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Contributed Photos / Thomas Joshua Barnhill (left) and Travis Wayne Howard (right) appear in side-by-side photos.

Authorities in Bradley County said two men stopped by the Tennessee Highway Patrol while walking along Interstate 75 Sunday were arrested after officers discovered the pair had cutting tools and a recently-cut catalytic converter.

Bradley County and Cleveland officers responded to assist state troopers who stopped Thomas Barnhill, 35, and Travis Howard, 42, Sunday as they were walking along the interstate near Cleveland's Paul Huff Parkway exit, according to a Bradley County Sheriff's Office news release.

Officers from all three agencies investigated the pair and "discovered that the suspects were coming from a business on Frontage Road where they cut the catalytic converter from a vehicle stored there," sheriff's office spokesperson Taylor Woodruff said in the news release.

Barnhill and Howard are each now charged with burglary, two counts of felony vandalism and three counts of theft under $1,000, Woodruff said. Barnhill was also charged with possession of drug paraphernalia that was allegedly found in his possession when he was arrested.

The crime has been increasing across the region, according to officials.

In Chattanooga, catalytic converter thefts rose 800% when compared to the same time last year, Chattanooga police warned in February in a news release.

In January 2020, four converters were reported stolen in the area. In January 2021, 36 thefts occurred, police said. Thieves can remove the part in mere minutes.

"Most people will not even know the converter has been removed until they start their vehicle," Ty Cooper, Chattanooga Police Department auto theft investigator, said in the release. "When the vehicle starts, it'll sound kind of like a NASCAR engine and gets louder as the gas pedal is pressed."

Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said this week that such thefts are increasing in his rural, six-county area of Southeast Tennessee, too. The 12th Judicial District consists of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie and Rhea counties.

"We've been seeing this around these car lots. They're coming in there at night and getting on a creeper to get under the cars and cut the catalytic converters out," Taylor said. Precious metals make them attractive to thieves, he said.

Chattanooga police provided a list of tips to help prevent catalytic converter thefts, a part of a vehicle's exhaust system that is targeted for its composition of precious metals that are in turn sold for money.

Tips include:

> Park in well-lit areas.

> Park close to building entrances or the nearest street in public parking lots.

> If you have a garage, park in it. Close the door, and lock it.

> If you have video cameras, position them to capture where your vehicle(s) is parked.

> Have the VIN (vehicle identification number) etched onto the catalytic converter.

> Install a catalytic converter-specific security device.

Chattanooga police noted that catalytic converter thieves usually carry saws or snipping tools and that residents should immediately report any theft to authorities as soon as it's noticed.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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