ESTRICH: Crime in the neighborhood

If even one of the men is armed, it is murder waiting to happen

An NYPD officer places a sticker with a unique serial number onto a catalytic converter at a crime prevention event in the Staten Island borough of New York City in 2023. (Ted Shaffrey / AP Photo)

It happened right in front of my house. Last Friday morning, at 3:30 a.m. to be exact, my nanny heard noises. She went to the window and saw two men climbing under her late-model Toyota Tacoma truck. She found her key fob and immediately sounded the alarm, and the two men quickly drove off in a white Toyota. The damage was done. They had stolen the catalytic converter in a matter of minutes.

She was furious. I was almost relieved because they were already gone. “I should have run outside,” she said to me. “That’s exactly what you should not have done,” I told her. “Look at what happened to the actor.”


We both knew what I meant. The actor was Johnny Wactor from “General Hospital.” He was working as a bartender at Level 8 in downtown LA. He left work after his late-night shift ended and was walking with a co-worker to where his car was parked nearby. They confronted three men who had jacked up his car to steal his catalytic converter. Wactor’s co-worker, Anita Joy, told police they thought his car was being towed. As Joy posted on Instagram, “We were no threat and Johnny kept his cool as he always did, simply stating that it was his car and for them to leave. Hands open to his sides in peace.

“Johnny was between me and the man who shot him — as I heard the shot ring into the night, he forcefully tumbled back into my arms and as I grabbed for him, I shouted, ‘Hunny, you ok?!’

“And he only responded, ‘Nope! Shot!’”

A security guard from the bar got there before the paramedics, who rushed him to the hospital. He was pronounced dead. The thieves drove off in a dark car at 3:35 a.m.

“We have a number of leads,” a deputy district attorney told a crowd at a rally held by Wactor’s friends and family this week at the site of his killing. A fellow actor called for city officials to stop being soft on crime and to commit to seeking the maximum penalty for Wactor’s murderers. The deputy D.A. refused to do that, telling reporters that they could not discuss preemptively what penalties they intended to seek.

Why not? A message needs to go out.

This is not low-level crime. It is rampant, and it is dangerous. I live in a quiet, residential neighborhood. The thought that there are thieves driving around looking for vulnerable cars to steal parts from — parts that can be resold for high prices on the black market because they contain precious metals — is terrifying and contributes to fear of even more serious crime. If even one of the men is armed, it is murder waiting to happen, as Johnny Wactor learned too late.

Wactor’s murder garnered a lot of media attention because he turned out to be a well-known actor going home from work. But the underlying crime does not get the attention it needs. Nathan Hochman, who is running to replace the incumbent D.A., committed to doing more. If elected, he told reporters, “We are going back to a system where criminals are held accountable for their actions” and pledged to go after not only the thieves themselves but the whole chain of black market buyers who fuel this kind of theft.

There are new laws on the books that are supposed to do that, but they only provide for misdemeanor penalties, which mean nothing. And it doesn’t matter if they aren’t enforced.

I did call the police promptly. They never came. They called me back five hours later. Did I know how much a catalytic converter costs? In California, $950 is the magic number: that makes it grand theft, which is at least a felony, and the police are supposed to show up for that. As it turns out, I’d be lucky to find a replacement at that cost; we’re still looking for a Toyota dealer somewhere that has one.

There’s a national epidemic out there, one of the dealers told me. I know. And it’s a dangerous one.