PEARLAND, Texas — Federal investigators have confirmed a massive catalytic converter theft ring busted in Pearland and Fresno Wednesday was linked to the shooting death of a Harris County deputy. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the five people arrested were fencing stolen property for the three guys charged with killing HCSO Deputy Darren Almendarez.
"One of our own was lost due to this type of crime. That's when it's heartfelt and you want to do more to try to get these people," HCSO Deputy Thomas Gilliland said.
The five arrested in the "large-scale, multi-agency investigation" were identified as Timothy Ngo, 51, Henry Pham, 55, Quoc Bao Le, 39, Tran Le, 45, and Tram Le, 47. They face federal charges of engaging in organized crime.
"These fencing type rings, these organized crime rings are so intense and large scale," Gilliland said.
A separate bust in Houston late last month landed five people in jail who are accused of operating a large-scale catalytic converter theft operation.
The feds said organized theft rings frequently target catalytic converters for the precious metals that they contain such as palladium, platinum, and rhodium. Precious metals are extremely valuable, and a worldwide supply shortage has created an increased demand for them further driving up their value
The Brazoria County raid
Authorities said they seized more than 1,450 stolen catalytic converters from 17 pallets and approximately $840,000 from the Pearland-area properties that were raided.
HCSO and the other agencies involved are determined to shut down all of these rings to send a message to those involved.
"We get the job done every day and we'll keep doing it until we can get a dent into it and stop it altogether," Gilliland said.
Neighbors said two families with children live in the Fresno homes that were raided and they're related. Some said they were shocked to wake up and see police swarming their neighborhood.
Jaime Hinojosa, who's lived in the neighborhood for nine years, said the families were quiet but he always had suspicions. Hinojosa said he'd seen box trucks with metal products backing into his neighbor's driveway about once a month in the middle of the day.
"You don't back up a box truck, or big trailer ... you could see they were moving stuff from the garage," Hinojosa said. "They were either storing it there first or send(ing) it out. Now it's making sense to me, what was possibly going on."
Hinojosa is a retired auto parts professional and he's grateful that police are cracking down on catalytic converter crimes. He said replacing them can be expensive for victims who often have to wait months for replacement parts.
Death of Deputy Darren Almendarez
Deputy Almendarez was killed in March when he tried to stop thieves from stealing his catalytic converter.
By May, three people were in custody and charged with capital murder. Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty for Fredarious Clark and Joshua Stewart, but not for 17-year-old Frederick Tardy because of his age.
Several members of the deputy's family attended their bond hearing in May, including his 14-year-old daughter, Andrea.
"He was my world and I was his world," Andrea told us. "He was the light at the end of my tunnel."
She said she still misses her dad every single day.