The Art of Cracking a Safe


While the rest of us were eating hot dogs in puff pastry, popping champagne corks, or wearing goofy 2017 sunglasses, two intrepid thieves hammered their way into a diamond merchant’s digs on 36th street in Manhattan, blocks away from phalanxes of NYPD officers, and opened two safes, cleaning them out of $6 million in merchandise:

“a team of burglars broke into a jeweler’s office on West 36th Street on New Year’s Eve. The crime was widely reported for its scope — the thieves made off with $6 million in diamonds and other gems — and its brazen timing, occurring as the ball dropped six blocks away in a neighborhood teeming with police officers. Surveillance video showing two people hitting a sixth-floor door with hammers was taken immediately after midnight, the police said, when the sound of cheers would have most likely drowned out any banging.”

I love a good safe cracker story. After reading Agatha Christie Ms. Marple novels on my English teacher’s spinner rack, my introduction to crime fiction was Michael Mann’s movie THIEF, starring James Caan as a professional burglar dueling with the mob. Loosely based on criminal Jean Seybold’s (pseud. Frank Hohimer) memoir The Home Invaders, it is rough and flashy like an uncut diamond. The book is much different. Mostly they broke into rich homes and stuck a gun in people’s face. It all fell apart when a Senator’s daughter was the victim and was assaulted. So don’t buy the honor among thieves line. (Save that for Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s bookstore-owning burglar.)


There’s many ways to open a safe. Nitroglycerin, drills, sledgehammers. In THIEF, James Caan’s Frank famously cuts open a bank vault with a thermal lance. Our daring safe crackers, according to this fine article by the NY Times’s crime beat reporter Michael Wilson, did not force their way into the safes. Investigators think they got the combinations from the installer (or that’s what they’re telling the press). Another theory, mine, is that they just cracked the safes. This isn’t something every Joe can do, but check out fellow Jersey boy Jeff Sitar. Here he is, cracking a bank vault in five minutes:


Jeff is the best public figure who cracks safes. He offers his skills to people who have lost their combinations, with proper documentation. But how many can do what he does, or close to it, who have chosen a different career path?

It makes one wonder, and appeals to the desire for “hidden knowledge” that drives much of my favorite crime fiction: where we get a tour into the dangerous outlaw world from the cozy confines of our safe European homes. If you like books about safecrackers, I can recommend two of my favorites: The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and Young Americans, by Josh Stallings. Two short, great reads.

Do you have a favorite novel about a safe cracker? Share it below!