Pat Lukasik feels bad for residents in the region who are waking up to find the catalytic converters stolen from the undersides of their vehicles.
It was only a year ago that a group of thieves stole about 300 catalytic converters worth $80,000 from cars at the business Lukasik and his brother, Chip, own -- Stan's Auto Salvage & Towing in St. John.
The brazen thieves showed up at night, used a tool that quickly snapped the converters off vehicles, and then carted the car parts out in duffel bags big enough to fit a person. The thieves, one of whom was caught and convicted, even brought lunch and beverages because they spent so many hours stealing.
Although Lukasik's case was solved and he has an armed guard to prevent further problems, police say there are several individuals or groups currently working other locations in the area.
The latest rash of thefts was reported Tuesday at two storage facilities along U.S. 6 in Porter County. Someone cut the catalytic converters off three recreational vehicles at 6 & 49 Storage, and from three vehicles at A-Reliable Storage.
There have been at least three dozen catalytic converter thefts in the past three months in Porter County and numerous more in Lake County and Chicago's south suburbs.
Thieves are taking catalytic converters -- which are installed on vehicles to clean the engine fumes -- because the devices contain valuable metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium. Lukasik said a thief can go to a metal recycling business and get $10 to $250 for a converter -- with large General Motors vehicles and large foreign vehicles having the most valuable parts.
Thieves also tend to steal from trucks and SUVs because they don't need to jack the vehicles up to get underneath and saw off the converters.
Porter County police Lt. Chris Eckert said the thefts occur because there are obviously some scrap metal recyclers that are buying from thieves.
However, employees at local businesses -- like Gaby Iron & Metal in Chicago Heights, Ill., and at L & S Metal Recycling in Valparaiso -- said they aren't seeing an increase in people selling catalytic converters.
"I don't see the influx of them," L & S manager John Werner said.
Werner said starting in July 2007, Indiana law required that anyone selling more than $100 worth of items to present identification at scrap yards. He knows most of his customers and isn't aware of any of them doing illegal activity, but he said there's no way for him to know the origin of everything brought in.
Robert Byrd, transit police chief of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, said he believes most local scrap dealers are legitimate and log the names and addresses of customers. But the scrap metal dealers are not required to authenticate the ownership of the items brought in.
He said thefts have been reported in train station parking lots all the way from South Bend to Chicago.
The station in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood has been targeted recently. There had been a rash of thefts at the Hammond and East Chicago lots, but the most of the recent thefts have occurred in Porter County.
In Hobart, where five businesses last week reported catalytic converter thefts, police Lt. Steve Houck said even if police can find stolen converters at scrap yards, there's little chance of tracing them back to a specific theft or to the person who stole them.
Houck urged residents everywhere to watch for unusual activity around vehicles and for businesses to beef up surveillance.
Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller said although there have been few converter thefts in Hammond, they continue to see the theft of other scrap metals, like copper and aluminum.
Officers have arrested thieves in the past, and a man in a suspected converter theft was crushed to death under a vehicle recently in Gary.
With thieves getting much more money for scrap metal than six or seven years ago, police see the problem continuing or even getting worse. Lukasik would like to see stiffer penalties for stealing, which costs victims hundreds of dollars or, in his case, thousands of dollars.
"To us, or anybody, it's a lot of money," he said.