Catalytic converters recovered during an investigation Sept. 1. Photo: BPD

Police who responded to reports of catalytic converter thefts in North Berkeley this month found five of them in an abandoned minivan and one, still on a vehicle, that had been partially sawn off, authorities report.

Officers made one arrest in connection with the case after finding a man they said had fled from the minivan to hide in the bushes when officers tried to stop the vehicle.

Early on the morning of Sept. 1, police got two reports about catalytic converter thefts from Priuses in the same area: one in the 1300 block of Hearst Avenue (between Chestnut and Franklin streets) and one near Lincoln Street and McGee Avenue less than a mile away. The thieves were driving a white van, callers told police at around 3 a.m.

Officers searched the area and spotted a white Toyota Sienna minivan double-parked with its headlights off in the 1800 block of Francisco Street, between Grant Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, BPD spokesman Officer Byron White told Berkeleyside. When police tried to stop the van, the driver pulled away, then came to rest.

“As officers approached the vehicle, they saw one of the three occupants hiding a catalytic converter in the back,” White said. Police ordered the driver to stop, but the van sped off.

Police from UC Berkeley found the Toyota abandoned in the 1700 block of Walnut Street (near Virginia Street) a short time later. In the van, police found five catalytic converters, pipe cutters and power cutting tools, White said.

During a search of the area, police found a man they identified as one of the minivan’s occupants, 38-year-old Yeng Thao of Sacramento, hiding in the bushes in the 1700 block of Shattuck Avenue (near Virginia). Police arrested Thao on suspicion of felony theft and possession of burglary tools.

As part of the investigation, police returned to the 1800 block of Francisco, where they had first spotted the minivan, and found a vehicle on a hydraulic jack with its catalytic converter partially cut off, White said.

The Alameda County district attorney’s office declined to file charges against Thao citing a lack of evidence, BPD said this week. He is no longer in custody.

The Sept. 1 incident follows a spate of catalytic converter thefts over the summer that included dozens of reports involving Priuses around the city.

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

A mechanic who spoke to Berkeleyside in August said second-generation Priuses — from 2004-09 — are easy targets for thieves because their catalytic converters are more accessible than those in other models. There is also a large market for them because Prius catalytic converters can last up to 200,000 miles, he said.

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

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...