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In Safe Hands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Hollywood version of an ace safecracker is usually a lithe and dapper fellow, a man whose exquisite ear and delicate fingertips can coax the combination from any vault, who, armed with only a hairpin or a stripped twist tie, can defuse an alarm system and pick a lock in seconds. He works silently in the dark, invisible except when his smile gleams irresistibly. A young Alec Guinness, say, or Cary Grant. Maybe George Clooney.

Resting his 6-foot-4 frame on a tiny metal cafe chair outside a Beverly Hills Starbucks, Dave Richardson occupies a good portion of the sidewalk, just as his truck--fire-engine red and custom built to hold him and all his equipment--takes up a fair amount of the curb a block away. There are so many things attached to his belt--a Palm, his cell phone case, several sets of keys--that he jingles slightly when he walks.

This man would be hard to overlook, even in the dark.

As he talks into a cell phone, the long sleeves of his flannel shirt pull up a bit at the wrists revealing the beginnings of old-time tattoos--skulls and flames and large-breasted women--that cover his arms. He is 43, his silvering hair is slicked back and there are rings on his fingers--Harley-Davidson and the Brotherhood of Freemasonry.

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Between sips of coffee, he’s patiently, and then not so patiently, telling a customer how to open a safe Richardson recently broke into and then repaired, complete with a new combination. “Four times around, yes, completely around, then twice left. OK. If you follow the directions as I wrote them down you will be able to open the safe. Otherwise, I’ll have to come out there again.”

He folds up his phone, puts it on the table and adds softly: “And you don’t want me to come out there again.”

Richardson is a safe and vault specialist. He cracks 400 to 600 safes a year, and he’s been doing it for more than 20 years. Bank vaults and gun safes, jeweler safes, floor safes and ATM machines, safes in homes and military installations, in darkened offices while FBI agents keep watch.

He opens these safes and vaults because the owners have lost the combination or the safe has malfunctioned, because law enforcement officials have a search warrant, because a safe has been damaged. Or because someone has bought an old safe or found a safe hidden in their new home.

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This last group makes up the smallest percentage of his business but affords him the most enjoyment. “People call me in the middle of the night saying, ‘You’ve got to come out here, we’re pulling up the carpet and we’ve found this safe.’ ” Richardson takes a drag on a Pall Mall, then leans back and claims a few more inches of sidewalk. “I say, ‘Is it an emergency?’ and, oh, yes, it always is and so I tell them well, it’s $250 for a normal call and half again for an emergency and then, ‘Oh, well, tomorrow or the next day would be fine.’ ”

He also tells them that the chance of them finding anything in their newly discovered safe is little to none. “Been doing it for 20 years and I’ve never found anything but dead air. It’s not like people are going to drive away and forget the diamond tiara. People think, well, maybe an old guy died and his family didn’t know he had a safe. Let me tell you, the family always knows there’s a safe and they usually know exactly what’s in it.”

One Malibu couple discovered a secret room in their new house in which stood nothing but a shiny and very expensive South African safe. “They figured it was a drug dealer or something and they were arguing about who got what while I’m pulling out my drill. There was nothing in it. I mean if you’re a drug dealer with a safe like that, even if you’re busted, you’re going to have friends who will empty the safe.”

Richardson, who lives in Canyon Country, has never met a safe he couldn’t crack and he is often called in by locksmiths, law enforcement officials and other safe and vault technicians when they’ve done their best and the darn thing still won’t open.

According to Skip Eckert, president of the Safe and Vault Technicians Assn., there are half a dozen top safecrackers in the country and Richardson is one of them. “He’s one of our elite members,” Eckert says. “It takes about 10 years working steady to get as good as he is. You can’t fake it in this job, you either get it open or you don’t. Dave has never walked away from a safe.”

Richardson’s friends, mostly other safecrackers, call him Beast because he’s a big man and because he will get into the safe no matter what it takes. Yes, he can manipulate a combination lock--coax the combination out by feeling the clicks through his fingers, calibrating the distances and making a mental image of the lock’s interior--but he says he rarely does this. “Sure, it looks fancy when you do it,” he says, “but most of the time it takes too long. And why? I can drill into most safes so that you’ll never know I was there in half the time.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” says Eckert, who holds the Guinness Book record for lock manipulation--3 minutes, 57 seconds. “He makes out he’s too big and tough to manipulate, but he’s one of the best.”

The longest it’s taken him to crack a safe was a 15 1/2-hour job on a bank vault, others can take less than five minutes. He is a licensed specialist and bonded through the association, which means his fingerprints are on file and he’s been vetted by the police. He says he does not look at the contents of the safes he opens--after all these years, nothing would surprise him and he doesn’t ever want to have to testify in a court case.

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Hands-Off Policy

“Can you get that, man,” he says nudging a videocassette that has dropped out of a gun safe. The young man next to him picks it up and grins at the triple X marked along its spine. “I never touch any of the stuff,” Richardson says, preparing to repair the lock he has just broken open.

He is standing near a loading dock at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu where he was sent by a local locksmith. The ranch owner had bought the contents of a storage shed, which included this safe. After surveying the situation, Richardson opens the back of his truck, the interior of which looks like a small workshop or a surveillance center. There are cabinets and drawers and satchels and briefcases and boxes, all of which contain the tools of his trade. Drills with bits that will go through drill-proof plates; scores of different picks, many homemade, scopes of all lengths and sophistication, many of them, essentially, medical equipment.

“This right here is basically what they use when they do a colonoscopy,” he says, patting one case. “Same technology, better view.” He uses these scopes to see into the guts of a safe, to figure out how many locks there are and how to undo them.

Although there are some industry catalogs that offer the basics, most of a safecracker’s tools are handmade, either by the individual specialist or one of his colleagues. The tools are always changing, just as the safes are always changing.

Richardson keeps several metal file boxes full of pictures of safes he has opened. Some have notes on the back, most do not. “You do have to be careful,” he says. “You don’t want to have a ‘drill here’ sign lying around. But even if someone found these, they probably would have no idea how to begin.”

At the ranch, Richardson begins by loading a dolly with two cases and a satchel--a bit bulkier than the Batman-like utility belts movie safecrackers inevitably wear. The safe is an American Security Products gun safe, about 6 feet high, with no special markings. Richardson removes the face of the lock and makes a mark on the metal beneath it. He drills into the mark, first with a regular bit, and then with the drill-proof bit. The hole is about the size of a woman’s little finger and into it he threads one of his shorter scopes. Now he can see the innards of the lock. Within a minute or two of this, less than 10 since he approached the safe, he has swung the door open.

“There it is,” he says, and the videotapes fall to the ground.

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In about 20 minutes, he takes the lock out of the door, repairs the hole--he is a bonded welder too--puts the lock back in and resets the combination. He chooses the new number by rolling a set of 10-sided blue dice on the floor. He writes the numbers on a slip of paper and hands them to the young man. “Don’t lose that,” Richardson tells him, “because I don’t keep copies and I forget the combos as soon as I write them down.”

He works with many local locksmiths--that was how he got into the safecracking business. “I had low SATs,” he says when asked why he became a safecracker. Out of high school, he did a stint as a repo man, then got work with a locksmith in downtown L.A. After a while, he decided to learn more about safes. “I met a man who worked--well, I’m not sure what agency he worked for but he basically broke into safes overseas for the government--and he taught me a lot about the high-security stuff.”

The community of top safecrackers is understandably guarded. To get a name in the field, you have to prove staying power and then, says Richardson, you have to pull a stunt, something that hasn’t been done. His was a bank vault that, for reasons that were legal but he’d rather not disclose, had to be opened with no trace of a break in. He did it and one of his colleagues wrote it up for a trade magazine. After that, he was a made man.

It’s a small world, safecracking. There are several organizations, but the Safe and Vault Technicians Assn., with 1,800 members worldwide, is the largest. There’s a magazine and an annual conference, at which there are lock-picking and manipulation contests as well as workshops. While it would seem a natural staging ground for a member of a heist team, both Richardson and Eckert say that the nature of the work precludes a thief from cribbing. “You have to have a very high level of basic knowledge and time in the field to even know what we’re talking about,” says Eckert.

Head of His Class

Richardson is very aware that his career is only as good as his reputation--everything has to be above board. “I have people call me saying, ‘I’ve got this safe and I, uh, lost the combination, can I bring it out to you?’ And I say, ‘Sure, if you have a federal warrant or proof of ownership.’ That’s usually as far as it goes. No job’s worth extradition papers,” he adds, flipping open his cell phone, which rings about every five minutes. “This is Dave.”

One of the many calls he receives on the day he opens the safe at the ranch is from a Michigan locksmith named Mike England. Richardson occasionally teaches classes at the annual association conferences and he also will do one-on-one training with members who come well-recommended. It isn’t cheap--$350 a day--but England, who trained with Richardson for a week a few months ago felt he benefited so much that when his wife asked what he wanted for his birthday he said “another week with Dave.”

“It changed my life,” England says over the phone. “I’ve been a locksmith for 10 years and safes scared me. Everyone said if you’re serious about learning to open safes, you have to call him. He’s the man.”

The only thing about the job that still bugs Richardson is the shock some people express at what he charges. “They’re asking me to fix a $1,500 safe or get them access to their precious belongings and they don’t think they should have to pay a few hundred dollars. I say, ‘Fine, call someone else.’ ” He lights up another cigarette--he is going to quit in just two days, he says. “Of course, chances are, that someone else will just screw the job up and eventually they’ll be calling me back.”


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