By Kiet Do

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — A six-month-long investigation into catalytic converter thefts in San José has led to the arrest of 15 suspects and the seizure of illegal weapons, over $50,000 in cash and the recovery of over 1,000 converters believed to have been stolen from vehicles throughout the Bay Area.

Named ‘Operation Cat Scratch Thiever’ the investigation targeted prolific catalytic converter thieves and the illegal underground market that has fueled the surging crime trend.

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In addition to the arrests, police shut down three San José businesses that were suspected of knowingly purchasing stolen catalytic converters from street criminals.

Since the start of the pandemic, investigators said, San José has experienced an increase in catalytic converter thefts. Many of the thefts have become increasingly brazen and suspects are often armed with guns.

There were 84 catalytic converter thefts reported in San Jose in 2019, 724 in 2020 and 1,087 so far in 2021.

Suspects have shot victims and witnesses who have interrupted the thefts and in San José a catalytic converter theft has been linked to at least one homicide.

Investigators said the suspects have been charged with crimes ranging from grand theft to receiving stolen property and from assault with a deadly weapon to possession of illegal weapons.

Those arrested were:

  • Joe Chen, 81, San Jose
  • William Collier, 54, San Jose
  • Noe Antonio De La O Ramirez, 39, San Jose
  • Robert Frank, 52, San Jose
  • David Leaf, 29, San Jose
  • Robert Lee, 29, San Jose
  • Jorge Omar Flores-Meza, 25, San Jose
  • Noah Muchera, 58, San Jose
  • Waiyaki Muchera, 22, San Jose
  • Casandra Ochoa, 37, San Jose
  • Mario Zarate Sanchez, 49, San Jose
  • Godofredo Lopez Serrano, 47, San Jose
  • Jeffrey Smith, 36, San Jose
  • Alton Walker, 49, San Jose
  • Lacey Westgate, 36, San Jose

The operation also targeted the following businesses that received the stolen items:

  • Libra Automotive Parts, 1610 Monterey Road, San Jose
  • Tung Tai Recycling, 1726 Rogers Ave, San Jose
  • Green Metals Recycling, 254 McEvoy St, San Jose
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“The message is simple. This is not the conclusion. If you’re out participating in this activity, we’re gonna be looking for you. If you’re a business buying these illicitly, we are going to target you, and we are going to shut you down, just like we did to these other three (businesses),” said San Jose Police Sgt. Christian Camarillo.

Frank, the owner of Green Metal Recycling in Campbell, has been charged with possessing about $3 million worth of stolen converters. After identifying Frank as a suspected “fence” officers searched Frank’s business and home to uncover the illegal stockpile.

Investigators found an assault rifle, 1,200 armor piercing bullets, $50,000 in cash and bin after bin of more than 1,500 stolen catalytic converters.

“It was like a black market Costco,” said Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara County District Attorney. “This crime is causing car owners and sellers to spend hard-earned money to replace parts and protect their cars. We won’t stand by and let thieves profit by stripping your car in its parking space.”

According to Rosen, thieves across the Bay Area often traveled to San Jose to resell the stolen devices, adding that the operation “dried up the market” for the converters and should decrease thefts across the region.

“There were a lot of undercover individuals involved in this case. And part of the message that we want to send to thieves that are thinking about this is, ‘you will be caught. You don’t know who you’re dealing with, who you’re selling the goods to, it may very well be a police officer, and we’re gonna arrest you, prosecute you and send you to jail,’” said Rosen.

Of the 15 defendants arrested and charged, 14 are now out of custody on supervised release, as part statewide bail reform.

“I was disappointed about that because I’m concerned that these individuals may get the message that they can do this kind of crime, get caught and then quickly be released from custody. That is not the message that I want sent to thieves who do this. The message that I’m trying to send is, you will be caught, you will be held in custody and punished. That’s what we need to do,” said Rosen.

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Kiet Do contributed this report.