In August, Beaverton police arrested the alleged leader of a crime ring they say trafficked more than 44,000 stolen catalytic converters since January 2021 — the street value of which is estimated to be over $22 million. Police said at the time that the Portland-area crime ring stretched as far as New York, but offered few details about the alleged ringleader or where the stolen parts ended up.
Willamette Week reporter Lucas Manfield tracked the stolen converters from the Portland metro area to Long Island to a New Jersey metal recycler. He joins us to talk about his reporting.
Note: This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Back in August, Beaverton police said they had arrested the leader of a crime ring that was responsible for trafficking more than 44,000 stolen catalytic converters since the beginning of 2021. The alleged ringleader was based in Lake Oswego, an irresistible detail given the political talking point that Portland is a crime-ridden wasteland. But the raid left a lot of big questions unanswered. The biggest of all, where were these catalytic converters going after they were stolen in the tri county area?
We now have a clearer picture of the larger criminal enterprise, thanks to a series of indictments at the local and national levels. Lucas Manfield has been digging into these indictments for a new cover story for a week and he joins us now, welcome to the show.
Lucas Manfield: Hey, thanks so much.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to start with the real basics; what is a catalytic converter?
Manfield: It’s a device that is put on the car’s exhaust system that basically turns what would be the poisonous fume of carbon monoxide, it’s being released by the engine, and converting it to a bunch of less poisonous things, including carbon dioxide. They’re widely used ever since the Clean Air Act basically mandated them back in the 70s.
Miller: You note that an established crew can steal these in 3 seconds or so, they’re very easy to cut out of the bottom of a car. What makes them so valuable?
Manfield: It’s the precious metals inside them. To do that little chemical trick to get rid of the carbon monoxide, you need to rely on these what are called palladium group metals - maybe it’s platinum group metals - but it’s three metals and they are very, very valuable. It [has] become more valuable in recent years and so that makes it very irresistible for thieves to kind of grab the things and then resell them on the black market.
Miller: How big an increase nationally has there been in the thefts of these catalytic converters?
Manfield: I think the numbers we cited in the story is kind of like the insurance claim data, and it’s just been skyrocketing. I think it tripled, two years in a row. I mean the numbers just really, really skyrocketed in recent years.
Miller: I want to turn to the allegations of this major catalytic converter theft operation in Oregon. Beaverton police announced it back in August and they said that the mastermind, the leader of this ring, is a young man named Brennan Doyle. Who is he?
Manfield: That’s a good question. We talked to some of his friends and this picture emerged. Brennan, he went to Tualatin high school, graduated and kind of tried to basically work for himself.
He started an apparel company that kind of didn’t really go anywhere. He was driving for Uber for a while. He was working in e-commerce for a local water sports company. He was kind of just a hustler, honestly. He was basically renting out his mom’s house and renting it out to a bunch of his friends and acquaintances, and at some point he fell on this new business which proved to be very lucrative.
Miller: One of the interesting wrinkles here is that according to some of the people that you talk to, it was a new Oregon law meant to prevent catalytic converter thefts that could actually have enabled his alleged operation. Can you help us unpack this? What is this idea?
Manfield: I wouldn’t put it that way. Basically what happened is that Oregon wanted to crack down on this, and so they made it harder for you to sell a stolen catalytic converter to a local metal recycler. But the obvious limitation of an Oregon law is that it doesn’t apply in other states, right? And although I think there was at least a dozen states around the country that have set up similar laws, once we had this law in Oregon, it created this incentive to start sending the catalytic converters out of state. So that incentive kind of fueled Brennan’s business because he had this - I mean, I don’t want to get ahead of you here - but he basically had this connection on the east coast and he leveraged that to have it suck up a bunch of Portland area catalytic converters and make a profit off of them.
Miller: So let’s turn to that, because in your reporting you basically followed - to the best of your ability - stolen catalytic converters across the country to a couple different places and it seems like the first stop was a place on Long Island in New York state. What was there?
Manfield: This guy, Andrew Sharkey, over there - [it] was actually a family, a couple of brothers - he’s basically going on Facebook and saying, “You know, if you can sell me a lot of these things, if you give me a batch of like 100 catalytic converters, I will pay to have it shipped out here.” He was posting this on Facebook and I don’t know how Brennan originally got in touch with him, but I imagine he found him on Facebook. We know from another indictment that went in from Oklahoma that he was also buying from other parts of the country.
So he basically had a warehouse out there in Long Island, it was just shipping these things in from all over and then reselling them himself.
Miller: And he was re-selling them, according to these indictments, to a company in New Jersey called DG Auto. Who are they? And what were they doing?
Manfield: Yeah, these guys are a story. DG Auto is basically at the top of the conspiracy, right? These guys had set up, depending on how you look at it, a very sophisticated operation or maybe not sophisticated at all. But they had a really nice warehouse. They bought these nice, shiny looking machines and they were basically taking these catalytic converters and ripping them open. They were managing to buy tons of these catalytic converters from all over.
Part of the reason they were able to do that is they had an app. They made this app, and the app was basically giving real-time quotes. So if you stole a catalytic converter, or really even [in] any way you got a catalytic converter, you can look at the the brand of the catalytic converter and you input that in their app, and it would give you a real-time price quote for the amount that they’d be willing to pay you, based on the current value of the precious metals, which were fluctuating a lot. This app was in super high demand. I think they were even charging a subscription to use it, and that’s how they were managing to get so many of these things.
Miller: When you said that they’re really smart, or maybe they weren’t, that really gets to a question that has been baffling me this entire time, which is just how public these two big operations were. As you noted the Long Island folks were writing on Facebook, “Hey, you know, we’re looking to buy volume, we will pay shipping if you can batch these in hundreds or more”. And then it was the folks in New Jersey who had this app. How do you understand the publicness and sort of brazenness of these operations, given the fact that the allegations are that basically what they were trafficking in were stolen objects to begin with? How do you square those?
Manfield: It’s a great question. I think one way to look at it is that some of Brennan’s associates that I talked to seemed very confident that what they were doing was legal. So to a certain extent some people involved might have not been aware, or they at least might claim that they weren’t aware, that they were trafficking in stolen goods.
Miller: In other words they could argue theoretically, ‘Hey, we have no idea where these catalytic converters came from, and as far as we’re concerned, they were just taken legally from scrap yards”, say.
Manfield: They could try to argue. But again this was a huge investigation, right? When the federal indictments came out, and this wasn’t even counting Oregon, they listed like 75 different jurisdictions that were involved. This was massive, and the reason it was so massive is there were wiretaps all over the country. There were confidential informants, the indictments are quoting people that are going into the warehouse and asking, “Are these stolen?”. And the security guard essentially being like, “Don’t ask that question”. So you can imagine that if these cases do go to trial, there’s going to be a wealth of evidence that the people that were involved were aware that these were stolen goods.
Miller: From what you’ve been able to read, are there also wiretaps or some kind of evidence for the Washington County, or for the Beaverton case, that would also be where prosecutors could do the same thing, of showing intent?
Manfield: Basically what happened in the Beaverton cases, they kind of started with a low level fence, [inaudible] guy, and they worked their way up from there, and at a certain point they realized that they needed a wiretap to essentially prove intent and prove where the money was going. So they set up a wiretap on four phones, including Brennan Doyle’s, and a lot of that stuff is still under seal. I don’t know exactly what they got out of it but they used the wiretap to connect oil to the East Coast connection. They also were seizing funds, so they were aware of where the money was moving, they were catching it as it moved.
Miller: You note that according to Portland Police, catalytic converter theft dropped 28% the month after the raid of Doyle’s Lake Oswego home. The Washington County Sheriff’s office saw an even bigger decline over a period of time after that arrest. Is the thinking that is attributable to Doyle’s alleged operation?
Manfield: I’ll say I’ve done a lot of reporting at this point on catalytic converter theft. I did a recent story on how they were stealing catalytic converters from special education buses that are owned by the Portland public schools. When I was reporting that story the mechanic I was talking to was like, “Yeah, we stopped having this problem once they busted this ring”. So there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. A lot of people I’m talking to really thought this made a huge dent. With that said, I think everyone is aware that this was not the only ring operating. It might not even be the biggest ring operating in Oregon, we don’t know. It’s probably likely that someone might just step into the Brendan Doyle-sized hole we got here in the catalytic converter theft landscape.
Miller: Maybe somebody who’s more sophisticated and less flamboyant.
Manfield: Yeah, exactly. I do think it definitely made a dent, [but] how big that dent is going to be going forward, you know that we’ll have to see.
Miller: Lucas, thanks very much.
Manfield: Thank you.
Miller: Lucas Manfield is a reporter covering police courts and crime for Willamette Week. You can read his new cover story about what basically follows the trail of stolen catalytic converters from Oregon all the way to the east coast. That is this week’s cover story in Willamette Week.
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