“Almost a year ago today, Harris County Deputy Darren Almendarez was shot and killed when he interrupted three men attempting to steal a catalytic converter from his personal vehicle outside a grocery store,” said Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) during a state Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing.
On March 31, 2022, Almendarez had just left a Houston-area grocery store with his wife Flor Zarzoza when he spotted suspects attempting to steal his truck’s catalytic converter. Almendarez, an off-duty Harris County sheriff’s deputy, was shot multiple times and later died at a local hospital.
The three suspects, Fredarius Clark, Joshua Stewart, and Frederick Tardy, have been charged with Capital Murder and are awaiting trial in the Harris County jail.
Testifying before the committee, a tearful Zarzora said, “My husband gave up his life for me, not just me, for the community.”
According to national vehicle sales organization CARFAX, there were approximately 153,000 catalytic converter thefts in the U.S. in 2022. Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) noted that a recent report indicated auto-related thefts were up by 11 percent in 2022.
Catalytic converters contain valuable metals platinum, palladium, and rhodium, with the latter selling for as high as $10,000 per ounce. As in the case of Almendarez, catalytic converter thieves may include organized and armed gangs.
“Catalytic converter theft is now an organized violent crime,” said Alvarado, who along with Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) has introduced Senate Bill (SB) 224 to crackdown on the thieves.
Named the Darren Almendarez Act, SB 224 incorporates elements of bills proposed by Bettencourt and Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) to make catalytic converter theft a state jail felony. If passed, the law would also create the assumption of theft for being possession of property that contains a catalytic converter removed from a previous vehicle, with exceptions for some businesses.
Other provisions will increase penalties by categorizing catalytic converter thefts as organized crime, and increase the level of offense if the thief was in possession of a firearm.
“This is about catalytic converter theft, and that is not a nonviolent crime, that is not a victimless crime,” said Middleton.
“People are being killed. This is an issue that is wreaking havoc in our communities, it’s wreaking havoc in public safety. People are losing their lives.”
“The theft losses from these criminal rings amounts to over $100 million a year in my estimation,” said Bettencourt.
The Darren Almendarez Act has already drawn 15 co-sponsors, and the Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved passage Tuesday in a 7 to 0 vote.
During her testimony, Zarzoza told senators she had to attend court about once each month for hearings with the suspects charged in Almendarez’ murder and had been in court the day before.
“Before my case was heard, there was another case [of] two young kids: catalytic converter theft,” said Zarzoza, adding that the two suspects had been caught with catalytic converters and guns, and although they allegedly had priors, they were released on personal recognizance bonds.
“Guess what? The judge? Slap on the wrists. That was a slap in my face,” continued Zarzoza. “Reset the case for three weeks, let them free.”
Testifying in support of the bills, Sgt. Fred Parsons of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that under current law he could not charge suspects for possession of catalytic converters unless they crossed state lines, which allowed federal authorities to intervene.
“We know who the cutters are, we know who the buyers are; we have no teeth, we have no way to get them unless we catch them or when they cross state lines,” said Parsons.
In response to a query from Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Parsons said that even when they do arrest catalytic converter theft suspects, they are usually released “generally the next day.”
Bail bond policies have continued to prompt controversy in Harris County, with reports that suspects charged with murder, capital murder, or other violent crimes are frequently found to have been out on bond for other charges.
Among those charged in the murder of Almendarez, Clark had been arrested in 2020 for unlawful possession of a weapon, but the charges were dismissed by Judge Erica Hughes for lack of probable cause.
Referring to other legislation proposed by Huffman to strengthen bail laws, Whitmire said, “Huffman is addressing the convenience to them of getting out the next day on bond.”
“That’s going to come to a screeching halt,” vowed Whitmire.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.