27 charged, 423 felonies: Catalytic converter crime ring exposed in tri-county region

New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler and Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller announce a joint investigation that took down a criminal enterprise stealing catalytic converters. (Courtesy/New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Not a year after Surf City resident Matt Parr purchased a 2021 Toyota Tundra, he cranked up the truck on a February day and heard horrid noises. Knowing something was off, Parr drove straight to the dealership only to learn his catalytic converter had been stolen.

Two months later, he’s still waiting to receive the replacement due to a backlog of supplies. The part is priced between $5,000 and $7,000, Parr said. 

Parr is one of hundreds of regional victims who have had their catalytic converters stolen in recent years; however, the rate of these larcenies should start to come down.

Thursday, Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with New Hanover and Pender counties, announced 423 felony charges were made with the arrests of 27 individuals involved in a criminal organization to steal and resell these valuable auto parts.

“It’s real easy to take a battery-operated reciprocating saw and crawl under a vehicle and cut it out in a matter of minutes and be gone with it,” Onslow County deputy chief Col. Chris Thomas said at a press conference. “Hence the name of our operation: Operation Sawzall.”

Catalytic converters are part of exhaust systems, which help burn off gasses and pollutants that vehicles emit. Within the converter is a “honeycomb,” Thomas said, which contains precious metals rhodium, palladium and platinum, among others. Thus the converters provide profitable resale for thieves.

Thomas pointed out the most sought-after vehicles are vans, buses and trucks. The vehicles are easier to crawl under and contain larger catalytic converters, meaning more money for the criminals.

A spokesperson for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Jerry Brewer, told Port City Daily earlier this month the county has been a “hotbed” for these thefts, especially in industrial areas. He said in 2012 there were only 12 reported catalytic converters; almost a decade later, 162 were stolen in a year.

Wilmington Police Department records show an additional 63 converter thefts were reported in 2021. The most targeted areas are shopping center parking lots, apartment complexes, dealerships and auto repair shops.

Thomas said Onslow County has seen a 107% jump in cases over the last four months.

“In 2020, we had 95 larcenies of catalytic converters during the whole year,” he said. “We’ve had 97 this year already.”

The three sheriff’s offices began sharing resources in February and established links to identify cross-county thefts.

More than two dozen suspects are alleged to have been working together to steal the catalytic converters and pass them to a middleman. The parts were then sold to Emerson Jordan in Pender County. 

Jordan is considered the ringleader and would resell the converters for more than double his purchase price. Often, he was shipping the parts overseas, according to Thomas. 

WWAY’s reporting notes Jordan owned a towing and transportation company, IHaul, and has a license to sell catalytic converters.

Last year, the state passed legislation making it illegal to be in possession of a catalytic converter without proof of ownership. 

“It prohibits scrap metal dealers from purchasing catalytic converters from individuals selling them, unless they are licensed businesses, such as a repair shop, who have a legitimate reason to have them,” Thomas said.

The recent investigation — involving undercover operations — led to the recovery of 653 catalytic converters. Yet, it’s rare the parts can be traced back to their original owners and vehicles. Thomas said due to the increase of thefts, manufacturers are considering adding serial numbers, so they can be better tracked if stolen.

“The value of impact on citizens is tremendous to come off that kind of money,” Thomas said. “The vehicle tech does not work without it.”

Parr said he believes his car was robbed of its converter while parked at the Wilmington International Airport for a few days. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jerry Brewer said no evidence of that was ever confirmed.

“Most criminals are not totally stupid,” Brewer added. “You’ve got to be totally stupid to go to a parking lot patrolled by law enforcement and steal something.”

Thomas said this is just the beginning of the investigation and departments continue to follow leads.

The following individuals were charged as result of the multi-agency investigation:    

ONSLOW COUNTY:

  • Emerson Jordan: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 43 counts of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $89,100 Secured Bond
  • Brenda Williams: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000 Secured Bond
  • Bradley Hancock: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 43 counts Larceny Motor Vehicles Parts, 38 Counts of Felony Possession of Stolen Property, 39 counts Felony Injury to Property to Obtain Non-ferrous Metals, 25 counts Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, 1 count Felony Attempted Larceny of Motor Vehicle Parts, 1 count of Felony PWISD Methamphetamine, 1 count of Felony PWISD Cocaine, 1 count of Felony Manufacture Methamphetamine, 1 count of Felony Manufacture Cocaine, 2 counts of Misdemeanor Possess Drug Paraphernalia, total: $491,000 Secured Bond
  • Corey Williams: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 32 counts of Felony Larceny of Motor Vehicle Parts, 1 count of Felony Attempted Larceny of Motor Vehicle Parts, 28 counts of Felony Possession of Stolen Property, 29 counts of Felony Injury to Property to Obtain Non-ferrous Metals, 25 counts of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, Total $365,000 Secured Bond
  • Freedom Stisi: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 9 counts of Felony Larceny of Motor Vehicle Parts, 9 counts of Felony Possession of Stolen Property, 9 counts of Felony Injury to Property to Obtain Non-ferrous Metals, 12 counts of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, Total $133,000 Secured Bond
  • Jeffery Legette: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond
  • Justin Pierce: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000 Secured Bond
  • Steven Williams: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 4 counts of Felony Larceny of Motor Vehicle parts, 4 counts of Felony Possession of Stolen Property, 4 counts of Felony Injury to Property to Obtain Non-ferrous Metals, 3 counts of Felony Conspiracy, $59,000 Secured Bond, OFA $4,000 Secured Bond total $63,000
  • Virgil Hutchinson: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, Written Promise to Appear
  • Roger Jinks Jr: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond
  • Todd Thomas: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond
  • · James Herring: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond, No bond on Probation Violation OFA
  • Jeffery Gurganus: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond, $2,000 Child Support Warrant Total $9,000.00
  • Stephen Smith: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond, $4,000 on outstanding WFA, total $11,000.00
  • Turran Phillips: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000.00 Secured Bond, $19,100 Child Support Warrant Total $26,100.00
  • Christian Houston: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $50,000.00 Secured Bond
  • Brittney Guzman: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $50,000.00 Secured Bond
  • Wakeem Williams: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000 Secured Bond
  • Fernando Shaw: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000 Secured Bond
  • John Smith Jr: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 count of Felony Conspiracy to Possess Stolen Property, $7,000 Secured Bond

NEW HANOVER COUNTY:

  • Jason Batson: 29 Counts Felony Larceny of Motor Vehicle Parts, 1 Conspiracy to commit Felony Larceny, $93,000.00 Secured Bond
  • James Everett: Felony Continuing Criminal Enterprise, 1 Count of Conspiracy to Commit Felony Larceny, $2,500.00 Secured Bond

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