End-of-year field trips to the zoo, Garden of the Gods and college campuses have been called off for Atlas Preparatory School students because thieves stole catalytic converters from two activity buses last week.

Administrators at the charter school, which primarily serves low-income students in southeast Colorado Springs, also are scrambling to figure out how athletes can get to girls’ soccer games and track-and-field meets over the remaining few weeks of school.

“It’s rather unfortunate,” Brittney M. Stroh, executive director of Atlas Prep, which enrolls 1,100 kindergarten through 12th graders.

“We’re in the last four weeks of school, and we don’t have any way to transport kids to cultural and recreational field trips and sporting events.

“It’s like, really, you’re going to go to a school and steal parts off a bus?”

Catalytic converters, which make toxic exhaust emissions less harmful, are a hot commodity at junkyards and scrap metal recyclers, meaning theft has become rampant nationwide.

“It’s been a real problem,” said Jeffrey Goodwin, whose family owns Bud Muffler and Automotive Repair shop in Colorado Springs. “It’s an ongoing national issue, and locally, there’s been a spike.”

Security video from Atlas Prep captured two male suspects crawling under the buses last Friday between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. and hacksawing the catalytic converters. The buses were parked in front of the high school building, Stroh said, near Fountain and South Academy boulevards.

The suspects appear to be Caucasian, and one has a full-sleeve tattoo on his left arm. The men were driving a small truck with a green front cab and a white pickup bed with no visible license plate.

The school reported the robbery to police, Stroh said, but have not received a response.

The estimated replacement cost: $9,500, she said.

Other local schools also have been hit.

Colorado Springs School District 11 has had three recent thefts from vehicles parked at schools, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Thieves lifted the unit out of a food service truck at Tesla Educational Opportunity School in April, she said, and in February, an activity bus at Coronado High School and a food service truck at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus were targeted.

Such theft has become even more costly in Colorado.

A change in state law that took effect in January requires replacement converters to carry California certification, instead of federal certification, Goodwin said. California-certified units produce cleaner exhaust but usually are more expensive, he said.

Replacing a converter can start at $600, Goodwin said, depending on the type of vehicle, and run into thousands of dollars for commercial vehicles.

Because of the demand, it can take weeks to get the parts, he said.

Harrison School District 2, the authorizer for Atlas Prep, has had three other catalytic converters stolen in the past six months, said Dave Hartzell, director of transportation.

Thieves cut the fence to the district’s transportation yard and removed the parts on smaller buses. The catalytic converters in those type of vehicles have ceramic lining, which Hartzell said is more valuable to resell.

The thefts amounted to about $4,000, Hartzell said, which is expected to increase insurance prices.

Silver Key Senior Services lost seven catalytic converters on its buses, said Derek Wilson, chief strategy officer, severely impacting its ability to transport seniors to medical appointments, grocery shopping and deliver meals to seniors’ homes.

Repairs took months, he said, and cost $10,000, he said. But the organization missed out on providing some 1,500 rides, which was an additional loss of $30,000.

Donations are funding a yet-to-be-installed wrought-iron fence around the facility, extra lighting and cameras.

“This is not a victimless crime,” Wilson said. “Dollars spent unnecessarily could be going to directly serve seniors but are now being used on repairs.”

The crime seems to be a low priority for law enforcement and businesses that buy used catalytic converters, Hartzell said.

Police reports for such incidents are filed online, but Hartzell said there often is no follow-up, which he assumes because it’s a low-end crime.

It's difficult to tell if a catalytic converter has been stolen, said Amanda Walker, general manager of Koscove Metal in Colorado Springs, which buys scrap material.

“We work with the police and abide by laws to help bring justice to any wrongdoing, but you can’t accuse a person who you ‘think’ doesn’t look legit,” she said.

Most units have a serial number, which determines the price, along with the condition of the honeycomb inside them, Walker said.

“I’ve seen some worth absolutely nothing and another come in worth $200,” she said.

Regulations governing the industry are stringent, Walker said, requiring video and audio surveillance, identifications on transactions and vehicle descriptions, all of which can be turned over to law enforcement.

Goodwin said many customers at his exhaust repair shop say they don’t report stolen converters to police.

“A lot think it’s not important, but we always encourage them to do that,” he said, because there’s always the chance the thieves will be caught.

Anyone who recognizes the suspects in the Atlas Prep theft can call Colorado Springs Police at (719) 444-7000, or the anonymous Pikes Peak Area Crime Stoppers, (719) 634-7867.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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