vehicles parked in company parking lots. They cut them off with a Sawzall blade that is sharp enough to make it a quick job, he said.

They take them to the scrap yards and get good dollars for them, Lt. Alestock said.

South Russell Village Police Chief Mike Rizzo said while the village has not had any recent incidents, “we are aware of it and we are doing special patrol at the school bus garage at Gurney Elementary School” on Bell Road. It is part of the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District.

“We have to keep an eye on it,” Chief Rizzo said of the bus garage. He added that one should not leave a van or truck jacked up in a place that is easily accessible. “It’s a matter of making two cuts,” he said of using a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade.

“I believe the incidents are sporadic, but they are picking up during the holidays,” Chief Rizzo added. “It’s very unfortunate because it is so easy to get these things out.” And there is nothing to put on them to make them less of a target, he said of the equipment that is in the middle of the vehicle.

“Vans and trucks are easy to access, making it a crime of opportunity,” Chief Rizzo said.

Mike Koniar of K.E.I. Carbody and Mechancial in South Russell Village said catalytic converters are valuable because of the platinum inside them. The thieves can get a fast $100 when they take them to a scrap yard. “It’s quick drug money,” he said.

Drivers will know that the catalytic converter is gone after starting the vehicle and hearing a loud exhaust system.

By law, he can only do repairs for a catalytic converter once a week, Mr. Koniar said. The owner has to show his or her driver’s license. He noted that a scrap dealer in Middlefield is very strict and will only take one at a time.

He also noted that it takes very little time to remove the equipment. He recalled how a customer once parked his van in a location that was easy to reach and the catalytic converter was taken by someone using the Sawzall in very little time. Some are more valuable than others, he said of the equipment.

Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand said every so often there will be a rash of the thefts. He noted that in Cleveland there was a security camera recording a theft and it took less than a minute to remove the catalytic converter, he said. “They like to hit parking lots,” he said.

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