‘They’re like Formula 1 mechanics’

Frank Cullinane knew the moment he started his car on a cold morning just before Christmas that something was very seriously wrong.

“A sound like a jet plane came out of it so I switched it off straight away,” said the retired garda from Glasnevin, north Dublin. While he didn’t immediately realise it, he had just become Ireland’s latest victim of catalytic converter theft.

Other victims of the same crime have told The Irish Times of catching well-drilled and lightning-quick three- and four-man gangs – “like Formula 1 mechanics” – outside their properties during identical robberies.

They come equipped with very large car jacks, to lift a car off the ground in seconds, and electronic tools to cut the catalytic converters from underneath the vehicles, before they flee in waiting cars.

Figures obtained by The Irish Times from the Garda show that in 2017 just 79 catalytic converter thefts were recorded, increasing to 96 thefts in 2018. However, in 2019 the crime increased exponentially in the Republic with 989 thefts recorded.

The latest data, for 2020, shows 1,014 thefts recorded in the first 9½ months of last year, or on course for 1,300 catalytic converters thefts by year end; a 13-fold increase in just two years. Some 75 per cent of the crimes last year were recorded in Dublin.

Cullinane (78) says when his converter was taken his two cars were parked in the driveway of his house. “About 5 o’clock in the morning three or four fellas came in. I was sleeping, at the most, a few yards from where it happened. The noise woke up a woman on the road. She came out with her dog but these guys just jumped into their car and away they went. I drove the car that day and it was all right. They seemed to come back the next night and that’s when they took the converter.”

Brazen criminals

Cullinane’s repair job, including a replacement converter, came to €1,390. While he was happy to go on the record and tell his story, other victims who spoke to The Irish Times were more reluctant, citing safety. Nonetheless, they told stories of brazen criminals striking during day and night.

A woman in her 30s explains how the catalytic converter was stolen from her Toyota Prius – one of the most targeted vehicles – outside her house from a middle-class suburb of Dublin during Christmas 2019.

She “heard a drilling noise at about 4am” and didn’t realise it was somebody outside cutting a part out from underneath her car.

“The next morning I started the car and got this thundering sound from it. I got the AA out they told me ‘that’s your cat converter gone’.”

Each converter can be sold on the black market for between €300 and €600, though in one case that reached the courts in recent years the suspect had stolen 20 converters, which the court valued at €20,000. Photograph: Reuter Raymond/Sygma via Getty Images

She then paid €2,000 to have the car fixed before it was targeted again two months later, she suspects by the same gang coming back for more. But this time she disturbed the men as they had jacked up her car, again outside her home, and were working under it trying to cut out her new converter.

“I heard them and flew down and opened the door. There was three or four of them, they were masked. Luckily I had caught them and they were scared enough . . . they ripped the jack out and slammed the car down; literally just ‘bang’. And then they sped off. There was only a little bit of damage to my car, which I got fixed for not much expense.

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