(UPDATE: This story updates a previous version and includes comments from a press conference held Thursday afternoon)
Local law enforcement officials believe the July 29 indictments of 14 individuals they believe were involved in an expansive organized catalytic converter trafficking ring will put a dent in thefts of those mechanical devices in the Portland-metro area.
On Thursday, Beaverton police, local and state law enforcement agencies gathered at the Beaverton Police Department for a press conference regarding an extensive investigation into those thefts, which involved collecting and moving catalytic converters across the country.
Using the backdrop of an evidence garage containing an estimated 1,000 stolen catalytic converters, Officer Matt Henderson, Beaverton police public information officer, said their investigation into the thefts began in late 2021.
By the time the investigation was completed, police had seized more than 3,000 catalytic converters along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, a high-end vehicle and jewelry.
"The case spanned over six Oregon counties and reached into the states of Oregon, Washington, Nevada, California, Texas and New York," said Henderson.
He said there are still people involved in the theft ring who have yet to be captured in an investigation that involved thousands of man hours put in by Beaverton police and other agencies.
During their investigation, detectives identified 32-year-old Tanner Lee Hellbusch of Beaverton as the person running an illegal stolen catalytic converter fencing operation.
Police stopped Hellbusch on March 1 in a vehicle containing more than 100 stolen catalytic converters with a street value of $80,000.
Hellbusch was arraigned Aug. 4 on 20 criminal charges, most of them felonies, court records show. He has pleaded not guilty.
During the same month, Beaverton police detectives discovered that 32-year-old Brennan Patrick Doyle of Lake Oswego was the leader of the criminal organization.
Police believe Doyle has trafficked over 44,000 catalytic converters since the start of 2021, with an estimated street value of over $22 million.
Doyle was arraigned Aug. 4 on 72 criminal charges, according to court records. He also pleaded not guilty.
Police said over the course of five months, Beaverton detectives determined Hellbusch, Doyle and 12 others participated in the organized effort to steal catalytic converters — devices that keep a motorist's vehicle from belching out harmful carbon monoxide — from vehicles along the West Coast.
When the investigation ended, eight sites had been investigated looking for evidence including a waterfront residence in Lake Oswego.
Doyle was renting a summer lake house in Lake Oswego when he was arrested.
"I think it's important to note that the defendants in this case were living a nice life and they were doing so because they were stealing catalytic converters from people or receiving stolen catalytic converters from people," Henderson told a group of television and print reporters.
Beaverton detectives said Doyle's organization capitalized on the increased price of valuable metals found in catalytic converters, such as rhodium, platinum and palladium.
As of Aug. 11, police said rhodium is valued at $14,000 per ounce — up from just $2,500 in 2019.
"We're ultimately here today because of some really exceptional police work," said Stacy Jepson, interim Beaverton police chief. "Our detectives had the opportunity to solve a problem that has plagued our community, as well as well as other communities nationally."
She said shortly after stopping Hellbusch, police knew they were dealing with a large and profitable criminal organization.
Jepson said she was proud that Beaverton has relationships with numerous local, state and federal agencies in order to make it all happen and thanked the community for its patience while police investigated.
"Your patience has allowed us to take this criminal organization down from the top instead of just scratching the surface level," the interim chief said. "This criminal organization has been stopped and my hope is that the hard work of the investigators will provide a blueprint to other law enforcement agencies, locally and nationally, on how to target, investigate and prosecute criminal organizations such as this one."
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said the 14 defendants in the case were indicted on more than 130 felony crimes.
Barton said the indictments were the result of an extensive investigation that involved not only the Beaverton Police Department, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Washington County District Attorney's Office but help from the Washington and Clackamas County sheriff's offices along with Tigard Police Department. (Tigard police executed some of the search warrants involved in the investigation, according to a police spokesperson.)
"Quality of life crimes have a direct impact on the livability in our community. They often disproportionately and negatively impact the financially vulnerable and the historically marginalized as they strain resources of both small businesses and families alike," said Barton. "We have seen what happens when public safety systems do not prioritize the prosecution of quality-of-life crimes and in Washington County, we reject that approach."
Phillip Kearney, an assistant special agent in charge at the Oregon Department of Justice's criminal justice division, said his agency assisted police and the district attorney with their investigation as well.
"We're extremely proud to have assisted the investigative efforts and accomplishment of this multi-agency team that dismantled this large theft and money-laundering organization," he said.
In response to reporters' questions, Henderson said with no serial numbers on the recovered catalytic converters, there is no way to track where they came from. He also talked about how quickly the thefts can occur.
"You see folks laying underneath a vehicle and they can be in and out in 30 seconds to two minutes, like a NASCAR pit crew," Henderson said.
Police have seen a direct correlation between the increase valve of the metals in catalytic converter and frequency of their theft, Henderson added. Still, he's also confident that the recent arrests will make a difference in how many catalytic converter thefts will occur in the area in the near future.
"I think our investigators are confident that it's going to put a significant dent in the Portland-metro area catalytic converter thefts," said Henderson.
Investigators discovered that the majority of the mechanical devices were going to the East Coast and that thieves like to target vehicles that are eco-friendly because of more prized metals found in them in an effort to process more pollutants. Larger vehicles that don't use diesel fuel are popular targets for thieves as well. Now police are trying to determine what to do with the stolen converters to make sure that the money that comes from the recovered property will somehow make itself back into the community.
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