Westmoreland DA says catalytic converter theft ring probe ongoing

Jan. 24—Three Chicago men charged this week with stealing catalytic converters from dozens of businesses and individuals in Westmoreland, Allegheny and Fayette counties are likely part of a larger theft ring that is still active, investigators said Tuesday.

"The brazen acts of these suspects not only cost innocent drivers and business owners hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, but these suspects terrorized our neighborhoods and our business across Western Pennsylvania for months," said Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole Ziccarelli at a news conference.

Following a two-month investigation, police charged Christian Buie, 31, Antonio D. Johnson, 42, and Harold T. Wade, 29, on Monday with operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, theft and related offenses. They are being held without bond in Westmoreland County Prison.

Investigators developed evidence that the three suspects were involved in catalytic converter thefts from car dealerships in North Huntingdon, North Fayette and Moon, as well as from other parked vehicles throughout the region, according to police.

Kalee Barnhart, a public information officer for the Pennsylvania State Police in Uniontown, said additional charges were filed against the three men Tuesday in Fayette County.

Those charges are related to allegations that 20 catalytic converters were sawed from vehicles at the Jim Shorkey automotive dealership near Uniontown. Investigators were able to tie those thefts to similar crimes in North Huntingdon and Moon.

"The bigger picture is we believe there is probably more out there," North Huntingdon police Chief Robert Rizzo said.

Investigators said the catalytic converters, a key component of a vehicle's emissions control system which reduces the amount of pollution from the tailpipe, cost about $1,500 each to replace but contain small amounts of precious metals that make them more valuable to private buyers.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Barr, who oversaw the investigation, said officials were surprised to learn one of the metals contained in catalytic converters — rhodium — can generate as much as $27,000 an ounce on the black market.

"You sell enough of these and get them to a scrap yard ... the amount of scrap metal you are getting out of them is substantial," Barr said.

Ziccarelli described the theft ring as extensive.

"This could go further, and the investigation will lead us where it will," she said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .