Alison Bauter Engel, holding her newborn son, had a memorable time getting to the hospital to give birth after discovering thieves had sawed off the catalytic converter from her Toyota Prius.

Alison Bauter Engel, holding her newborn son, had a memorable time getting to the hospital to give birth after discovering thieves had sawed off the catalytic converter from her Toyota Prius.

Provided

Sun-Times investigation of catalytic converter thefts prompts readers to tell their stories

A pregnant woman from Edgewater had to quickly find another ride to the hospital to give birth. An Albany Park man says reading that he wasn’t alone helped him “feel less like a victim.”

Alison Bauter Engel was in labor and about to go to the hospital to have her baby when she realized that catalytic converter thieves had hit her car.

“Definitely a memorable birth story,” Bauter Engel said after reading a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that documented a big rise in the thefts in Chicago and few resulting arrests.

Thieves have taken catalytic converters more than 17,000 times in Chicago since 2019, and only 34 of those reported thefts — 0.2% — ended with an arrest, the Sun-Times found. Crime rings have turned the thefts into a multimillion dollar industry — with consumers paying the price.

The report drew an outpouring from readers telling their own stories of catalytic converter thefts. Bauter Engel’s was the most dramatic tale.

“I sat down in the car, and my water broke,” she says of what happened that afternoon in April 2022.

As she breathed through contractions, her husband Jeff turned the ignition on their 2011 Toyota Prius, parked in the alley behind their Edgewater home.

“It sounded like a Harley-Davidson — just roaring,” Bauter Engel says.

She tried to stay calm as her husband got out and looked under the car. It was immediately clear what was wrong. Besides slicing off the converter, the thieves had carved up the car’s underside, cutting a fluid line.

The couple called their upstairs neighbor Stacey MacLean, who rushed out and piled everyone into her vehicle for an anxious trip to Swedish Hospital.

“She said it was like trying to pass a driver’s test while also driving as fast as she could,” says Bauter Engel, whose first child, a boy, was born soon after.

Jeff and Alison Bauter Engel hold their newborn son, who is swaddled in a baby blanket and wearing a little hat.

Jeff and Alison Bauter Engel and their newborn son.

Provided

Bauter Engel is still annoyed about the theft. It cost about $2,000 to fix the car, though she and her husband had insurance coverage.

What sticks in her mind, though, is the help they got. Their insurance agent was sympathetic and speedy. The auto shop quickly fixed the car in time for the baby’s first doctor’s appointment. And their neighbor, who saved the day, is now “Aunt Stacey.”

“The timing and what happened was terrible,” Bauter Engel says. “But the main takeaway was what an incredible community we have around us.”

Organized crimes

Stephen Di Cicco of Albany Park says that when his car was targeted by a catalytic converter “cutter” crew last month, he took it as a personal attack. But reading the Sun-Times report on the massive breadth and organization of the theft operations “really helped me gain perspective, and oddly, feel less like a victim,” he says.

The thieves cut an oxygen sensor and fuel line when they stole the converter from Di Cicco’s 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT. That left $1,100 in damage, which he paid out of pocket.

He says he filed a police report but hasn’t heard back.

Stephen Di Cicco stands next to his Hyundai Elantra GT, which was hit by catalytic converter thieves. The car sustained $1,100 in damage.

Stephen Di Cicco next to his Hyundai Elantra GT, which was hit by catalytic converter thieves. The car sustained $1,100 in damage.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

His neighbor also had a converter stolen last year. Now, they’re considering putting up cameras together.

Di Cicco says he knows there are far more serious crimes but says something like what happened to him tears at the “amazing, beautiful city” he loves.

“It’s more like the psychological feeling of helplessness,” he says. “It creates that divide that goes on inside your community.”

Rachel Woods says it was two years ago that thieves took the catalytic converter from her 2005 Toyota Prius.

“I did file a police report and ended up paying over $3,000 to replace it and to install a shield,” she says. “The worst were the weeks spent waiting for the parts to come in because I needed to take public transit to get to work, which meant leaving at 4 a.m. instead of 5. I was a physical and emotional wreck as a result of the lack of sleep and stress on my finances.”

Woods says it was disappointing to read about the low arrest rate.

“I understand that the law moves slowly in response to modern problems, which is evident with the light sentences for perpetrators,” she says, but “there needs to be significant change within the Chicago Police Department, the justice system, manufacturing companies, insurance companies and scrapers to properly solve this problem.”

Thieves caught on surveillance video in February stealing a catalytic converter from a sport-utility vehicle in a parking lot in Avondale.

Thieves caught on surveillance video in February steal a catalytic converter from an SUV in a parking lot in Avondale.

Provided

Calls for stiffer penalties

Numerous readers agree with the man the Sun-Times reported was shot trying to chase away a catalytic converter crew. They say there need to be more serious consequences for the cutter crews who tear up people’s cars.

“What was the punishment for horse thieves in the West?” one reader asked.

David Applegate of Huntley says: “Lawmakers and the entire law enforcement structure, from arresting officers to sentencing judges — for which we taxpayers also pay — could help increase the cost to perpetrators by making every catalytic converter theft a serious felony and prosecuting and sentencing those who do get caught to hard time.”

It’s clear that somehow cutting into the illicit trade in precious metals that the catalytic converter theft operations are after is key, some readers say.

Bipartisan legislation proposed in the U.S. Senate and House aims to improve record-keeping on catalytic converter sales nationwide. It also would require new converters to bear a vehicle identification number to help police match stolen converters with victims and would fund programs to mark used cars’ converters.

Some in the recycled metals industry are pushing for a national licensing requirement for anyone buying or selling converters.

Some readers say they’ve taken steps to prevent thefts.

“We had our catalytic converter stolen from in front of our home in Beverly about two years ago,” John and Sue Larmon say by email. “It only cost us $250 to replace it from our local mechanic. He replaced it with a catalytic converter that does not contain the valuable metals. When thieves see these types of catalytic converters, they know the difference and move on to the next car.”

We heard the same from other readers. The downside, though, is that those converters might not be as efficient or durable.

University of Minnesota researchers are working on a device that uses “chameleon metal” to clean a car’s exhaust without precious metals.

Myles Wilcoxson is still smarting from the attack on his 2003 Honda Civic this year in the Gold Coast.

“The car was my main form of transportation and only had 120,000 miles, but it was totaled from the incident, and I was told that I’d lose money on an insurance claim to fix it,” he says. “Thank you for your reporting. It makes me feel less alone.”

The Latest
With new album ‘The Legend of ABM,’ Chicago hip-hop duo attempts to rebrand to be bigger and better.
A 32-year-old man suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center where he was pronounced dead, Chicago police said.
Milazzo learned to be resilient after a major college injury, and that trait has served her well in professional soccer.
What most refuse to see is the beauty of the skin she chooses to live in. A skin at this point millions-on-millions thought she’d shed like most other Black athletes when their fame introduces itself to fortune.
Prairie State Conservation Coalition is stepping up to assume a major role in funding conservation projects for land acquisition, land stewardship and organization capacity building (organizational infrastructure).