The largest investigation in the history of the Tulsa Police Department began with a routine traffic stop. On the afternoon of May 2, 2021, an off-duty officer reported a suspicious white pickup truck driving through the southeastern part of the city with “multiple catalytic converters in the bed.” Oklahoma, like the rest of the country, had been experiencing an astonishing rise in thefts of the devices—astonishing in part because many car owners don’t even know what their catalytic converter is, or why it’s worth stealing, until it’s gone.
Required by law for all gas-powered cars in the US, a catalytic converter is a metal cylinder found on a vehicle’s underside that cleans exhaust before it exits the tailpipe. Each one contains a “core” that includes less than a quarter-ounce of the precious metals platinum, palladium and rhodium, known as platinum group metals, or PGMs. Detach the cylinder, and that core can be extracted, crushed, smelted and refined, releasing its metals to be resold on the global market. When prices of PGMs began skyrocketing in 2020, the reward for sawing a catalytic converter off a car spiked along with them. Stolen hunks of metal once worth tens of dollars were suddenly commanding hundreds or more.
So for the Tulsa PD, a truck piled with catalytic converters warranted dispatching a pair of officers, who located the pickup and pulled it over in a residential neighborhood. At the wheel was one Tyler Curtis, from Wagoner, a town not far to the east, where the city starts to give way to self-storage units and pastures. He looked every bit the Southern frat boy he was, 24 years old with mussed brown hair and a tattoo of a lighthouse on his forearm. The officers approached the truck from each side and asked Curtis whether there was a gun in the vehicle. He said there was. This wasn’t unusual—they were in Oklahoma, after all. But it supplied enough pretext for the officers to handcuff Curtis and a passenger outside the truck, then search the vehicle. In the center console they found a loaded handgun, as well as a small bag containing a few grams of cocaine and heroin and a $9,900 bundle of cash.
A look at the core of a catalytic converter. Photographer: Daniel Shea
The word “multiple,” it turned out, had undersold the number of catalytic converters in the truck bed. There were 128 of them. “It was a large number,” one of the officers later testified, “and it was on a Sunday, when dealerships by law have to be closed, and most businesses that deal in those parts would be closed.” The officers called in a lieutenant who’d been working with the FBI to investigate the wave of thefts. The lieutenant read Curtis his rights and asked where he’d gotten the units. Curtis said he was the owner of a legitimate recycling business, Curtis Cores, and had bought them legally from car lots and muffler shops.
“To me, it made no sense,” the lieutenant later testified. He noted that the cats, as they’re called in the trade, had jagged ends, as though they’d been sawed—to him, a telltale sign they’d been stolen. Despite those suspicions, Curtis and his passenger were booked only for the drugs and the unpermitted gun. As it turned out, there was nothing illegal, strictly speaking, about driving around with a big pile of cats, jagged ends or no. All you needed to possess used ones was a scrap metal license, and while Curtis didn’t have it, he said his father had applied for the permit. Months later, Curtis would take a prosecutor’s deal on the drug possession and gun charges for deferred prison time and return to running Curtis Cores.
An exterior view of a catalytic converter. Photographer: Daniel Shea
The case might have ended there. But in the months before the traffic stop, as the police tried to get a handle on the theft problem, they’d started rounding up “cutters”: street-level thieves who do the dirty work of separating catalytic converters from vehicles. Security footage of driveways and parking lots often shows cutters lifting cars using hydraulic jacks or, with taller pickups and SUVs, simply crawling underneath them. They then deploy handheld, battery-powered tools known as “sawzalls,” named after a popular brand, to cut the pipes on both ends of the cat. A skilled cutter can pull off the whole operation in a couple of minutes, emerging with two smaller pipes attached to a bulging middle, like a python that’s swallowed a mammal too large to digest.
By the time of Curtis’ arrest, some of the cutters the Tulsa PD had picked up said they’d been selling to “intermediate buyers,” as they were later described in a federal search warrant application. Among them was a man named Steven Low Sr., who worked at an insurance agency but allegedly dealt in cats on the side. “I just ran an ad on Facebook, and people started bringing them to me,” Low said when I called him recently. “I guess there’s too many laws that I didn’t know about.” Low’s case was later dismissed, but two days before Curtis’ traffic stop, a GPS device police placed on Low’s SUV showed him arriving at a warehouse on Highway 51, east of Tulsa in Broken Arrow. The address, they would later discover, belonged to Curtis Cores.
With the Low connection in hand, the police took a closer look at Curtis. From jail, he’d been captured on a recorded phone line asking his parents to drive out to the warehouse and remove any incriminating evidence. (Curtis’ parents were never charged with a crime.) After he was released on bail, the authorities obtained a warrant to search his confiscated phone and iPad. They found messages that seemed to confirm he was more than a kid buying catalytic converters on the street. He appeared to be a midlevel player in a coast-to-coast network, a “tiered structure” of traffickers that spanned the country. That network, police would discover, was funneling a massive stream of cats to a company in Freehold, New Jersey, DG Auto Parts, with cores containing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of metals, to be extracted and shipped overseas for refining.
Yet the case still might have fizzled if not for the presence, in Tulsa’s Riverside Street Crimes Unit, of an officer with the improbable name Kansas Core. At age 28, with a military bearing and a perpetual high-and-tight haircut, he looked the part. “He’s not this undercover, crazy-looking bearded guy,” says the street crimes unit supervisor, Lieutenant Brad Staggs. “He’s like, ‘You’re a cop.’ ” Core had been on the force for fewer than three years and was green enough that his move to street crimes “kind of ruffled feathers,” Staggs says. But a commander had elevated him there after seeing a certain industriousness and precision in him. (The Tulsa PD declined to make Core available for comment, citing his involvement in the ongoing investigation.)
The cat racket was hardly a choice assignment. “There’s this ‘We don’t care about catalytic converters, because it’s a property crime’ ” camp at the department, Staggs says. “It’s not a sexy crime. It’s not the robberies and the homicides.” When the previous commander gave Core the case, it wasn’t exactly hazing, but it wasn’t far off. “I’m pretty sure that lieutenant basically was like, ‘Core, you’re the up-and-coming guy,’ ” Staggs says. “ ‘Your last name is Core, and all the criminals call these cores. Here you go.’ ”
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By the time Staggs took over the unit in September 2021, Core had become an evangelist of what Staggs now calls Camp 2—“the camp of people that are like, ‘no, this is really affecting people.’ Church vans, U-Haul businesses, insurance companies that are having to replace these things, elderly people. You know, it crosses all demographics.” Core didn’t just want to bust cutters around Tulsa. He wanted to trace the problem and “cut off the head of the snake.”
“I sat down with Core on probably Day 2 in the unit, and I asked him, ‘Tell me everything you know and where you think we can go,’ ” Staggs says. “Like, ‘What do you think we can run this up to?’ ” Core laid out what the team had learned about Curtis, DG Auto and the ships full of material headed across the ocean. “If we get the right help and we get the right resources,” Core told Staggs, “I don’t see why we can’t go all the way.”
That December, Core obtained a warrant to mount a 24-hour surveillance camera outside Curtis Cores, installed surreptitiously on a utility pole along Highway 51. Over the next 11 months, the investigation would draw in hundreds of law enforcement agents across dozens of local, state and federal departments. They would uncover the story of a dark supply chain that saw $545 million in cash crisscross the country in exchange for tons of catalytic converters—a network deeply intertwined with a legal recycling business the world desperately needs. By the time they moved to take it down, one officer would be dead, and nearly everyone involved would be left marveling at how a humdrum scrap business had spawned a criminal epidemic.
typically, catalytic converter theft is the stuff of local headlines. Start looking, and you’ll find them daily, in every corner of the country: “Providence Man Fights Off Catalytic Converter Thieves” or “Catalytic Converter Thieves Hit Jacksonville Restaurant Twice in 3 Weeks.” There’s a strain of vigilante justice in tales such as “Man Stabbed to Death After Trying to Steal Catalytic Converter in South El Monte.” Others offer thinly veiled schadenfreude, like “Man Crushed to Death Stealing Catalytic Converter in Oakland.” They’re stolen by the dozen from car dealerships, parking garages and school bus depots. One night in January, Chicago police had five vehicles hit in a single lot.
Most of the time, that’s where the story ends. “I would say every police department in our country was having the same problem we were,” Staggs says. Arresting cutters, much like grabbing low-level drug dealers off the corner, doesn’t ultimately dent the trade. “You damaged a car—it’s a minor crime. They just get out and keep doing it.”
Looking through the unblinking eye of the pole camera on Highway 51, though, it was easy enough to establish that Curtis was operating at a different scale. Curtis Cores’ headquarters was a tennis-court-size warehouse, clad in blue corrugated metal and situated between Meats n’ More and JT Wholesale Auto. Pickups, U-Hauls and SUVs with trailers would roll up daily, sometimes hourly, piled high with catalytic converters. Curtis and his employees would unload, inspect and price them, settling with the sellers in cash. Then they’d pack them in cardboard boxes, wrap them in plastic and load them onto pallets for shipment to the East Coast.
It looked like a major operation, but for Kansas Core to prove it was criminal, he’d have to show that at least some of the devices were stolen. Unlike the trade in illicit drugs, dealing in catalytic converters is not only perfectly legal but also an elegant recycling system. When a car is totaled or reaches the end of its life span, any self-respecting scrapyard will cut off its cat and hawk it to a dealer exactly like Curtis, who will sell it up the chain for the metals to be extracted.
Problem is, once a catalytic converter has been removed, it’s impossible to identify which vehicle it came from, beyond the make and model. And while the authorities will often argue that a “rough cut” cat is the product of a thief working quickly, the angle of a saw mark isn’t much to hang a prosecution on. Junkyards often use the same sawzalls that thieves do.
Core wouldn’t only have to show that Curtis was trafficking in stolen cats, either. Any criminal case would need to establish that he knew they were stolen. On that front, at least, there were early hints. The phone Curtis was carrying during his traffic stop had messages he and Low exchanged after seeing news about the arrest of some local cutters:
Weeks after getting the pole camera in place, Core got a warrant for Curtis’ Facebook account. Looking back through his history, Core’s team—along with agents who’d joined up with the case from the Homeland Security Investigations division in Tulsa—traced the evolution of a catalytic converter empire. (The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.)
Curtis had been an all-American kid from the small city of Duncan, once known as “the buckle on the oil belt.” He was a high school golf team standout who landed at Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University and pledged Tau Kappa Epsilon. Three years before his traffic stop, he picked up a part-time job at Green Country Auto Core, a catalytic converter recycler located in the nearby town of Kansas. “He was just a college kid looking for a job,” says Dave Edwards, Green Country’s owner. “He didn’t know much at all” about catalytic converters. “Nobody does, really. It hasn’t always been viewed as a shady business like it is right now. It wasn’t sought after until the prices went up. That’s when the trouble began.”
Edwards says he showed Curtis the ins and outs of negotiating with junk car haulers, repair shops and scrapyards. “He was smart,” Edwards says. “He was good at his job, and the kid was a hustler.” Enough of a hustler that by August 2020 he’d managed to find Edwards a larger buyer in New Jersey called DG Auto.
The sign outside DG Auto’s New Jersey junkyard. Photographer: Dennis N. Symons Jr/Midjersey News
DG was operated by a scrap metal entrepreneur named Navin Khanna, though most people used his nickname, Lovin. The company solicited catalytic converter loads from across the country, removed the cores in a process called “decanning,” which resembles an aluminum can getting crushed, and sold the insides to a nearby refiner. Khanna paid quickly and at the highest market prices, often in cash, and he seemed to have a bottomless appetite. “I didn’t deal with the guy much. Tyler dealt with him,” Edwards says now. “I did talk to the guy—just kind of rubbed me the wrong way.” Bad vibes or not, court documents say that by the end of 2020, Green Country had sold DG Auto $2 million worth of catalytic converters.
One day that winter, Curtis showed up to work and told Edwards he was going out on his own and taking Khanna’s business with him. “I wished him luck,” Edwards says. “I felt I wasted a lot of time on him, showing him the business. Would’ve been nice to have a little warning, couple of weeks at least. In hindsight, it’s probably the best thing that happened to me.”
By early 2021, a few months before the traffic stop, Curtis had quit college, and Curtis Cores was up and running on Highway 51. He hired a motley crew of young men, including one of his former frat brothers. From the outside, nothing about the operation seemed remotely illicit, says Jeremy Jones, the owner of JT Auto next door, who rented the warehouse to Curtis. The company had liability insurance, Jones says, and paid the rent “like clockwork,” by check. Staff even wore matching baseball caps with the Curtis Cores logo. Jones remembers Curtis temporarily shutting down the business around the time he was pulled over, saying he needed to get a scrap metal license. When he did, he hung it in the warehouse in case state inspectors showed up.
By the end of the year, when the pole camera went up, Curtis Cores was handling 5,000 to 6,000 catalytic converters a week, according to a federal search warrant application. Sellers were bringing them to Curtis from as far away as Houston, an eight-hour drive. Curtis Cores would turn around and ship them to DG Auto or to an associate in New York named Adam Sharkey.
Edwards says that after Curtis went out on his own, he lost contact with him and Khanna. “Washed our hands of both of them,” he says. But he heard from local contacts about the cash Curtis was paying. “They were offering more than anybody,” Edwards says. “If something seems too good to be true, it normally is.”
“You gotta go all over New Jersey picking up cars and lifting hoods that ain’t been moved in a while. They got freaking possums under the engine. It’s not a freaking high life”
dG Auto had always been, above all, a family business. Lovin Khanna started it in his mid-30s alongside his younger brother, Tinu, who goes by Gagan. The Khanna family immigrated to the New Jersey area from India in 2000, when the brothers were teenagers. Their father worked in the scrap metal business for years, and by the mid-2010s, Lovin was running his own shop, Ocean Metal Recycling, processing everything from air conditioners to lead batteries. “We are a second-generation company with over 20 years of experience,” his business card said. “We believe honesty is a way of business.” In 2019 the brothers opened DG Auto Wreckers, which specialized in used car parts, including catalytic converters.
“Logan was pretty much a very humble guy,” says Robert Hailey, a scrap car buyer who started selling to the Khannas at the time. “I call him Logan because I ain’t calling no grown man Lovin.” The business was unglamorous, the sellers arriving with small loads they’d scavenged from around the region. “You gotta go all over New Jersey picking up cars and lifting up hoods that ain’t been moved in a while,” Hailey says. “They got freaking possums under the engine. It’s not a freaking high life.”
Covid-19, however, launched the Khannas’ fortunes into the stratosphere. Upwards of 60% of all PGMs used in catalytic converters are extracted in South Africa, and pandemic-shuttered mines and transportation issues decimated the global supply. “Then we had mismatches in timing,” says Bart Melek, the global head of commodity strategy at TD Securities. “Some parts of the world where the mines were open had Covid problems later than the consuming parts of the world.” Because catalytic converters are mandated by emissions law in the US and other countries, Melek says, and because PGMs are irreplaceable to their function, their value soared. (PGMs provide the chemical “catalysts” that transform nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide into harmless gases and carbon dioxide.) In December 2019 the price of rhodium stood at $6,000 an ounce. By March 2021 it would top $29,000. Platinum and palladium underwent similar spikes.
The Khannas went all in, incorporating DG Auto in February 2020 and moving into an office park in Freehold. They purchased four decanning machines, which run from $10,000 to $25,000 apiece. Resembling a kind of industrial guillotine, the machines slice open the catalytic converters and crush the honeycomblike ceramic cores into dust, which falls into plastic-lined boxes. From there the materials could be trucked to a PGM refiner 30 miles away, in Burlington.
In the tiered structure later outlined by the authorities, DG sat one level up in the pyramid from Curtis Cores. The company partnered with intermediate buyers around the US, including Curtis. “People would come with tractor trailers and drop them off,” says the manager of a neighboring business, who declined to give his name. “Dumpsters full of cats. They were working 24 hours.”
For buyers such as Curtis and DG, the business required not only amassing catalytic converters, but also knowing the value of each type. The amount of PGMs varies by make and model, and even—because of state-by-state emissions laws—where the car was purchased. A Honda Accord’s catalytic converter is worth more than a Chevy Impala’s, while one in an Accord from California is worth more than its counterpart from Michigan. Some of the most prized specimens are found on Toyota Priuses manufactured between 2004 and 2009. That model is so famous for its high concentration of palladium that dealers know its parts code by heart: GD3 EA6. At peak metal prices, a single used GD3 EA6 could sell for more than $1,800.
At DG Auto, the broad-bellied Lovin was the pricing expert, according to dealers who sold to the company. The leaner Gagan handled the back slapping, greeting sellers as they came in. While the catalytic converters were being priced, he’d offer a shot of whiskey from a bottle in the office or invite VIP dealers out for a dinner on DG.
Over the years, much of the trade migrated onto Facebook, where companies such as DG and Curtis Cores advertise and sellers share photos of the cats they’ve picked up. Lovin was soon an inescapable presence on the major groups, a testosterone-heavy community where the proof of your rise-and-grind mentality is a selfie in front of a U-Haul stacked with grungy cats.
DG showing off cats on a Facebook page in 2020. Source: DG Catalytic Converter/Facebook
By 2021, DG had a new website and a clunky slogan: “Trusted Connection of PGM Journey.” The company launched an app for iOS and Android, offering sellers up-to-the-day pricing on 12,000 catalytic converter codes. Users could submit photos to be graded and priced, and lock in the terms in case commodity prices dropped. “They were beating out everybody else in the market, so you’re pretty crazy to not sell to them,” says one dealer in the Northeast, who didn’t want his name used because of the stigma associated with the illegal side of the business. “When it’s 10% over the next closest competitor, 10% is a big number when you get hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. So everybody started to sell to DG.”
As DG’s appetite grew, authorities allege, its scruples about provenance evaporated. The Khannas began advancing millions in cash to their biggest buyers, including Curtis Cores, which could then pay the highest prices on the street. And the Khanna brothers seemed to have money to burn. Gagan bought a $200,000 Lamborghini, then a $240,000 Mercedes-Benz, then a $440,000 Ferrari. Not to be outdone, Lovin picked out a $550,000 McLaren and affixed a vanity license plate: “GD3 EA6.”
Lovin bought a 5,500-square-foot McMansion on seven acres, complete with a six-car garage, and the whole family moved in, including the brothers’ parents. One afternoon in August 2021, a group of DG employees and partners gathered to celebrate their success. Hailey, the scrap car buyer, posted a group photo from the Khannas’ back porch to Facebook. “All In The Family DG Catalytic Family Millionaire Club,” he captioned it. “These Guys Lovin Khanna, Gagan Khanna … We Started Out As Workers And Quickly Became Family.”
In the spring of 2022, as the Tulsa investigation was widening, the DG family took out a booth at an annual Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries convention in Las Vegas. A photo from the event shows Lovin and five employees smiling in front of a DG banner, wearing matching T-shirts and fleeces. The same day, the conference offered a session called “Catalytic Converter Theft—Legislation & Enforcement and the Effect on Recycling.” One of the speakers was a special agent from the FBI.
back in Tulsa, Core and the other investigators were methodically building the case against Curtis. The agents kept adding warrants, first to intercept calls on Curtis’ cellphone and then to monitor the phone locations and Facebook accounts of his employees. Core, too, was a fan of the pile-of-cats selfies, noting dryly in one affidavit that “criminal offenders usually maintain these photographs in their possession.” Another pole camera went up, this time at the home of Curtis and his wife, Reiss. The couple lived on a 147-acre piece of Reiss’ family’s land in Wagoner. They’d lived with her parents on the property until Curtis Cores got off the ground, then built their own house on a smaller patch carved out of the family plot.
A pickup truck full of catalytic converters, along with a rapid floor jack for lifting cars, outside of Curtis Cores in Oklahoma in November. Source: ICE
Even the police had to admit that Curtis’ drive was impressive. “He’s running a multimillion-dollar operation on his own, with six employees or seven employees that are legitimately working for him,” says Staggs. “Then there’s the coordination that he’s doing outside of the state, the shipping. And he’s doing this all as a 26-year-old dropout of NSU.”
Catalytic converters were streaming into Curtis Cores from Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, even California. A regular supply arrived from Houston, where the sellers seemed to specialize in the “torpedoes” taken from Toyota Tacoma and Tundra trucks. One of Curtis’ employees noted in intercepted Facebook messages that torpedoes “are the most stolen catalytic converter in the region.”
With PGM prices hitting peaks—palladium nearly tripled in the first three months of 2022—the network was awash in cash. “I mean, this is Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city of 450,000 people, but this is not a mom and pop operation,” says Clinton Johnson, the US attorney for the state’s Northern District. It’s “semi loads full of catalytic converters going from Tulsa to New Jersey,” he says.
on the last evening of March 2022, in Houston, a Harris County sheriff’s deputy named Darren Almendarez was off duty, making a grocery run with his wife. The couple needed to stock up for a celebration of his sister’s birthday. They parked their Toyota Tundra at a Northside location of Joe V’s Smart Shop, a Houston-area chain, and went inside. When they left the store, Almendarez noticed a black Nissan Altima backed up to the Tundra. Two men had crawled underneath as a driver waited in the Altima.
Almendarez had been with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for 23 years, including a stint on the antigang task force, but a few years earlier he’d joined the auto theft unit. He was known for working long hours, tracking cases to chop shops and junkyards. Now he’d walked out of Joe V’s to find thieves ripping the cat off his own truck.
“Wait right here, babe,” he told his wife.
As he approached, the men jumped back into the Altima.
“Run,” Almendarez called back to his wife, she later recalled. “Call 911.”
The driver raised a handgun, and Almendarez pulled his own. In a flurry of bullets, Almendarez was struck multiple times. So were two of the men, 23-year-old Joshua Stewart and 19-year-old Fredarius Clark, before the Altima sped off.
Almendarez’s wife ran to where he’d collapsed, as did a Joe V’s employee who pulled off her apron to try to stanch the bleeding. It wasn’t enough. Almendarez was transported to Houston Northwest Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Stewart and Clark showed up in the same emergency room shortly afterward, having driven themselves there after the shootout. They were treated and arrested. The third suspect, 17-year-old Fredrick Tardy, was picked up a day later. All three were charged with capital murder and are awaiting trial.
Back in Oklahoma, Staggs’ team heard that Houston police were trying to track where catalytic converters stolen by the three suspects were ending up, and that the supply chain might run through Tulsa. “They were highly motivated, obviously, to go out and take these people down,” Staggs says. “So we took this detour in our investigation to provide them with anything we could.”
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A week after the grocery store killing, the pole camera outside Curtis Cores caught a black GMC truck with Texas plates pulling up with a U-Haul trailer full of cats. The truck was traced to a Houston resident named Isaac Castillo. The Tulsa authorities alerted Houston PD, and when Castillo returned to Texas, the police pulled him over. In the truck they found a box with $206,000 in cash. Castillo denied he’d done anything illegal and said the money was from selling scrap metal in Oklahoma. As it turned out, he’d been pulled over months before, in February, with a truck bed full of torpedoes, an unlicensed gun and $25,000 in cash. He’d been charged and released; the case was eventually dismissed when he agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program.
A later federal search warrant application alleged that Castillo wasn’t just another intermediate buyer. He was a member, the affidavit says, of what the Houston Police Department called the Ley Road gang, named for a street in Northeast Houston. Houston police and Homeland Security investigators allege that members of Ley Road and another gang had been buying cats from the same men accused of killing Almendarez. Cats had become valuable enough, it seemed, that they were attracting a more serious brand of criminal: “a real gang that was dealing in drugs and guns,” according to Staggs.
That July, Houston police and Homeland Security went after the Ley Road gang, raiding five homes and a storage facility, seizing $400,000, 29 guns and 400 catalytic converters and making five arrests. At first, Castillo wasn’t among the people detained. The authorities got a warrant to ping his cellphone location and found him back at Curtis Cores in Tulsa, making a delivery. The pole camera caught Castillo and Curtis working on something inside his vehicle. When police pulled Castillo over minutes later, according to search warrant affidavits, they found $80,000 hidden in the truck’s interior panels. (He now faces charges of engaging in organized criminal activity in Houston. His lawyer didn’t reply to requests for comment.)
Castillo told investigators Curtis kept $500,000 in his desk drawer and “was aware the catalytic converters he received were stolen,” according to the affidavits. “Castillo advised that Curtis also told him to not talk about it.”
as business kept booming for Curtis and the Khanna brothers, moving money was proving to be a problem. On May 2, 2022, a year to the day after Curtis’ traffic stop, Kansas Core and the other Oklahoma-based authorities tracked the phone of one of his employees to Elevation Auto Core in Denver. When they learned the employee was flying back to Tulsa, they had him stopped at the airport. A cash-sniffing dog picked out his bag, which contained $500,000. The employee quickly signed it over to the police.
To the Tulsa PD, the brazenness was astonishing. “One of the most eye-opening things in the whole investigation was guys bringing $500,000 and flying it on an airplane in a backpack,” Staggs says. “I didn’t know that happened in the United States.” The group, he says, was running “like a cartel.”
Six days later, an officer from the Wyandotte Nation Tribal Police Department in northeastern Oklahoma pulled over a rented Penske truck. A dog was deployed to “air-sniff” the vehicle, and once again the K-9 detected something. The police searched the truck and discovered three pallets of catalytic converters and $1.3 million in cash.
The driver was a New York resident named Robert Sharkey, who, according to the search warrant affidavit, “provided various mixed narratives to the purpose of his trip, or the source of the catalytic converters and money.” At one point he said he was going to visit his cousin in Broken Arrow, which just happened to be the home of Curtis Cores.
Sharkey’s name was already familiar to the Tulsa PD: His son, Adam, was one of Curtis’ connections at DG Auto. According to the authorities, the $1.3 million in cash originated at DG, and $290,000 of it was intended for Curtis. Sharkey was allegedly driving on to Amarillo, Texas, to deliver the rest to another intermediate buyer named Martynas Macerauskas. (Two months later, Macerauskas’ wife, Kristina, was pulled over in Texas with $1.2 million in her trunk. She promptly told the authorities she’d driven it all the way from DG in New Jersey. The Macerauskases are facing federal charges of conspiracy to receive stolen goods and money laundering. Their lawyer declined to comment.)
The night of Sharkey’s traffic stop, the pole camera on Highway 51 captured Curtis’ employees pacing outside, awaiting his arrival. At close to 3 a.m., they finally called Curtis to tell him Sharkey had been pulled over and had lost the money. Curtis called Adam Sharkey to break the bad news. “We’re f—ed,” he said. As for the money, Curtis said he hoped Lovin Khanna would understand.
A junkyard warehouse full of catalytic converters owned by DG Auto in New Jersey. Source: FBI
Apparently, Khanna did: Two days later, Curtis flew to Newark, New Jersey, and drove to DG’s office in Freehold, tailed by investigators. He walked out with $1 million in bags. After checking the car’s headlights and taillights carefully, he drove it back to Oklahoma.
During this time, according to the search warrant applications, Curtis and his wife were bringing bags of cash to and from their house regularly, hiding them around the property’s hundreds of acres. One day, the pole camera captured Reiss’ mother climbing out of her car, putting on a white Tyvek suit of the type “commonly used for painting” or the “handling of chemicals,” according to the warrant applications, and walking into a field that was off-camera. She returned with a large white bag, which investigators concluded was full of money, and drove off.
But Curtis seemed to grow more careful after getting back from Freehold, according to the affidavits. The Houston police were arresting alleged members of the Ley Road gang, and wiretaps caught him saying he thought the authorities would connect the arrests back to Curtis Cores. He altered his buying patterns, started refusing to drive with large amounts of cash and would check with his wife that their money was safe.
He still wasn’t careful enough. Tulsa investigators sent in a cooperating witness with 20 catalytic converters, telling Curtis he’d bought them from “a sketchy motherf—er” who’d “just got them from some cars” and stashed them in a field after running from police. Curtis bought them.
in New Jersey, there were hints that the Khanna brothers’ business was growing equally perilous. DG Auto now claimed its own subsidiary locations in Mississippi, Virginia and Wisconsin. But two DG employees had been arrested with a load of catalytic converters in Ohio, and in August 2022 federal authorities raided a DG buyer in Connecticut. When federal investigators obtained a wiretap for a DG employee, they captured Lovin telling him it was too risky to travel with cash. They’re “busting everybody,” he said.
There were other threats, too. That spring, the price of PGMs, and particularly palladium, had started dropping. Another buyer was threatening to sue DG for stealing data from its own mobile pricing app. On Facebook there were regular accusations that the brothers were offering cash for loads of cats, then refusing to pay up. “People were getting really angry,” says the dealer from the Northeast. He says he stopped working with DG when he came to believe they were shorting him. “People were getting ripped off for big, big money. And it seemed to get progressively worse.”
The Northeastern dealer says agents from the FBI and Homeland Security showed up at his shop, asking questions about DG. “I gave them everything I had,” he says. “I wanted to see them go down, just like everybody else did.”
For all that, the Khannas were still flying high, like pilots who didn’t realize their engine had stalled out. DG Auto had become a juggernaut, a reliable source of income for everyone around the brothers. “We won’t shut down and leave you hanging, unlike our competition,” they wrote on Facebook. They’d bought a local junkyard, creating more room to receive shipments. “I don’t know how the hell you get that big,” says Hailey, the junk car buyer who’d worked with them from the beginning. He drifted out of the DG family, he says, as the company grew. “You get to the point of that five or six, seven converters off of scrap cars don’t mean nothing when you’re buying two, three hundred. You know what I mean? It’s a different ballgame.”
In September 2022, DG announced it had secured a funding round with the help of a private investment firm called the Barrett Edge. They planned to use it for “acquiring a profitable company to initiate our next phase of growth,” Lovin said in the press release. The Barrett Edge’s founder, Barrett Ehrlich, added: “Lovin and his team at DG Auto are consummate professionals and entrepreneurs that have thrived in difficult market conditions, growing their business to revenue in excess of $300 million annually.”
But for months, federal indictments later alleged, investigators had been sending confidential informants into DG, selling catalytic converters while always emphasizing their sketchy origins. On Sept. 1, a seller claimed to have a cousin in a Toyota warehouse who could steal Prius cats and “bricks”—cores that hadn’t been put inside cats. The Khannas ate it up. When the shipment arrived, Lovin drove them down to the refinery in his brand-new Rolls-Royce.
“I was getting a cup of coffee. I look out the window and something caught my eye—it was like a SWAT team. There’s a tank”
cops love a good code name, and by the fall of 2022 the investigation in Tulsa had one: Operation Heavy Metal. In the Riverside precinct, officers began to joke that Kansas Core had never taken a day off, he was so obsessed. Someone posted a printout featuring a meme in which a wild-looking Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia stands before a wall crowded with papers and lines, cigarette in hand. “Larceny from a vehicle?” they’d typed in. “You mean the greatest criminal conspiracy ever devised.”
Operation Heavy Metal now involved not just Homeland Security Investigations, but the IRS, the FBI and dozens of local police departments. Between manpower and geographic reach, some of Staggs’ veteran colleagues reckoned Camp 2 had launched the Tulsa PD’s largest investigation. By chance, law enforcement agents in California had been working a completely independent case involving buyers, which had also led them to DG. The investigations merged into one, soon becoming so unwieldy that agents had to gather in Philadelphia for three days to coordinate the endgame.
On the morning of Nov. 2, Jeremy Jones was in his office at JT Auto, next to Curtis Cores on Highway 51. “I was getting a cup of coffee,” he says. “I look out the window and something caught my eye—it was like a SWAT team. There’s a tank. There’s guys with assault rifles and military gear.” His first instinct was that Curtis had been secretly dealing drugs or guns. When he wandered out to talk to the cops and found out it was in fact the catalytic converter business they were taking down, “it did seem like a little overkill.”
Curtis pulled out from the shop just before the raid began, then turned around and came back. Officers cuffed him without incident. In the end, six of his employees and partners were arrested, as was his wife. Police flew a helicopter over the family home and scoured the property on ATVs, hoping to locate whatever money the family might have buried. “He probably has money hidden somewhere that we’ll never find,” Staggs says.
A Tulsa police officer sifting through a pile of seized cats. Photographer: Tom Gilbert/AP
Simultaneously, federal and local law enforcement were raiding eight other sites around the country, from Nevada to Minnesota to Virginia, the home of DG Auto South. The Sharkeys, Adam and Robert, were picked up in West Islip, New York, two of 21 total arrests on a mixture of interstate stolen property and money-laundering charges.
In New Jersey, the authorities descended on DG’s Freehold office and the junkyard, along with the Khannas’ house, which still had Halloween decorations out front. The forfeiture lists from Oklahoma and New Jersey illustrated the relative fortunes of Curtis and the Khannas. In Oklahoma, the authorities confiscated a Yamaha ski boat, a Volvo and a pair of Chevy Silverados. At the Khannas’, they impounded the Rolls-Royce, the Ferrari and the McLaren, along with a collection of Rolex and Patek Philippe watches and $1 million in cash.
we cut the head off of that snake,” Staggs told me when I sat across from him at the Riverside division one day in April. It was true enough, if you viewed the snake’s head as lying in Freehold, New Jersey. But the US supply chain didn’t, of course, end there. There was still the matter of DG Auto’s refiner, which investigators had identified early on as the source of the money—all $545 million they ultimately counted—that had passed through DG Auto’s operation: Dowa Metals & Mining America, in Burlington, New Jersey.
One afternoon this past March, as a late winter snow blew in, I paid the Burlington facility a visit, pulling into the same office park where Lovin had gone in his Rolls full of Prius cats. The unassuming one-story brick building had fenced delivery entrances on either end. When I rang the bell, a woman in a blazer poked her head out to help me. I said I’d come to speak to someone about Dowa’s business, and she ushered me through to a break room.
A few minutes later, I was greeted by Ken Mukai, an assistant purchasing manager. He was friendly but guarded, willing to give me some background on Dowa but not much more. “We started as a mining company in Japan 100-something years ago,” he said. But these days Dowa focuses on recycling metals rather than extracting them. “Here in the US, we are collecting,” Mukai said. “But eventually it all goes to Japan.”
The American division opened in 2015, five years before the boom. And in DG it found the perfect partner. That much I discovered not from Mukai but from two dozen federal search warrant and seizure affidavits filed in federal court in Oklahoma—documents that were mysteriously available on the public docket, if you knew the right search terms. (Typically, search and seizure applications are provided to defense attorneys in discovery but rarely made public by the court before trial.) According to federal wiretaps, Lovin told associates that DG’s business had been flailing until he partnered with Dowa. And a subpoena for the Khannas’ bank records revealed that in just over a year from March 2021 to April 2022, Dowa had transferred $224 million into a single DG account. Another account showed $175 million worth of Dowa infusions. This was the money filtering down to Curtis Cores—and eventually to cutters on the street.
In 2020, as metal prices began to climb, Dowa announced that it had begun doing its own decanning, allowing the company to accept both extracted catalytic converter dust, such as what came from DG, and intact units. “They would buy converters off of people up in New Jersey, like individuals, scrappers and all,” says Michael Tuttle, a former employee of DG South in Virginia who regularly made the six-hour drive. “Every time I went up there, there’d be people pulling up with, like, little cargo vans. They’d have maybe 100 converters.” (Tuttle was laid off by the company in 2021 and is not implicated in the legal case.)
A Homeland Security Investigations officer surveying a warehouse of cats in November. Source: ICE
Dowa would evaluate the PGM content of all the dust it received or extracted using a chemical assay, offer the supplier a price and send the material by boat to Japan. From there, it went to Nippon PGM Co., a venture founded in 1991 by Dowa and two other Japanese companies. Nippon says it operates the world’s largest PGM recycling plant, smelting as much as 1,000 tons of material a month with “high recovery rates and no environmental risk,” according to a promotional video. The metals are extracted by melting the material in a series of furnaces, separating out the valuable bits and refining the resulting alloys into platinum, rhodium and palladium, pure enough that they can be sold back to the world market. Close to one-quarter of the world’s PGM supply, in fact, is recycled from old catalytic converters. So if you wake up to find yours stolen, then pay several thousand dollars to replace it, there’s a not-insignificant chance your new one will include metals stolen from someone else’s.
It’s unclear what vetting, if any, Dowa conducted on the tons of dust and catalytic converters from DG Auto and others. When I brought up the issue of stolen devices with Mukai, he offered, “I’ve seen the YouTube videos where they crawl under the car and cut them off in under two minutes.” He was hesitant to elaborate. He’d only been at Dowa six months, he said, and he wanted to make sure the article I was working on wouldn’t tarnish the company. When I followed up later, he first said he was too busy to talk, then referred me to a Dowa press email. The company didn’t respond to detailed requests for comment.
Despite bank records and surveillance showing Dowa as the source of the network’s cash, the company’s name was redacted in the indictments against the Khannas and Curtis. Prosecutors referred to the company only as an unindicted co-conspirator. “There are pending investigations on other players involved in this case,” Johnson, the US attorney in Oklahoma, said when I asked him about the lack of charges against Dowa. “Sometimes the timing of an indictment is based on the local need. We needed to stop catalytic converters getting cut off people’s cars.” Staggs says charges are the feds’ call, but he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see Dowa employees indicted.
Dowa, it seemed, wasn’t just waiting around to see if the hammer came down. In March the company announced it had hired a chief compliance officer named Janice Ayala to “bring a fresh perspective to the many compliance challenges of the metal refining and recycling industry,” as Ayala put it in a press release. It seemed to be auspicious timing: Ayala had spent the previous 27 years at Homeland Security, most recently as director of the joint task force for investigations at the very agency that had been looking into DG Auto and Dowa.
as for the less connected defendants, Curtis spent five months in detention before finally making bail in April. I called him during a trip to Tulsa shortly afterward, and he said he was eager to talk but needed to consult his lawyer. When he messaged back, he said we’d have to talk after the case was resolved. (The lawyer for Curtis’ wife didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did lawyers for Adam Sharkey or other Curtis Cores employees. Curtis’ mother-in-law, who wasn’t charged in the case, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Robert Sharkey’s attorney declined to comment.)
Lovin Khanna was indicted in Oklahoma and California, but the brothers were transferred to California first. There, prosecutors convinced a federal judge that their ties to India, combined with the alleged discovery of $26 million in unaccounted-for cash, made them a flight risk. They have pleaded not guilty and remain in jail, awaiting trial, with Lovin facing up to 65 years in prison and Gagan up to 25 years. “Right now we are not in a position to talk,” their father, Nirmal, said in an email. “We are still living in deep fear.” Lovin’s California attorney, Alan Eisner, stressed that his client “is legally presumed innocent of the charges” and “enjoys the strong support of his family and community members.” Gagan’s attorney declined to comment. A third brother, Michael, took over the scrapyard. A lawyer for the family wrote to the court that he’d pledged not to buy or sell any catalytic converters.
A suspect under arrest following the Oklahoma raid. Source: ICE
Some of the accused will almost certainly plead guilty—90% of all federal defendants do. But if any of them decide to take it to trial, the government will still have the challenge of proving to juries that even low-level employees were knowingly engaged in building a criminal enterprise, not just part of a recycling industry that lacks protocols. To DG’s defenders, the company is just a convenient target. “They were normal f—ing people with a normal business,” one of its former partners told me, requesting anonymity because “I’m not trying to be a part of no drama. They’re making an example out of somebody,” he said. “That’s all they’re doing.”
Others in the business believe DG got what it had coming, and they lament the reputational damage from the industry’s less scrupulous actors. “When I tell someone what industry I’m in, I don’t necessarily specify catalytic converters,” says Iga Vendetti, a managing partner at Global Refining Group, a recycling company based in Virginia and Nevada that specializes in cats. “The moment I do, they think to themselves, ‘Oh, you guys get the stolen stuff.’ ”
Global Refining Group and other large recyclers are trying to work with state governments on laws that can filter out illegal operations without crushing the legal industry. “The quicker we can get these bad companies—or these, I guess, fencing operations—out of our business, the quicker our business can go back to normal,” Vendetti says. When PGM prices started attracting large-scale thefts of catalytic converters, “we went to this position where all of a sudden we not only have to worry about just doing regular business, but on top of that, we have to find a way to ensure that this stolen material doesn’t trickle down the supply chain.”
States are desperate to stop the theft epidemic, which has continued even with the price of PGMs back down to earth. Some are passing laws to criminalize possessing catalytic converters without paperwork showing their origin and a license. Others offer programs for car owners to etch their devices with traceable serial numbers or weld them more securely to cars. The long-term solution, however, may already be hiding in car-buying trends: Electric vehicles, not having any exhaust, require none at all.
In Oklahoma, Staggs says, the Tulsa PD worked with state legislators on a bill to increase the penalties for catalytic converter theft, hoping to deter cutters and dealers. (A similar bill enacted in Texas was named the Deputy Darren Almendarez Act.) Staggs says Operation Heavy Metal decimated the illegal business. “In the four months prior to that national takedown day, there were 250 reports of catalytic converter theft” in Tulsa, he says. “In the four months after, there were 38.”
Still, the headlines have kept coming, and the schadenfreude has, too. “Man Found Under Vehicle Accused of Stealing Nine Parish Bus Catalytic Converters,” in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “Man Shot While Allegedly Trying to Steal Catalytic Converters at North Side Business,” in San Antonio, Texas. And five days after I spoke to Staggs came one about Tulsa. “TPD: Catalytic Converter Thieves Caught Red-handed.”
The Wild West of catalytic converter slinging had always had a strain of fatalism running through it. Early on, when investigators started examining the Facebook accounts of Curtis’ employees, they’d found two of them discussing all the cutters the Tulsa PD was arresting. “We definitely buy from guys that steal but pretend like we don’t know,” one of them wrote.
“I guess make the money til you can’t,” the other replied.