OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A metro nonprofit is in desperate need of help. The group offers after-school programs to kids, but finds themselves with no transportation after brazen thieves took advantage.

Inside Crescent Hills Church of Christ in April, we found a group of kids hard at work on Mother’s Day crafts.

Those in charge though were hard at work figuring out what’s next.

Brittany Carter-Thomas is a founder at Freedom City, a local nonprofit mentorship group that provides after-school programs for kids on Oklahoma City’s northeast side.

“94% of students in northeast Oklahoma City failed the state reading and math exams,” she explained. “So we were like, we’ve got to come back and do something.”

The program has grown leaps and bounds in just three years, and picks up roughly 45 kids from school daily with a van.

But in late April, a turn of the key proved problematic.

“[The van] just basically makes a lot of noises,” said Brittany. “You can tell that something’s wrong.”

After a peek beneath the vehicle, they found the catalytic converter had been cut clean off.

missing catalytic converter

A check of surveillance video at the church showed the criminals at work.

They came on a Thursday around 10:30 a.m. A man hops out of the passenger side of a car, and slides beneath the van.

A short time later they were gone.

Man seen approaching van on surveillance footage

This all took place while employees were still working inside.

“It was really amazing,” said Brittany. “It happened in broad daylight. I mean, broad daylight.”

The theft was salt in the wound, as it’s the third catalytic converter stolen from Freedom City in a year, making the van likely a total loss.

“Now it’s kind of almost unfixable at this point because it’s already been through so much,” said Brittany.

Catalytic converters hold small amounts of precious metals, and can be sold for a quick buck on the recycling market.

While these thefts aren’t new, the number of thefts is reaching staggering levels.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau shows a 400% increase in cases between 2019 and 2020. Though 2021 numbers aren’t out yet, experts expect the numbers to rise much higher.

Tad Kennedy with Kennedy Tire & Auto Service has seen the rise first hand.

He tells our team prevention is difficult, and it’s often taller cars that have cause for concern.

“Mostly what we’ve seen is pick up trucks and SUVs,” Tad noted. “Things that are sitting up a little bit higher where somebody can crawl underneath.”

State Representative Lonnie Sims took a closer look at the issue this legislative session. He tells our team part of the issue is in enforcement, due to the fact that this theft is a misdemeanor in Oklahoma.

The state currently has scrap yard laws that make selling stolen catalytic converts tough, including requiring proof of ownership. Representative Sims says opportunistic groups are instead coming to Oklahoma, buying the converters in bulk, then turning and selling them in states with more lenient scrap yard laws.

He hoped to slow the trend by making the theft and unlawful possession a felony.

“So you obviously give law enforcement a little more teeth to go after these individuals and hold them accountable,” added Rep. Sims.

While his bill passed through the House, it recently died in committee in the Senate.

Sims hopes to bring up the legislation again next year.

“So anything I can do to make it better, I will,” he said. “But we’ll definitely continue to pursue this legislation.”

Another bill, which would make stealing a catalytic converter a third degree burglary, continues to work its way through both chambers.

In the meantime, Freedom City workers are having to pick up all the kids in their own cars.

The group needs a bus, but lacks the means to make it happen.

“We’re just taking multiple trips and all of those things. So it’s just crazy,” said Brittany. “We’re just praying that we can get a bus because we’re in desperate need.”

Click here to donate to Freedom City.

To try and avoid these thefts, experts advise car owners to park in well lit areas, or private drives when possible.

There are products that can be installed, such as cages that go over the catalytic converters, to make the thefts more difficult.

Oklahoma City Police is investigating Freedom City’s theft. Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers at 405-235-7300.