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Meet the safecracker of last resort

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 12/15/2018 Geoff Manaugh

a man riding on the back of a car

© Angie Smith

Charlie Santore sees Los Angeles from the inside, by breaking into safes whose owners can no longer unlock them.

The house was gone, consumed by the November 2018 Woolsey Fire that left swaths of Los Angeles covered in ash and reduced whole neighborhoods to charcoaled ruins. Amidst the tangle of blackened debris that was once a house in the suburbs northwest of Los Angeles, only one identifiable feature stood intact. It was a high-security jewel safe, its metal case discolored by the recent flames, looming in the wreckage like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I went out to the burn zone that day to meet Charlie Santore, a 48-year-old safecracker licensed in the city of Los Angeles under the name Santore & Son. Santore, a lean and towering figure just shy of 6 foot 4, stood there in his fedora, black jeans, and a Virgin Mary T-shirt, grinning uncomfortably. He was flanked by two Ventura County sheriff’s deputies. They had been patrolling the neighborhood that day, in the wake of the still-active wildfire—its apocalyptic ash cloud hanging in the sky south of us—when they noticed this gangly man crouched in the ruins, with several drills and extension cords at the ready. Santore’s car, a 1997 Mercedes so overloaded with safecracking equipment that its trunk nearly scrapes the ground, was, from a law-enforcement point of view, not reassuring.

While the deputies confirmed his technician’s license, Santore asked one of them to act like he was under arrest. “Fight the power!” Santore joked. As he lashed out at me with his long legs, I took a picture. Even the deputy faking his arrest began to smile.

I spent more than six months shadowing Santore because I wanted to know what the city looks like through the eyes of a safecracker, a person for whom no vault is an actual barrier and no safe is truly secure. There are a lot of safecrackers, I learned, but the good ones, like Santore, live in a state of magical realism, suspended somewhere between technology and superstition. The safecracker sees what everyone else has been hiding—the stashed cash and jewels, the embarrassing photographs. He is a kind of human X-ray revealing the true, naked secrets of a city.

A good safe technician can pass through sealed bank vaults and open jammed strongboxes after just a few minutes of casual manipulation, using skills that often look more like sleight of hand. But just when I started to think that it was all art, pure finesse, I’d see feats of sheer industrial brutality, watching Santore bore through several inches of heavy metal at a time, aerosolized steel filing past his face like smoke. For the safecracker, there is always a way through.

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“A lot of times I’m driving with my girlfriend or my son,” Santore told me , “and I’m like, ‘I opened a safe here, I opened a safe here, and do you remember the time we opened a safe there?’” The city is full of safes, he meant: Everyone is hiding something. The truest museum of contemporary Los Angeles, it seems, is everybody’s safes, scattered across the neighborhoods, hiding the most precious objects in the city. And it is only a safecracker like Santore who gets to see what the rest of us are trying to hide.

This raises the question of temptation: Safecrackers like Santore can open any box in the city, drilling even supposedly impossible locks. Surely, I thought, that knowledge and experience could slip into criminality. Who would not be tempted to use such skills for ill? If I could crack any safe in the city, I knew I would someday try.

Santore does not shy away from these questions: He has the word temptation tattooed on his right forearm. It’s a reminder, he told me. “What do safecrackers do?” he once asked. “They crack safes. It’d be better if they do it legally, but the game is the f****ng game. I’m just saying, it takes a certain mindset to want to do this stuff, to have the patience for it, and some people can channel that in a positive way and other people f****ng can’t.”

Santore & Son’s official Instagram page is a frequently updated feed of frontline pictures from the world of Los Angeles safecracking. There are safes damaged by bungled retail burglaries, high-security bank vaults, check-cashing facilities, marijuana dispensaries, and fortified private mansions in the hills. Many of the photos show Santore himself giving an exhausted thumbs-up next to some behemoth safe or vault he’s just cracked, grinning with weary achievement. The son in Santore & Son is Charlie’s kid Louis, 13, who appears now and then on the Instagram feed. Louis Santore is being groomed—how seriously, it’s hard to tell—to take over the family business.

Charlie Santore was not arrested by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office that day, and he did get the safe open. It would also prove to be the first of many such calls, as more and more homeowners in the burn zone would return to discover nothing but a safe standing where a long-cherished family house used to be. Their belongings had been reduced to whatever was locked inside that box. Santore was there to help them retrieve those possessions, rolling up in his sagging Mercedes, ready to get to work.

“Everybody has a box,” Santore said to me one day over lunch. “They have some place where they keep things and they don’t want anybody else to know what’s in there.” His hands were blackened with metal dust from a jewel safe he had drilled that morning. “There’s something sort of esoteric or ambiguous about that,” he continued, “like the safe is someone’s little space—someone’s psyche—and not everyone’s psyche is a clean place, you know?”

Santore owned a safe as a kid, a little Meilink Closet Vault where he used to hide pocketknives and beer. He still has it—along with a lot of other safes to store his own treasures, stashed all over Los Angeles, in workshops and empty storefronts whose owners let him use the space. He even has a few in his girlfriend’s mom’s garage. Not all secrets warrant the same hiding place.

“I dream about safes all the time,” he told me. In a recurring dream, Santore returns home to see that somebody has broken into his safe. What’s worse, Santore continued, in the dream he cannot remember what was stored in the safe in the first place. Its door yawns open to reveal a painful emptiness, but he doesn’t know what was stolen. How can you get something back, he said, if you don’t even know you’ve lost it?

Santore has a knack for turning safecracking into metaphor. One time he joked that every safecracking job is like getting into a new romantic relationship. “You work so hard to get something open,” he said, “but sometimes you crack it and there’s nothing inside.”

Even the way in which someone has been locked out of a safe becomes rich with symbolism. You can be dialing what you know is the right combination, Santore said, but if the safe is hidden somewhere hard to reach and the dial can’t be seen head-on, numbers you’re entering are off by just one or two. You’d be surprised by how often that happens, Santore added—people thwarted by their perspective on the world.

Even the internal space of the safe becomes an enclosed realm of philosophical insights. When you encounter the black box of someone else’s safe, how do you know what’s going on inside, whether the re-lockers have fired, whether the wheel-pack (the device that matches the combination) is jammed, or where the best location is to drill? It’s a strategic encounter, a slow game of chess played with extension cords and power tools.

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I met Santore at safe openings all over the city. I watched him crack a broken furrier’s vault that now stores expensive carpets, hidden in a Persian-rug store in midtown; the effect was like stepping behind a curtain into Aladdin’s cave, it was so full of the unexpected. At a bank being converted to new uses in L.A.’s Chinatown, Santore was hired to deactivate a vault-door lock; everything reeked of gasoline and drywall dust, and the room itself was so dark that I had to use my flashlight app so Santore could see the boltwork. Simple jobs typically cost a few hundred dollars; complex ones can run much more.

As Santore completes one job, another will arise in the form of frantic phone calls—a jewelry business locked out of its vault, a suburban father whose gun safe no longer operates, an investor flipping houses who discovers a locked safe in the floor of her newest conquest. He even keeps a bulletproof vest in his car trunk for when he’s called out to open an ATM, in case he gets held up for the cash inside.

In 2017, Santore was called to a house near the 405 freeway that was being renovated by a married couple. The safe had been abandoned by its previous owner, and the couple had been living with it for several years until they finally hired someone to crack it open. Why not? According to Santore, it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen, filled with Bulgari necklaces and Cartier jewels, easily six figures’ worth. Sometimes with safes, people get lucky. Usually, Santore said, they do not.

One morning toward the end of summer, Santore was called out to the house of a client suffering from what his son described as early-stage dementia. The man’s house stood on a leafy cul-de-sac in Century City. Santore was able to manipulate the safe open with nothing but his bare hands and intense concentration, but it took him nearly thirty minutes.

About twenty minutes in, the homeowner’s son stepped outside to take a phone call. The owner, apparently having forgotten that he hired a safecracker, stepped around the corner to see us squatting next to each other in the closet, fiddling with his safe. Startled, the man said an awkward hello; after we reminded him who we were, he reintroduced himself. In another scenario, I realized, that moment could have gone very badly.

Another morning, I showed up for a job at a house near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The father of the family had died just the week before, we learned, and the man’s widow and heirs now needed access to his floor safe. Santore knelt down in the family room over a small safe that had been covered by a rug. Carpet moths began fluttering all around him.

One of the family members handed Santore the combination, written on a small slip of paper. The rest of the family had taken positions around the room, simultaneously boxing Santore in and ensuring that they each had a clear, uninterrupted view of the safe as soon as the door popped open.

Santore noticed a wobble in the dial that had prevented the family from opening it. He began to work, trying the combination. It took less than two minutes. He lifted up the top of the safe, turning his head away as he did so, and immediately stood up. The effect was electric, as if he had opened a drain in the floor: Everyone in the room rushed over and encircled the safe as Santore stepped out of the way.

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Calls like this made it clear that the role of the safecracker exceeds that of mere trade labor. Being a safecracker is almost like becoming an emotional first responder, swooping into scenes of high drama and family tragedy to save someone’s access to prized possessions. Indeed, the job requires an unusual mix of skills. At one extreme, the safecracker must be a true gearhead, someone who can put his head down, avoid distraction, and deal, one on one, with an inhuman opponent—the safe or vault. He must be comfortable with drill bits and motor torque and willing to haul out a sledgehammer when necessary. (Santore keeps one in his trunk.)

At the other extreme, the safecracker must be a counselor or a social worker, someone tasked with talking frantic clients off a cliff. A couple’s wedding rings are locked inside a defective hotel safe and the ceremony starts in only an hour, or a mother is sending her daughter on a college trip to France but the girl’s passport is stuck inside the family safe, or paranoid heirs are tearing each other apart over an inheritance that sits locked inside a jewel safe in their father’s old den. Someone like Santore has to show up in the middle of all that and read the room—as well as the make and model of the safe.

After the departed father’s safe had been opened, Santore’s day rolled on, with more calls coming in. He needed to relocate a safe in a nearby drugstore, but the guy who farmed the job out to him wasn’t giving him any details—not even the address. It seemed shady. Did I want to hop in his car to find it? I must have looked apprehensive, because Santore laughed. “You have all your shots, right?”

His back seat was buried beneath battery packs and extension cords, piled high with homemade dial removers assembled from plumbing equipment and a special vise for pushing drill bits through hardened steel. A warning light appeared to be glowing on the dashboard.

The drugstore job, when we finally found it, turned out to be innocuous, though it took several hours. The store needed its safe moved a single foot forward, to allow access to some electrical and internet cables that had become jammed up behind it. This particular safe, Santore explained, weighed 4,000 pounds—empty. It took a crowbar from the Mercedes’s trunk and some wooden blocks stolen from a dumpster, but Santore managed to roll the metal bar beneath the safe. The whole thing, all two tons of it, began sliding forward like a toy car. “It’s Egypt, baby!” Santore shouted. “It’s the way they built the pyramids!”

On our way back to his car, Santore made a sound of surprise and rushed out into the street. Weirdly, there was a pin-tumbler lock, like the kind in a dead-bolt, sitting there on the pavement. He picked it up and fiddled with it. “I’m always finding locks,” Santore said. He made it sound like there were locks everywhere, just littering the world if you knew where to look for them. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “You can keep this one.”

Everywhere people want to protect something, there will be safes—and everywhere there are safes, there will be safecrackers.

An invaluable resource for the field is a members-only online forum hosted by the National Safecrackers’ Organization. The forum is small, with slightly more than 200 active members, but it is very busy, buzzing most of the day with posts from safe technicians looking for help on a job or simply for a place to vent at the end of a long workday.

I learned about a safecracker who seeks out rural auctions in the Midwest to buy the safes of dead farmers, contents included, occasionally finding items of real value inside. I heard about a safecracker on the East Coast who nearly struck canisters of tear gas hidden behind a safe’s inner-door plate. Safecracking was a job with ups and downs, to put it lightly.

Elaad Israeli, a 35-year-old safecracker with Precision Lock & Safe in Queens, told me that he almost got arrested after unwittingly helping a man rob his own father: The guy’s ID matched the name of the safe’s owner, but it turned out to be a case of Junior ripping off Senior. John Greenan, a 58-year-old safecracker at Fink Safe & Lock in Chicago, told me about cracking safes at the Federal Reserve building, as well as a long-sealed vault door in the basement of a Chicago cathedral (inside, he found a treasure trove of gold chalices and ritual ware). The 34-year-old Wayne Winton from Tri-County Locksmith once saw an old safe being used as a side table at a Colorado newspaper office. Nobody knew what was inside. Winton offered to crack it—and when the door swung open, they found unpublished photos of the serial killer Ted Bundy.

Some of the most surprising stories of discovery came from the forum owner himself, Dave McOmie. McOmie, 61, runs a storied operation from his home base in Washington State. He is, by any measure, among the global elite of safecrackers, a man who has picked and chosen his clients since the 1980s. McOmie often flies across the country at the drop of a hat to open a millionaire’s personal safe or a particularly tricky bank vault; he throws his drill bits in a bag, picks up his ticket at the gate, and goes.

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McOmie, too, has had his share of local misadventures. When he was a 15-year-old apprentice, he tagged along on a safe opening at a family’s house in Oregon. Inside the safe was a collection of Polaroids featuring the recently deceased father engaged in sex acts with countless other women—a discovery made right as the widow walked in to see if everything was going okay. The adult children present immediately asked McOmie’s boss to destroy the photos.

One of McOmie’s safecracking legacies is a series of events known as “penetration parties.” These began back in the 1980s in Philadelphia, more or less by accident, when dozens of safe and lock technicians were in the city for a convention. One of the local attendees remarked that he had an entire warehouse on the industrial edge of town filled with nearly 80 locked safes that all needed to be opened; the man asked McOmie if he would be willing to lead a workshop there, to show everyone how some of the more difficult and exotic safes could be opened.

McOmie had a better idea. Tell everyone to grab their tools, he said, and we’ll all work on them together at the warehouse. The group would go on to open every safe the guy had in a single night—a gonzo, hands-on extravaganza in which McOmie made the rounds, offering tips and suggestions. The resulting format—a mass DIY safecracking event, complete with tutorials—proved so much fun for everyone that the events continue around the world to this day, sometimes as many as a dozen or more a year.

I even heard rumors that after Prince died, it was Dave McOmie who was hired to drill a vault at the late musician’s estate in Minnesota. When news broke that previously unknown and unreleased recordings had been found inside, fans allegedly had McOmie to thank for it. When I asked McOmie about this, he laughed. “No comment.”

As is the case for many working parents, the challenge of being both an engaged father and a successful businessperson weighs heavily on Santore. The private travails of a widely employed safecracker aren’t that different from those of a carpenter or a lawyer. “I think that people doing this kind of work constantly strive to be better and more effective,” he told me over the phone one night, “but there’s just not enough f****ng time. How do you have a kid and make your kid lunch? How do you have a girlfriend or a wife and maintain a relationship in a business where you’re running around the city dealing with all this stuff, and, at the same time, you want to be good at picking European key locks? How do you prioritize?”

Bringing his eighth-grade son along on safe openings as a would-be apprentice doesn’t necessarily help. Santore told me about a job he took this year at a check-cashing outfit all the way out near Palm Springs; Louis came along. When they arrived, however, the client balked, refusing entry to a minor. He requested that the kid stay in the car and wait for what could have been several hours in the desert heat. Santore left the man with a locked safe instead. He and Louis took the long, unpaid drive back to Los Angeles.

I finally got to meet Louis when he came along one day for a tool demonstration. Santore wanted me to see his updated magnetic rig, used for attaching a drill directly to the outside of a safe, and he had just picked Louis up from school. While Santore pulled out drills and showed me the interior of an old John Tann safe, Louis looked enthusiastic. He seemed more focused and articulate than other kids his age. An avid surfer, he told me that he was reading the New Yorker journalist William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning surfing memoir, Barbarian Days.

Like his father, Louis approaches safecracking with a philosophical attitude. While I was interviewing Santore, Louis suddenly realized, out loud, that he had never asked his dad what he wanted to be when he grew up. Did he always want to be a safecracker? Santore laughed quietly and looked at me. No, was the short answer. With the winter sun now set and his tool demonstration complete, Charlie Santore began packing up his things and leading us all toward the door. New calls would begin again first thing in the morning, and he needed some rest.

For Louis, though, the question was invigorating: What do you want to be? What’s inside you? “Maybe you’re the ultimate safe you’re trying to crack,” he said to me, getting excited by the thought. “You spend your whole life trying to open one thing,” Louis said, “and it’s you.”

Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar's Guide to the City.

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