‘Who does this to little kids?’ Whatcom business owner asks of recent theft spree

Catalytic converters like these were stolen this month from three Kid’s World vans parked at Ferndale and Bellingham locations in a crime trend that Whatcom County, Wash., police have seen in October and November 2018.
Catalytic converters like these were stolen this month from three Kid’s World vans parked at Ferndale and Bellingham locations in a crime trend that Whatcom County, Wash., police have seen in October and November 2018. McClatchy file

Having one catalytic converter stolen off the fleet of 14 vans owned by Kids’ World near the first of the month could be considered bad luck for Michael Watters, founder and owner of the Whatcom County preschool and daycare.

Having a second one cut off another van in the same Ferndale child care parking lot a couple of weekends later was frustrating — especially considering the $1,500 price tag to replace to each theft.

But when a third van, parked in a well-lit area outside the Kids’ World location on Sunset Drive in Bellingham was victimized on Thanksgiving night, Watters’ frustrations understandably transformed into some anger — and plenty of questions.

“Who does this to little kids?” Watters said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald this week. “People don’t want to make judgments or be unkind these days, but who in the world takes candy from babies? These actions are hurting our kids. Why would they do that?”

Unfortunately, Watters and the kids are not the only ones being hurt. Though one company having three catalytic converters stolen is a bit extreme, it highlights a recent crime trend in Whatcom County.

Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy told The Bellingham Herald by email last week that there have been 21 reports of catalytic converters being stolen in 2018 and a 22nd case where the thieves were interrupted. Of the 21 thefts, 15 have occurred since Oct. 1.

In an Oct. 1 email to The Herald, Murphy said there was only one report of the crime in all of 2017.

Ferndale Police have received three reports this year, all since Oct. 1, communications officer Riley Sweeney said in an email to The Bellingham Herald last week. Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick said he also could “recall a few over the last several months,” in an email last week to The Bellingham Herald.

Fortunately, the Kids’ World students weren’t directly impacted by thefts, Watters told The Herald, other than, “Ms. Pam’s bus was really loud, and that was pretty funny — and that’s how it should be for the kids.” Kids’ World has been able to shuffle around its fleet to make sure there are buses and vans available to drop off and pick up kids at school and for field trips as usual while others were repaired.

But the $4,500 cost to replace the three catalytic converters has hurt the budget for the family-owned program, which Watters said is preparing to open its fourth location early next year.

“It’s hugely impactful, because, holy smokes, we need that money to give raises and we need it for programming,” Watters said. “There is no room in our budget for that, and it’s not covered by insurance. ... This is the time of year where we’re figuring out how much to pay everybody, but my wife has been adamant that it won’t impact that. But this has been discouraging and emotionally destructive for every one of those good, hard-working people who have been involved.”

Catalytic converters convert three harmful elements in a vehicle’s exhaust to harmless compounds, according to The devices contain small amounts of valuable metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, according to a 2016 report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and thieves scrap them and can get as much as $640 each on the black market.

Most thefts occur at night, when thieves would be less likely to be seen or interrupted, Murphy said, and with the right tools and knowledge, a catalytic converter can be quickly removed with two well-placed cuts. In most cases, victims would know their converters have been stolen because their cars have a loud rumbling sound that gets louder when they step on the gas.

Trucks, SUVs and buses are the vehicles most often hit, Murphy said, likely due to their ease of access. In a strange statistical twist, 12 of the 21 catalytic converters that have been reported this year in Bellingham have come off Ford Econoline vans.

Obviously, locking vehicles in a garage is the best way to prevent the theft of catalytic converters, but as was the case for Kids’ World and its fleet of buses and vans, that’s not always possible.

Murphy offered these suggestions to help reduce the chances your car is targeted:

Park the car in a well-lit, well-traveled areas, making it less attractive to thieves as an option.

If you have a security system, calibrate it to sound upon vibrations.

Engrave the vehicle’s identification number, or VIN, onto the converter, making it harder to sell and a lot easier to track.

If your catalytic converter is stolen, report it right away to law enforcement and let them know if the VIN number is on it.

“It happens so quickly, I just don’t see how you can stop it,” Watters said. “On top of the $4,500, we’re going to be investing a lot more money on lights to make sure our parking lots are even more illuminated.”