HOUSTON — New details are revealing more about how an extensive catalytic converter theft operation was working.
Charging documents show the operation was being handled and promoted through Instagram. The documents identified Armando Martinez Sr. as a “mid-level” or "mid-tier" buyer who was part of the sophisticated organized crime ring that stole, purchased and sold the stolen converters.
Those initially arrested have been identified by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement as Jose Martinez, 19; Armando Martinez, 18; Isaac Castillo, 21; Terance Elder, 20; and Armando Martinez Sr., 39; all of Houston, and Jose Sanchez, 21-year-old of Dayton, Texas. Sanchez has since been released from custody and has no charges related to the incident.
Martinez Sr. is charged with engaging in organized criminal activity. He has since bonded out of jail. Elder, Armando Martinez Jr. and Jose Martinez are also charged with engaging in criminal activity. All four are due in court on Monday.
According to court documents, the suspects advertised on social media -- posting lists of specific catalytic converter models they were interested in purchasing. Investigators believe Martinez Sr.'s home was the primary residence where suspects would drop off stolen converters. When his home was raided last week, investigators found nearly 400 converters. They said Martinez Sr. was buying them.
Court documents said investigators watched as people would show up at his home and unload the catalytic converters. They said one car would drop off anywhere from two to 10 converters. They believe Martinez Sr. would organize shipments and export them out of state for sale.
On Thursday, during several early-morning raids, investigators said they seized 477 catalytic converters.
Seven locations throughout the Houston area were hit, including a warehouse.
KHOU 11 reporter Anayeli Ruiz worked with law enforcement sources and got an exclusive inside look at the months-long investigation that stemmed from the death of Deputy Darren Almendarez, who was shot while trying to stop thieves from taking his catalytic converter. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation was personal.
Investigators said the hundreds of thefts were part of something bigger.
“It’s part of a big organized crime,” HCSO Sergeant Jeff Thomas said. “We do have some cutters, maybe some of the top people of the organization today.”
A home on Lila Street in 5th Ward was one of the seven locations where the crooks were storing the catalytic converters, officials said. Other locations included a home on Buffington Street, a house in Dayton, Texas, and a warehouse on Shoreham Street.
In the video only Ruiz has, investigators could be seen tossing catalytic converters from the window of one of the homes. Thomas said some of the catalytic converts were stolen from as far as Galveston, College Station, Conroe and Huntsville, Texas.
Investigators said not only the 477 catalytic converters were recovered but also 2,800 oxygen sensors. Investigators also confiscated 29 firearms, 1 Glock switch and 1 stolen Hellcat.
The stolen goods are worth more than $1 million on the street, officials said. Investigators believe the ring is responsible for more than $11.6 million in total damages.
“It’s very costly if you get your catalytic converter stolen,” Thomas said. “The main target is the Toyota Tundra. You are looking at $1,800 to $3,000 to get them replaced.”
Investigators said they hope the busts lead to change and stop some of the thefts going on in the area.