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Kansas City ‘kingpin’ behind catalytic converter thefts sentenced to federal prison

The exhaust pipe of an abandoned car missing its catalytic converter, rests on the ground in Philadelphia, Thursday, July 14, 2022. Officers normally assigned to a unit that deals with livability issues like graffiti, nuisance businesses and abandoned cars have been shifted to the city center and violent hot spots around Philadelphia, where the homicide rate reached a record high last year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke
Associated Press
The man police call the "kingpin" of catalytic converter thefts in the metro was sentenced to federal prison Wednesday.

James Spick, 58, made $11 million in four years selling stolen catalytic converters, according to law enforcement. There may have been 55,000 victims.

The man investigators call the “kingpin” of catalytic converter theft in Kansas City was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison and must forfeit $4.4 million of ill-gotten gains.

James Spick, 58, bought thousands of stolen catalytic converters at J&J Recycling, his store on Truman Road in Independence, Missouri. “This defendant ran a large criminal organization,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Mahoney told the court at Spick’s sentencing. “He was a crucial cog in the criminal community.”

Spick pleaded guilty in July to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. On some days, Spick told detectives during the investigation, he spent $20,000 buying catalytic converters. And he paid cash.

“By paying in cash with basically no questions asked, Mr. Spick’s entire business model attracted, encouraged, and incentivized thieves and particularly drug addicts,” the U.S. Attorney wrote in its sentencing memo.

The government says in all, Spick pocketed $11 million between 2018 and 2021. An enormous amount of that was in cash from two out-of-state companies. “Mr. Spick sold to companies who could not or would not deal directly with the thieves but who also made big profits in selling the precious metals they extracted from the catalytic converters,” the government said in court documents.

One of those companies was PGM of Texas, a huge player in the recycling world. From 2018 to 2021, PGM paid Spick more than $3.3 million. According to the government, $2.6 million — 78% — of that was cash.

In 2018, PGM opened a shop in Lee’s Summit. The sign above the door reads: We Buy Catalytic Converters.

The same year, the price of rhodium, palladium and platinum, the three precious metals in catalytic converters, began to spike. “Why else would they come? Supply and demand,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol investigator Cpl. Nate Bradley.

PGM of Texas office in Lee's Summit.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
PGM of Texas office in Lee's Summit. The company allegedly paid millions of dollars for stolen catalytic converters.

In 2021, Bradley says he and a detective from the Olathe Police Department found 11 brand new catalytic converters at PGM in Lee’s Summit. They believed they were stolen from trucks at an Olathe car dealership. Asked whether the company knew they were stolen, Bradley replied: “How could they not?”

Heather Wood, PGM’s compliance manager wouldn’t answer questions about why the company opened a shop in Lee’s Summit or why it paid Spick $2.6 million in cash. “Respectfully, we decline to comment to reporters,” she told KCUR.

But the company has spoken out about catalytic converter theft before. Last June, PGM celebrated passage of a law in Texas that increased penalties for catalytic converter thieves and tightened regulations for recyclers. “We are very aware of the critical role the metals that we recycle play in the U.S. economy, so we’re especially proud to have supported legislators and law enforcement as they brought this bill to life,” Allen Hickman, CEO of PGM of Texas, said in a news release.

The other out-of-state company that did lots of business with Spick was Two Guys Recycling in Bastrop, Louisiana, a tiny town about halfway between Shreveport and Jackson, Mississippi. Two Guys Recycling paid Spick almost $3.8 million over four years, most of that also in cash.

There were so many catalytic converters to be bought from Spick, owner Adrian Barnes said they would regularly drive from Louisiana to collect them. When asked how a company from rural Louisiana got hooked up with a recycler from Independence, Barnes simply said: “Through the converter community.”

Spick will be allowed to surrender in March to start his five-year prison sentence. Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs suggested he wanted to send Spick to prison for longer, but was restrained by federal sentencing guidelines. Sachs called Spick’s sentence “lenient” and “modest.”

Spick appeared Wednesday in a gray jacket, dark pants and a sweater. He had several family members in court and asked for probation. In his sentencing memo, Spick argued that he also did legitimate business at his store and that he was “trying to make as much money as possible to provide for himself, his family, and his employees.”

Spick said he has a ten-year-old daughter to whom he has a close relationship. “They go to church and other social functions together,” his sentencing memo continued.

He even offered a letter of support from his pastor who wrote that Spick is the head usher at church “and is quick to make people feel at home when they walk inside the doors of the church.”

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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