By Daniel Silliman
Tom Speer sat on the couch, slumping in his salmon-colored shirt, and staring at nothing.
He looked shell-shocked, like he couldn't quite take it in, couldn't quite process the tragedy and didn't know what to say.
He said, "I think the thieves take away, and we pay. The police dusted for fingerprints and they got a glove print. How can you prosecute a glove print?"
Speer is the president and general manager of Huntleigh Bus, on Lee's Mill Road alongside Interstate 75 in Riverdale. With his wife, Robin, he has operated the lot of 50 used buses, for sale and lease, for about nine years. In that time, they've been burglarized four times, or maybe five times, but the couple still can't quite handle the brash and brutal attack they discovered when they got to work on Friday morning.
On Friday, their chain link fence was cut open, catalytic converters were ripped out from under 31 buses and, worse, their two guard dogs were attacked and severely injured. Loco, a male Rottweiler, was beaten with a shovel, or a board and suffered severe internal injuries. He was, the Speers said, unable to walk, when they found him. Misty, a female Rottweiler, was attacked with the reciprocating saw used to cut out the catalytic converters.
"They cut the side of her face and part of her ear," Robin Speer said. "We think they were going for her throat. They may have cut her throat, we couldn't tell, she was so matted in blood."
The dogs were rushed into surgery Friday, and the Speers waited to hear how they were, as Clayton County Police looked for evidence. A crime scene investigator examined the footprints leading through a large hole in the fence to a nearby construction site, casting molds of some of them.
In the lot, 31 of the 50 buses idled, rumbling like race cars without catalytic converters to quiet the exhaust systems.
Tom Speer said it will cost him between $30,000 and $35,000 to fix the buses, and he's basically out of business until he does.
According to police, the catalytic converters are frequently stolen off shuttle buses and school buses for the platinum inside. The precious metal, worth about $2,000 per ounce, coats the ceramic "honeycomb" inside the exhuast-pipe box, which is bolted underneath each vehicle. The platinum breaks down the nitrogen oxide and oxidizes the carbon monoxide in the exhaust, reducing pollution.
Capt. Greg Dickens said the department started seeing a lot of these thefts about a year ago. Tom Speer said there is also a shop that shares the site with his business. Over the past year, that shop has replaced converters on about 100 buses belonging to customers who have been the victims of thieves.
Huntleigh Bus, the Speer's business, lost 10 or 11 catalytic converters to thieves last May, according to Robin Speer. The couple beefed-up security as a result, adding a lot of high-powered lights and the two trained guard dogs.
On Friday, though, it looked like the thieves had worked their way around the lights, moving through the darkness with their reciprocating saw. On one side of the lot, a large hole was cut through the chain link fence right next to a big orange school bus, right where the bus would hide the thieves from the large light overhead, and from any possible passing cars on Lee's Mill Road. Dickens said investigators believe the thieves dragged the catalytic converters through the hole in the fence, down a dirt trail, to a dirt-and-gravel road where a vehicle was probably waiting.
The two dogs, Loco and Misty, were hurt and locked inside two different buses. When the Speers discovered them there, Loco couldn't walk and Misty had shed blood all over the inside of the back of a school bus.
"We just thought the animals would be a deterrent," Robin Speer said. "We just thought the thieves would see them and go on to the next place. We never thought they'd come in anyway and try to kill animals."
On Friday night, Loco was out of surgery and was reportedly doing OK, Dickens said.
Misty, however, had died.
The Speers, speaking to the media and trying to go about the little bit of business they could, didn't know what to say. They seemed flabbergasted by the brashness and brutality of the attack. Everyone at the bus lot loved Misty, Robin said, and they couldn't understand how someone could do that to the dog, over a little bit of precious metal.
Robin said the theft was shocking and the financial loss was devastating, but at the moment, she could barely deal with the emotional loss of a beloved dog.
"Is this the type of criminal that is on the street these days?" she asked. "They would kill a dog for stuff?"