Imprisoned for years: Prolific catalytic converter thief taken off Arizona's streets

If you've been a victim of catalytic converter theft, you know the damages are costly, but one Phoenix man who police say is a big part of the "epidemic" of stolen converters in Arizona is now in prison.

He's sentenced to almost a decade behind bars.

A crime trend of vehicular destruction is sweeping the Phoenix area, targeting what's underneath your vehicle, allowing you to be victimized in your own driveway.

The more converters collected, the more lucrative as they are selling the stolen goods in bulk for a profit at a scrapyard. The converters get "de-canned," meaning, the ceramic honeycomb inside contains pricey metals gets removed and sent to an illegal smelter where the platinum, rhodium and palladium are extracted, distilled and sold to manufacturers.

The thefts cost you thousands of dollars while crooks make a few hundred dollars as the converter somehow ends up at a scrapyard.

We've heard from victims and asked the police why thieves want catalytic converters. We've asked what lawmakers must do to crack down on the black market. We even went undercover to see who will cash in on a "used" cat converter as unlicensed sales are illegal.

More than 10 mug shots, a reported drug addiction, weapons violations

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Twenty-nine-year-old Erik Hernandez is headed to prison for his role in what authorities are calling an epidemic. He was sentenced on April 22, 2022.

"These catalytic converter thefts are plaguing the community. We have multiple victims in this case. Folks who are working hard, obeying the law, working for their paycheck, and maybe not making as much as somebody stealing and selling expensive equipment," the case prosecutor said.

Hernandez pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after being indicted with a host of charges linked to stolen converters out of Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Phoenix.

Investigators say he has "substantial involvement in the valley's catalytic converter theft epidemic."

Scottsdale Police arrested Hernandez in June 2021 after he threatened a homeowner when they confronted him as he tried to steal their converter.

"The one victim who confronted him to stop the theft, he pulled a gun on him," the prosecutor said. Not only was he in possession of a handgun, but police found an AR-15 in the backseat of Hernandez's car along with two freshly cut converters.

Hernandez already had three outstanding felony arrest warrants at the time.

The prosecutor on the case says his crimes are drug-motivated, explaining, "The behavior that he's choosing to support his addiction is just escalating so quickly."

Hernandez has 12 mugshots from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office alone starting from 2011 up until 2021. He has another from the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC)

Going through his extensive criminal history, most of his convictions are drug-related, ranging from possession to narcotics for sale. Hernandez was also prohibited from carrying weapons.

DOC records reveal he served two separate prison sentences for a total of five and half years. Now, he's going back to serve a seven and half year sentence.

More Catalytic Converter theft reports:

'That’s a recipe for disaster'

Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell talks about the valley-wide issue costing car owners thousands of dollars.

"It is a fair sentence for what he did," Mitchell said, adding that converter theft is a class four felony, but Hernandez's priors mandated prison time.

"The seven years was possible really because of the weapons offense he committed on top of that," she explained.

Mitchell says the criminal behavior linked to stolen converters is becoming more brazen and violent – commonly influenced by drug addiction.

The most recent study released by the Bureau of Justice says during 2007-2009, more than half of state prisoners, 58%, and two-thirds, 63%, of sentenced jail inmates met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse.

In 10 of 16 converter theft cases prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (MCAO), defendants had prior arrests for drug offenses, prior convictions for drug charges, or admitted to police they abuse drugs.

"That’s a recipe for disaster when somebody that is desperate is on drugs and armed. That’s why this sentence that we got, in this case, was very fair. It’s somebody that’s dangerous," Mitchell explained.

The judge recommended that Hernandez be housed in a prison that offers substance abuse treatment.

For prosecutors, the full package is always a challenge in getting a conviction. Whether it's victims coming forward, clear evidence of the thief suspected, and damage left behind.

Meanwhile, police across the Phoenix area tackle the spike in converter crimes and send cases to the county attorney's offices for prosecution.

"What’s necessary is we need to be able to show that, that person who is in possession of that catalytic converter is aware that it is stolen or has stolen it him or herself, and then we can link that back to a particular victim," Mitchell said.

A major obstacle is MCAO's backlog of cases across the board. Mitchell says the office is understaffed by 20%.

House Bill 2652 is up for a final vote in the Arizona House on May 5, and if passed, all scrap metal dealers would be required to "mark" catalytic converters brought in for sale and document information on the seller.

May 5 UPDATE: The final vote on HB2652 has been rescheduled, a spokesperson for the Arizona House of Democrats tells FOX 10.