DOVER — Driving to work early one Monday morning, Tonya Newman thought it was a joke.
Seven Modern Maturity Center buses had been vandalized over the weekend, a bus driver told the center’s transportation manager over the phone.
“I couldn’t believe it was true,” she said.
It turns out, unfortunately, that it was no prank call. Ms. Newman arrived at MMC in Dover at 6 a.m. and saw for herself that catalytic converters had been removed from all the facility’s buses.
The converters had been stolen some time between Sept. 24-26, Dover police said. And the culprits are yet to be located.
When they do, Ms. Newman said, “I honestly do believe that each and every one of them, whoever played a part in it, ... should serve some time for doing this. They may even need some counseling because who would want to come in and steal away buses that transport clients back and forth, and senior citizens at that?
“It was devastating, and they need to be punished.”
The thefts haven’t been unique to MMC. Delaware State Police reported 277 converter thefts for the year, as of Tuesday. There were 159 stolen in all of 2020.
“A majority of incidents occurred during the overnight hours at closed businesses and churches, where unoccupied vehicles are parked in their lots,” DSP spokeswoman Master Cpl. Heather Pepper said.
“The thefts in New Castle County and Kent have had a steady pattern of thefts. However, until a few months ago, Sussex had very few, but the number of thefts (there) have become more common recently.”
Indeed, Delaware isn’t immune to the reported national surge of pilfered converters, coveted by criminals who can resell the metals within them — specifically, platinum — for a tidy sum.
According to Kelley Blue Book, there were 14,433 reports of stolen catalytic converters nationwide in 2020. In just the first five months of 2021, 25,969 were reported stolen. In 2019, KBB found reports of just 3,389 thefts of the devices.
Dover police also have seen an increase this year in stolen converters — devices that change toxins into less harmful byproducts and are located near vehicles’ mufflers, spokesman Sgt. Mark Hoffman said.
“The converters are stolen because of the value of the precious metals inside of them,” he said.
Typically, Sgt. Hoffman said, the converters aren’t taken to local recycling shops.
“For the most part, they are not being taken to local recycling/secondhand-metal shops,” he said. “There are readily available videos and instructions online on how to extract the metals from the converters, so it may be something the suspects are doing themselves.”
With a proper tool, such as a power saw, converters can quickly be detached from vehicles, Sgt. Hoffman said. Suspects could face felony theft and criminal mischief charges if nabbed, he added.
In Wilmington, following numerous converter thefts throughout the region over several months, a police investigation brought the October arrests of four men accused of stealing the equipment. Charges included theft and attempted theft, criminal trespass and attempted criminal trespass and second-degree conspiracy. Two suspects were jailed on $4,100 secured bonds and another released on a $4,001 unsecured bond, while a fourth was released pending further proceedings.
In announcing a converter-related arrest in June, DSP noted that “Delaware law states a scrap metal processor may not purchase a catalytic converter from an individual unless the individual, at the time of purchase, provides identification as: A licensed automotive dismantler and recycler or scrap metal processor; An agent or employee of a licensed commercial enterprise.”
Wilmington Police Department’s policy and communications director David Karas agreed that there has been an ongoing surge, saying, “Law enforcement agencies throughout the region — including jurisdictions beyond Delaware — have seen a number of catalytic converter theft incidents in recent weeks and months.”
Twice in the past three months, a 16-passenger 2019 Ford E-450 bus at the Frederica Senior Center has been hit by the same crime.
Following the first incident, FSC “ate the cost” and bought a new converter for approximately $1,300, executive director Renee Hoffman said. The second time, late in the night Oct. 8, insurance covered all but a $500 deductible.
Part of the second incident was captured by a surveillance camera, and a 99-second clip is posted on FSC’s Facebook page in an effort to identify a suspect.
There’s been no arrests made in the FSC cases, DSP spokesman Master Cpl. Gary Fournier said Friday. Anyone with information regarding the thefts is asked to call the Troop 3 Criminal Investigations Unit at 302-697-2104. Information may also be provided via Delaware Crime Stoppers at 800-TIP-3333 or here.
Dover police said anyone with information on the MMC case can call 302-736-7111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tips can also be made via Delaware Crimes Stoppers.
MMC was boosted by a community that was “very sympathetic to the center’s theft and was able to adequately cover the deductible ($500 per vehicle),” said Carolyn Fredricks, the facility’s president/CEO.
While parking a vehicle inside is the best measure against theft, Sgt. Hoffman said,
“Unfortunately, that is just not possible for many residents and commercial vehicles. Parking in areas that are well lit and near areas where people can easily see suspicious activity are good preventative measures.”
At MMC, buses were moved to a different spot in the parking lot, near surveillance cameras.
The thefts’ cost in human terms was immeasurable, of course. FSC’s bus took more than a week to repair after each incident, leaving seniors without transportation.
FSC provides more than 600 free meals a month to those with low incomes, with some delivered to homes.
“We had to cancel trips to doctor’s appointments, shipping, bloodwork, groceries, and most importantly, they can’t come here,” Ms. Hoffman said.
While MMC was without its buses for a couple days, immediate repairs brought some back to service quickly. They were needed to transport the 35 riders who visit the Day Break program, designed to assist those who have suffered strokes, Alzheimer’s disease patients or others needing medical attention.
“Obviously, we want to keep that person ... in that environment because this is probably their last step before a nursing home,” Ms. Fredricks said.
“This becomes their second home. Some think it’s their job. They look forward to it, and they need it.”
Plus, there’s some inherent joy in taking a bus ride, Ms. Newman said. To be without that opportunity was “devastating,” she added.
“A lot of our clients tell us that the bus ride to and from the center is the best part of their day because some on some of the routes go through the countryside. They see horses, they see cows, they see ducks, they see animals, and they enjoy that, so when we started back picking them up they missed the ride greatly.”