On the night of April 14, one or more thieves slid beneath the 1999 Honda Accord parked outside Amber Esponda’s home on Avenue 46 in Eagle Rock and began cutting.
When she keyed the ignition the following morning, Esponda heard what she would come to know as the telltale sign of a catalytic converter theft — her ’99 Accord sounded like a sports car.
Catalytic converters are used in all cars to filter out dangerous emissions like carbon monoxide through combustion. According to a community alert from the LAPD issued in June, thieves are after the traces of precious metals within the converter rather than the part itself. The metal — palladium, rhodium and platinum — can sell for up to $640.
“It was a weekend night, so we would have been awake when it happened,” Esponda said. “We didn’t hear anything. We have a dog, our neighbor had a really yappy dog and it would bark at any noise, and it didn’t make any sound that night or alert us that anything was going on.”
Don’s Auto Repair has been servicing the Northeast LA neighborhoods of Highland Park and Eagle Rock since 1953. When asked if he had seen more cars come in missing converters, owner Chris Ouzonian said although thefts of this nature have always been common, there has been a recent escalation.
“A lot more. A lot more,” Ouzonian said. “But it comes and goes. Sometimes it’ll be quiet for a few weeks, and then you’ll get three or four cars in at the same time.”
However, according to Detective Hector Salas of the Northeast branch of the LAPD, this particular crime is less common than residents may believe.
“I wouldn’t go that far as to categorize it as a rash,” Salas said. “We are 80 this year to date for the entire division, which encompasses an area far beyond just Highland Park and Eagle Rock. It is an ongoing problem, but I wouldn’t classify it that way.”
Since the beginning of 2019, there have been 80 reported catalytic converter thefts within the Northeast division neighborhoods, according to statistics provided by the LAPD.
But Esponda did not file a police report. Esponda was not able to reach the Northeast Division of the LAPD by phone, and after hearing similar stories from neighbors, she was convinced the LAPD would not be able to help her.
“I tried to call it in. I called three times on Saturday and the phone just rang and rang and rang, and I was calling the Northeast station. It never answered. I tried another three times Sunday and nobody ever answered,” Esponda said. “I had posted on the Eagle Rock [Facebook] group about it, they were saying that it was such a small, petty crime, that the LAPD didn’t seem to be taking it very seriously.”
According to Detective Salas, there is no reason to believe this crime is concentrated in one area.
“There’s no area that’s being hit harder than others. It’s pretty consistent throughout the division,” Salas said. “My best recommendation to the general public would be to try to be more vigilant and do what they can to secure their vehicles.”
Police have advised car owners to park in personal lots or garages, according to Esponda, but that solution often is not viable in the crowded city of LA. Esponda said her family has nowhere else to store their vehicles.
The cost of replacing the converter was substantial, Esponda said.
“I want to say we paid about $250 for the part, and labor was another hundred or so. On top of that, because the car was older, we ended up investing in a wiper alarm,” Esponda said. “We did it so that the vibration of the tool trying to cut would activate the alarm. We spent probably around $600.”
But according to Ouzonian, that can be on the low end of cost for this type of repair. Dealerships have been known to charge anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000.
Considering the substantial individual cost on the victim, Esponda said the LAPD response has not been strong enough.
“If this is happening so often, it shouldn’t just be a normal crime. Just because something happens so commonly doesn’t mean it’s not important,” Esponda said. “It should be viewed differently by police. It should matter. The police need to take a better look at what’s going on.”
According to Salas, this particular type of theft occupies a frustrating middle ground for law enforcement. Any theft is serious, but in this case, there are few ways to catch the thief after the crime has been committed.
“It’s important to understand that, yes, they are targeting very specific vehicles, but it still borders on a crime of opportunity. These types of crimes, the only way we make an arrest is if we catch them in the act, or sometimes a victim will get a license number,” Salas said. “It’s so easy. They’re in and out in less than a minute, and that’s an extremely small window. We have to get lucky.”
Ouzonian agreed, adding that catalytic converter theft is so quick, it can happen anytime.
“It happens in broad daylight. I had a customer who parked his car by the park and went into Café de Leche, and when he came back, he started the car and the exhaust was super loud,” Ouzonian said. “He brought it in, and I told him, ‘It’s the cat.’”