While a bill is moving steadily toward passage in the General Assembly to expand the scope of existing laws against catalytic converter theft, one Greene County man is already learning a hard lesson about how seriously the commonwealth takes the crime. The felony case against 33-year-old Dustin Thomas Wise will advance to a grand jury in April after a preliminary hearing on Thursday in Albemarle General District Court.
“It’s unusual to be caught,” said veteran criminal defense attorney Scott Goodman. “They almost have to be caught on camera.”
A catalytic converter is part of a car’s exhaust system. It converts engine pollutants into less harmful chemicals. A converter is located beneath a car, near the engine, and can easily be cut off, which thousands of thieves have done in recent years across the country. They are seeking three valuable metals in converters platinum, palladium and rhodium that have risen astronomically in price, according to cars.com. Rhodium has risen the highest, going for as much as $26,000 an ounce in 2021, according to the website.
Whoever stole the catalytic converter from underneath a pickup truck in late October was caught on several cameras, as the heist occurred in the parking lot at 1545 Quiet Acres Drive. The place is better known as the headquarters of Crutchfield Corporation, one of America’s largest electronics retailers.
The victim in the case was Crutchfield employee Douglas C. Smythers.
“When I started the truck there was a really loud noise,” Smythers told the court on Thursday, describing the events of Oct. 30. “My catalytic converter was gone.”
Due to those precious metals they contain, catalytic converters are an attractive target for thieves, according to Jerry Chaney, a floating manager for 10 Virginia Meineke locations.
“It got worse in the past two years,” Chaney told The Daily Progress, noting that Meineke’s Emmet Street shop handles about nine converter replacements weekly.
Chaney said the average bill is $2,000, which, depending on a person’s insurance policy, may or may not be covered.
Catalytic converter thefts increased 1,215% between 2019 and 2022, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, due to the rising value of the metals they contain.
There were 166 reported converter thefts in Albemarle County last year, according to county police spokesperson Bridgette Butynski. The city of Charlottesville did not provide a number to The Daily Progress.
Virginia lawmakers tried to slow the damage by upgrading converter theft last year to a felony and adding a requirement that metal recyclers must log the identity of anyone who tries to resell one.
At Bob’s Wheel Alignment, manager Todd Archer hasn’t seen a slowdown.
“It’s gotten really bad,” said Archer. “It’s really frustrating.”
Even one of Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobiles, one of which visited Charlottesville last month, was not immune. Someone stole a catalytic converter from the 27-foot rolling hot dog in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Archer said that he sees a lot of converter thefts from church vans and buses, which are easier for a thief to reach because they sit high off the ground and typically sit unattended.
In court on Thursday, Smythers testified that he left his Ford F-250 unattended for several days at Crutchfield. But as the company’s senior operations manager, he was able to pore through extensive footage from multiple cameras until he spotted the heist.
Assisting lead prosecutor Tyler L. Sande with the commonwealth’s court case was a trainee named Robert McLeod, a third-year University of Virginia student.
“I’d like to draw your attention to the vehicle on the screen,” McLeod said to the investigating officer. “Who owns it?”
Albemarle County police officer Laura Proffitt answered that the red sport utility vehicle appearing on the screen in the courtroom was registered to Ruckersville residents Angela Marie Houchens and Dustin Thomas Wise.
Proffitt testified that Houchens, 41, initially claimed not to have been in the Crutchfield lot on the day of the theft.
“And then her story changed,” said Proffitt.
A subsequent tale that Houchens allegedly offered the officer was that her boyfriend Wise wasn’t there and that she was merely a sleeping passenger in the vehicle with a different man who visited the desolate parking lot that Sunday morning to relieve himself.
“Do you see anyone using the bathroom in that video,” the prosecutor asked the officer.
“I don’t see anyone urinating,” answered Proffitt.
Into the courtroom came Brian Charles Tichner, the alleged bathroom user.
No stranger to local courtrooms and jails, Tichner was found guilty in 2011 on a felon-with-a-firearm charge after a friend allegedly shot a family dog in its own yard. He was in court on Thursday wearing the leg irons and striped orange jumpsuit of Central Virginia Regional Jail but serving merely as a witness. While court records show that he was arrested Monday for felony eluding in Greene County and hasn’t yet had a chance to offer a plea, the judge ruled Tichner’s current incarceration irrelevant to this case.
McLeod asked Tichner a series of questions, including whether he’s the man visible driving the red SUV into Crutchfield.
“No, sir,” answered Tichner. “He looks a little bit bigger than me.”
According to court records, defendant Wise carries 255 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.
“It looks like my homeboy,” Tichner continued, “but I can’t say for sure if it is.”
McLeod asked who is Tichner’s homeboy.
“Dustin Wise,” answered Tichner.
Cross-examination by defense lawyers found that Tichner performed some repair work on the red SUV that morning, but Tichner denied ever being alone in the vehicle with Houchens.
During breaks in the hearing, Houchens leaned forward and animatedly discuss the case, while Wise often leaned back, tight-lipped throughout the roughly hourlong proceeding.
Wise’s lawyer, Thomas M. Wilson, asserted that authorities simply nabbed the wrong man.
“This is a very, very, very thin connection between what we see on the video and Mr. Wise in court today,” said Wilson. “We do not have sufficient evidence.”
The lawyer for Houchens, Cyndra H. Van Clief, called the evidence about her client “tenuous.”
The fledgling prosecutor then mentioned a Virginia Supreme Court case that takes an expansive view of evidence against someone such as Houchens, who was charged as an accessory, despite a lack of evidence that Houchens stepped outside the red SUV to lend a hand.
“Stealing a catalytic converter requires someone to be under a car and vulnerable and requires a lookout more than other crimes,” said McLeod. “These stories keep changing, and that is evidence of consciousness of guilt.”
Judge Matthew Quatrara noticed, however, that the arrest warrant for Houchens carried an offense date marked as two days earlier than the one for Wise. He dismissed her charge.
“Thank you, sir,” said Houchens.
However, the legal analyst Goodman says that Houchens’ relief may be short-lived, as felonies can be reinstated by prosecutors.
“She’s definitely not free and clear,” said Goodman. “The commonwealth attorney can still bring back the charge to the grand jury.”
The case against Wise goes to a grand jury on April 3. By then, Houchens may know whether the commonwealth still considers her an accessory.
The General Assembly hasn’t ceased its efforts to prevent catalytic converter crimes. A state Senate bill garnered bipartisan support and won passage in the House of Delegates on Thursday to make possession of a detached catalytic converter a Class 6 felony. That’s the least serious felony but the same classification as catalytic converter theft, a crime that can result in a one- to five-year sentence.
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