No one would mistake Mike Sweeney’s 16-year-old pickup with a muscle car.

But Sweeney could have mistaken the sound of the engine of his 1991 Toyota Truck to that of a rumbling speedster on the afternoon of March 21.

That’s because the truck’s catalytic converter was stolen while it was parked in the driveway of his family’s home in the 1800 block of Monaco Drive.

It wasn’t the only time a vehicle had that part stolen. About 9:30 a.m. Saturday, someone reported that a man and woman drove off in a white Mitsubishi after watching them steal a catalytic converter from a car while it was parked at Home Depot.

A vehicle without a converter would run differently.

“It takes out the emission control in a car, so it would be polluting a lot, the check-engine light would come on and it would be very loud,” said Jerry Smith, manager of J.P.’s Muffler & Smog, 410 S. Main St.

Smith said his business has replaced stolen converters on five cars in the past six months. Manteca police say they have recorded eight such thefts in the past six months.

Catalytic converters may seem like an odd thing to steal, but law enforcement agencies say they are being stolen at a high rate across the country. Cindy Burdette, crime prevention specialist with Sacramento County Sheriff’s office, said Toyotas provide the biggest target because their catalytic converters can be removed easily and quickly. They are attached by only two bolts.

For criminals in the know, converters are as good as gold. Actually, better.

Catalytic converters contain tiny amounts of three precious metals – platinum, palladium and rhodium – that have seen their commodity rates skyrocket in the past two years. According to online commodities Web site, the price of rhodium has shot up in the past five years from $380 to $6,000 per ounce. It closed this week at $6,075. Palladium rose from about $200 per ounce two years ago to $360 in April 2006. It has remained steady at the higher price for the past year, and closed this week at $352. Between April 2005 and November 2006, the price of platinum rose by more than 60 percent, from $865 per ounce to $1,355. This week’s close was $1,264.

John Shegerian, chairman of Fresno-based Electronic Recyclers, said the building boom in China and India is creating an insatiable appetite for everything from precious metals to plastics. That’s driving up commodity prices.

“All of those products that come out of our waste stream are reusable,” Shegerian said.

Thieves are trading catalytic converters in to some precious metal recyclers that will accept them for about $100 apiece, experts say.

Those who extract the platinum, palladium and rhodium can sell the metals for thousands. Experts say the average converter contains 1 to 2 grams of platinum, palladium and rhodium. That equals about 0.07 of an ounce, meaning 14 or 15 converters are needed to equal one ounce of the metals.

“It goes hand in hand with copper theft,” said Manteca police spokesman Rex Osborn, referring to another metal that has seen a recent increase in theft due to higher commodity rates. Pieces containing copper have been stolen from new home developments, train tracks, the Altamont Wind Farm and irrigation pumps on numerous county farms.

Catalytic converters help reduce the amount of raw emissions from car exhaust. They’ve been built into all gasoline-powered cars built in the past 30 years. At various muffler shops in Manteca, it costs $100 to $150 to replace a converter on any car with a model year of 1996 or earlier, and $300 to $500 for newer cars.

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