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In Safe Hands

If it's locked, Dave Richardson can crack it open--legally, of course. He's a professional with the right combination of skill and scruples.

July 15, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | 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.

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.

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."

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