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

Jan. 23—A Porsche Panamera, cellphone records and a mobile tracking device helped police arrest three Chicago men over the weekend who they believe are behind $200,000 worth of catalytic converter thefts, according to court papers.

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 offenses.

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

Catalytic converters are made of precious metals including platinum, palladium and rhodium and can fetch large sums at scrap yards that accept them. The devices control exhaust emissions. They can be cut from underneath vehicles in moments, and such thefts have increased in recent years nationwide. It can cost about $1,000 to replace one.

Jed Michael, general operations manager at Jim Shorkey Auto Group, said he hopes the arrests serve as a deterrent to anyone considering cutting catalytic converters off of parked vehicles, a crime he said has terrorized the industry nationwide.

"We're happy that law enforcement took action" to find the culprits, he said.

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

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

North Huntingdon police re-examined surveillance video and spotted the sports car traveling in the area of thefts there 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 in Monroeville. Surveillance video in the Monroeville area showed the SUV and a Porsche Panamera traveling behind one another, according to court papers.

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

On Friday, authorities got a warrant to place a mobile tracking device on a Nissan Rogue they believed the trio was using while they stayed at an Airbnb rental in Pittsburgh's North Side, according to court papers. Investigators tracked the SUV's movements during the weekend and said they found many of the spots the trio hit were the site of catalytic converter thefts, including in the area of their rental unit.

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

Buie, Johnson and Wade were being held at the Westmoreland County Prison. They did not have attorneys listed in online court records. Preliminary hearings are set for Feb. 1.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta by email at or via Twitter .