Surveillance work leads police to Western Pa. suspects in catalytic converter theft

A Porsche Panamera, cellphone records and a mobile tracking device helped police arrest three Chicago men over the weekend who they believe are behind thefts of catalytic converters worth of $200,000, according to court documents.

The three suspects — Christian Buie, 31; Antonio D. Johnson, 42; and Harold T. Wade, 29 – are being held without bail on charges of corrupt organizations, conspiracy, theft and related offences.

The investigation spanned Allegheny, Fayette and Westmoreland counties and involved authorities from multiple agencies, including North Huntingdon, Moon and state police.

Catalytic converters are made of precious metals including platinum, palladium and rhodium and can fetch big bucks at scrap yards that accept them. The devices control exhaust emissions. They can be cut under vehicles in moments, and these thefts have increased in recent years across the country. It can cost around $1,000 to replace one.

Jed Michael, general manager of operations at Jim Shorkey Auto Group, said he hopes the arrests will have a deterrent effect on anyone considering cutting out catalytic converters from parked vehicles, a crime he says has terrorized the industry nationwide.

“We are pleased that law enforcement has taken steps” to find the culprits, he said.

Catalytic converter thieves struck at Jim Shorkey car dealerships in North Huntingdon and North Union, Fayette County in early December, police said. There were a total of 35 catalytic converters taken from Mitsubishi Outlanders at both locations – two were left on the ground – causing $124,000 in damage.

Around the same time, Moon police were investigating thefts of catalytic converters worth $20,000 from tow trucks. They identified a suspect vehicle as a Porsche Panamera, according to court documents.

North Huntingdon Police re-examined surveillance video and spotted the sports car driving through the area of ​​the thefts around the time they occurred. State police said a Chevrolet Equinox seen around the Fayette dealership at the time of the thefts was a rental vehicle that was returned to Monroeville. Surveillance video in the Monroeville area showed the SUV and a Porsche Panamera traveling behind each other, according to court documents.

Authorities said they learned the SUV and Porsche were rented by a Chicago woman. Search warrants for cellphone activity in the area of ​​the three robberies led them to numerous Chicago-based phone numbers, including those belonging to Buie, Johnson and Wade, according to court documents. Police said Buie and Wade were previously arrested for thefts of catalytic converters in Chicago in 2015.

Authorities on Friday obtained a warrant to place a mobile tracking device on a Nissan Rogue they believed the trio was using while staying at an Airbnb rental on Pittsburgh‘s North Side, court documents show. Investigators tracked the SUV’s movements over the weekend and said they found many of the locations the trio hit were the site of catalytic converter thefts, including in the area of ​​their rental unit.

A search of the rental revealed reciprocating saws. During a traffic stop on Saturday, police said the three men were arrested and 17 catalytic converters were found in the SUV they were driving, according to court documents.

Buie, Johnson and Wade were being held in Westmoreland County Jail. They had no lawyers listed in online court records. Preliminary hearings are set for February 1.

Renatta Signorini is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Renatta by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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