More than 30 catalytic converter thefts have been reported in Berkeley in recent weeks, with the largest concentration in the northern part of the city. Map: BPD

In recent weeks, Prius owners throughout Berkeley have tried to start their cars only to be greeted with a thunderous roar and a nonfunctional vehicle. Now police have arrested two people they believe are connected to at least one of the dozens of local catalytic converter thefts.

On Wednesday, Briana Crisp, 37, of an unknown location, and Mauricio Navarrete, 47, of Oakland, were arrested on suspicion of grand theft, conspiracy and possession of burglary tools, according to a Berkeley Police Department Nixle alert. Piedmont police first detained Crisp and Navarette after spotting their vehicle, then BPD later arrested them.

A reciprocating saw, a tool police believe was used to remove catalytic converters, was found in their car, according to the Nixle.

No catalytic converters were recovered, said Officer Byron White, a BPD spokesman.

The catalytic converter is a part of a vehicle’s exhaust pipe that’s responsible for reducing emissions. It can be removed from under some cars in a matter of moments.

A rash of thefts this summer has seemingly targeted older Toyota Priuses. There have been at least 30 cars affected in the past few weeks, police say. A map created by BPD shows thefts reported citywide, with the largest concentration in North Berkeley. Some Hondas, including Elements and Accords, were reported among the damaged vehicles too.

Northside resident John Kirkham was among multiple people hit in his neighborhood last month.

After coming back from a weekend trip, Kirkham tried to start his 2004 Prius to drive to work July 29.

“It sounded like the worst lawnmower you’d ever heard,” Kirkham said.

New catalytic converters can run around $3,000 — more than the car is worth, said Kirkham, whose insurance doesn’t cover replacements. He’s been taking BART and rideshares to his job in Walnut Creek since the theft, “which adds time to my day.”

West Berkeley mechanic Nathan Hutchison said “cats have been getting stolen for decades.”

But Hutchison, the owner of Nate’s Green Garage on San Pablo Avenue, said there have been multiple weeks in the past few months where six or seven victims have come in for replacements.

Berkeleyside’s 15-minute phone interview with Hutchison on Thursday was interrupted by yet another person coming into his shop to deal with an affected car.

However, for the second time in recent weeks, Toyota has run out of new catalytic converters nationwide, and the shop has to wait for new shipments from Japan, Hutchison said. Toyota could not immediately be reached for confirmation.

Hutchison said second-generation Priuses — from 2004-09 — are easy targets because their catalytic converters are more accessible than those in older models. There is also a much larger market for those parts because Prius catalytic converters typically last up to 150,000 or 200,000 miles, he said. Few owners of newer cars are shopping around for replacements yet.

Second-generation Priuses are the most vulnerable to catalytic converter thefts because of their accessibility and the market for the parts. Photo: tedkulp/Creative Commons

Prius catalytic converters are also some of the most expensive out there, because the hybrids go “above and beyond” with emission reduction, Hutchison said. In recent years, Toyota has also raised the price of catalytic converters for second-generation Priuses, according to Hutchison.

However, California mechanics can’t install used catalytic converters unless the products meet certain strict requirements.

“What’s happening here is the thieves are stealing them and either selling them for scrap or selling them to a few specific shops that are willing to install them in somebody’s car without them knowing,” Hutchison said.

BPD said the department’s investigation into the recent thefts is ongoing.

“We believe there may be more suspects involved in these thefts,” said the Nixle.

In another Nixle message in late July, BPD encouraged drivers to park in a garage or well-lit area if possible.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...