A federal takedown of a half-billion-dollar national catalytic converter theft ring included more than a dozen search warrant operations this week in Minnesota, federal authorities confirmed Thursday.
Homeland Security Investigations St. Paul said eight of the more than 32 search warrants executed nationwide this week took place in Minnesota. The Justice Department this week announced indictments related to the probe in California and Oklahoma, and said the investigation included coordinated arrests, searches and seizures in Minnesota and eight other states.
“This type of organized crime is extremely costly to victims, taxpayers, and the economy and often funds larger, more egregious, criminal enterprises that put the community at risk,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) St. Paul Special Agent in Charge Jamie Holt. “HSI St. Paul agents have led a dynamic investigation, with the help of our local law enforcement partners, to disrupt criminal organizations and bring those who seek to profit from these stolen goods to justice.”
None of the 22 people charged so far are from Minnesota, and no federal arrests were made in the state related to the case this week. A Homeland Security Investigations spokesperson said Thursday that all eight of the search warrants served in Minnesota this week remain sealed. Other states involved in the investigation include California, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wyoming.
More than 32 search warrants were executed across the country and law enforcement seized millions of dollars in assets such as homes, bank accounts, cash and vehicles. Federal prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of more than $545 million linked to the case.
Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety and Commerce Fraud Bureau helped the federal probe, along with sheriff’s offices in Anoka, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver and McLeod counties, and police departments in Blaine, Brooklyn Park, Chaska, Coon Rapids, Eagan, Fridley, Mendota Heights, Montevideo, Plymouth, Roseville, Sleepy Eye, St. Paul and Woodbury.
A Minnesota Department of Commerce spokesperson said Thursday that state agents “helped serve search warrants related to alleged catalytic converter theft suspects” and would continue contributing to the nationwide investigation.
Catalytic converters, which turn toxic gases and pollutants into safer emissions, have increasingly been targeted for theft because they contain precious metals such as palladium, platinum and rhodium. According to federal law enforcement officials, catalytic converters can fetch up to $1,000 or more on the black market.
The components can make for attractive targets for thieves because they often lack unique identifying marks such as serial numbers or VIN information.
The Justice Department described this week’s operation as a “coordinated takedown” of a “national network of thieves, dealers, and processors” who conspired to steal catalytic converters that were then sold to a metal refinery for millions of dollars.
“This national network of criminals hurt victims across the country,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement announcing the charges. “They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process — on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners.”
Last month, federal grand juries in the Eastern District of California and Northern District of Oklahoma returned indictments charging 22 people altogether. The indictments, which have since been unsealed, include charges of conspiracy to transport stolen catalytic converters and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The California case accuses two Sacramento, Calif., brothers — Tou Sue Vang, 31, and Andrew Vang, 27 — of running an unlicensed business from their home where they bought stolen catalytic converters from local thieves and shipped them to New Jersey for processing. The family is accused of selling more than $38 million in stolen catalytic converters to the company, DG Auto Parts LLC.
Those involved in operating multiple DG Auto locations in New Jersey have also been charged. The company allegedly extracted precious metal powders from the core of the stolen catalytic converters and sold them to a metal refinery for more than $545 million.
The Oklahoma case also involves defendants accused of buying stolen catalytic converters and reselling them to DG Auto. One defendant received more than $45 million in wired funds from the New Jersey company.
Over the past year, Minneapolis and St. Paul have responded to surging thefts with new catalytic converter sale and purchase policies and a policy making it a misdemeanor to possess a catalytic converter without proof of ownership in St. Paul.
The 2,156 catalytic converter thefts recorded in St. Paul this year through Oct. 13 have eclipsed the 1,877 from all of last year. As recently as 2014, there were just 45 cases.
Interim St. Paul Police Chief Jeremy Ellison said Thursday that the rash of catalytic converter thefts in the city in recent years played a part in the nationwide criminal enterprise.
“Thefts of these auto parts not only cost our residents monetarily, but eroded their sense of security in our city,” said Ellison, whose department helped investigate the national case. “Unfortunately, some catalytic converter thefts in Saint Paul have involved violent crimes including suspects shooting at property owners.”
The problem has also spread to the suburbs: An April Star Tribune analysis of crime statistics from 23 Twin Cities suburbs showed that catalytic converter thefts climbed from 300 in 2019 to more than 2,300 last year. The National Insurance Crime Bureau named the Twin Cities metro area as the riskiest place in the country for such thefts.
Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, said 2022 numbers were on pace to eclipse the number of thefts in 2021. A ranking by State Farm of states where the most claims have been filed by their customers so far in 2022 places Minnesota fifth.
Kulda said that while the prices of rare metals are down, the thefts are still lucrative.
“There have been some efforts to prevent the fencing of stolen converters with new laws, ordinances and requirements,” Kulda said. “But we’ve been told by our members’ claims investigators that the thieves are now getting good at just harvesting the rare metals and selling the metals rather than the converters themselves.”
Stephen Montemayor covers federal courts and law enforcement. He previously covered Minnesota politics and government.
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