MESA, Ariz. - Officials with the Mesa Police Department are working alongside the Arizona Attorney General's Office to stop a sudden surge in catalytic converter thefts, and they say six people were arrested in connection with at least some of the thefts.
Police say the suspects were selling the stolen catalytic converters to undercover officers for up to $500 each. The group also bought what they believed to be stolen catalytic converters from undercover officers. Police say the thieves broke into a Mesa car parts store in June and stole 141 catalytic converters that were estimated to be worth more than $40,000.
Suspects arrested in sting operation
Mesa Police officials say they conducted an undercover operation called Operation Heavy Metal.
During the operation, the department used undercover officers to buy and sell used and stolen catalytic converters from suspects, and that operation led to the arrest of three suspects. They have been identified as Christopher Frenci, Anthony Toledo, and Federico Gutierrez.
Charges are reportedly pending against three other suspects, who have not been identified.
Suspects allegedly stole catalytic converters from school van
Investigators say the three suspects are accused of buying and stealing catalytic converters from dozens of areas. One of those places was the Maxwell Preschool Academy near Brown Road and Gilbert. According to police reports, Gutierrez stole a catalytic converter off of one of the school's vans on July 2.
"There's three vans out there that we have out there that they’ve been stolen from. The one from July, and we haven’t been able to fix it yet," said Maxwell Preschool Academy Director Lydia Iniguez.
Catalytic converter thefts plague the Valley
According to police, catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed around the Valley. In Mesa, there was just one catalytic converter theft case in 2019. That rose to 69 cases in 2020, and so far in 2021, there are 431 cases.
"Each time we get it fixed, it happens again. We get it fixed, and it happens again," said Iniguez.
According to Iniguez, three out of their five vans are now out of commission because of the thefts, and this has put a strain on the preschool, leading them having to take extra routes.
The biggest strain by far is financial.
"Depending on what happened to the vehicle, because when they're down there stealing stuff, it can lead up to thousands of dollars, and each time we're having to fix it, we're having to pay for that," said Iniguez.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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