Everyone, especially law enforcement, should be happy that Roy Watters is law abiding.
The 60-year-old Washington County man continues building on his regional and even national reputation as an expert safecracker who proclaims never to have met a safe or vault he couldn't open.
In recent memory, Mr. Watters has added fresh accomplishments to his already-lengthy resume of safecracking success.
No vault is safe from Roy Watters' touch
Roy Watters, of Washington County, has built a reputation as an expert safecracker who proclaims never to have met a safe or vault he couldn???t open. (Video by Andrew Rush; 6/16/2013)
Cracking a safe in less than seven minutes
Roy Watters, of Washington County, demonstrates his prowess by getting into a safe in less than seven minutes. (Video by Andrew Rush; 6/16/2013)
In May, he finished second in the international Safe and Vault Technicians Association's Harry C. Miller Manipulation Contest in Lexington, Ky., but the winner declared Mr. Watters to be a genius who should have been declared the victor.
In the recent past, Mr. Watters was flown, all expenses paid, to Harrah's Lake Tahoe casino resort to do what five previous safecrackers couldn't do. He opened a mystery safe hidden behind the wall of a secret room in the casino. An independent crew filmed the event for possible broadcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network series, "Lost and Found."
"He's quite the character and very scientific, and it's amazing what he does," said Denise V Collins, a location scout and manager involved in the production.
The masterful machinist and toolmaker has spent a lifetime collecting and studying safe and vault locks while amassing a lock museum and an archive and library inside his Chartiers Township home. It provides him a detailed technological history of safes and vaults over the centuries.
His collection includes a wood lock from 1830 that worked gallows in England. Unlock it and the hanging would occur. Warning to police: Don't handcuff Mr. Watters. It takes him a split second to free himself from double handcuffs. He also owns a neck lock from the days of slavery and a ball-and-chain from Alcatraz. But the bulk of his collection are locks from around the world that reflect advances in vault and safe technology to counter thieves' advancing techniques to break into them.
Then last week, he opened an 1860 Pittsburgh Barnes safe in the basement of an O'Hara office building -- the former site of the Dinty Moore Restaurant famous for providing the recipe for Hormel Foods' Dinty Moore beef stew.
"I smoked it," Mr. Watters said afterward, using safecracking jargon for opening the safe without a hitch. "I drilled the safe then manipulated the lock because it's an old lock. I'm happy with that."
Not a Hollywood version
Safecracking is the art of opening a lock without a combination or a key. Locks are mechanical puzzles that separate thieves from valuables. But Mr. Watters says, as do other safecrackers, the object of safecracking is to exploit a safe or lock's weakness. That requires knowing the detailed workings of the lock, safe or vault.
Hollywood makes it look easy to manipulate a lock until it opens.
It's anything but. Mr. Watters even has trouble putting into words how he does it.
Essentially it involves manipulating the lock and taking readings within the thickness of a human hair. Each lock has unique mechanical characteristics that Mr. Watters understands from studying his lock collection. Consider that there are a million possible combinations in the standard lock with a 100-number dial.
Vision, sound and feel, with a developed sixth sense, indicate when each tumbler falls into place inside the lock, which Mr. Watters says can have the precision of a Rolex watch.
Among hundreds of safecracking tools he's invented are drilling rigs that can bore through the strongest metal alloys. He then inserts a multidirectional medical borescope through the bore hole to examine the lock. Using tools he's invented, he can work the lock or figure out the combination to open a safe or vault quickly.
In his career, Mr. Watters estimates that he's worked on 15,000 to 20,000 safes and vaults for private citizens, police, government, banks, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, corporations, jewelers, coin collectors and the military, including jobs in Europe. Combinations are easily lost. Safes, vaults and locks can malfunction from frequent use.
He drew publicity in 1994 when he opened a steel safe that the Pittsburgh police recovered after it had been stolen from the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Duquesne. Police spent a week trying to drill, hammer or pry it open unsuccessfully. It took Mr. Watters but a few minutes to drill through the door and open the lock in less than a minute. The safe contained $1,100.
He said the thrill for him is opening safes and vaults of all ages, even modern ones with digital and electronic locks. He lets others marvel or battle over the contents. Safes he has opened have contained buckets of gold valued in the millions, stacks of cash, wine collections, rare gemstones and weapons, important documents, a fruitcake, sticks of 1920s-era dynamite, pornography, marijuana and drugs, and even a desperate person's heart medication. On occasion, a wife has her deceased husband's safe opened to reveal a secret stash of cash. But often the safe contains nothing but stale air. Some safe doors are spiked with protective canisters of tear gas, posing yet another challenge for safecrackers.
Last month during the annual SAVTA competition, Scott Gray, 38, of Toronto won by opening a randomly selected safe lock in just 8 minutes and 11 seconds, beating Mr. Watters' best time of about 18 minutes.
Each competitor could use only a pencil and paper in dialing open the combination lock. Each could try as many as four locks, each randomly selected from a group of 80 to 100 locks made by major manufacturers.
But Mr. Gray, who's won the competition three of the past five years while finishing in second twice, said Mr. Watters should have been declared the winner for opening three locks. Only seven were opened that day, with no one but Mr. Watters opening more than one.
After the competition, Mr. Gray said, he sent a letter to Michael K. Potter, the Malvern, Ohio, safe and vault technician who organizes the competition for SAVTA, to recommend rule changes to include the number of locks each person opens. Luck, he said, is a factor in lock selection.
"In my humble opinion -- and I said it to Roy and to Mike Potter -- Roy should have been the winner because he opened that many locks," Mr. Gray said. "Part of his expertise is the ability to sweep through different manufacturers and conquer them well. Three locks from three manufacturers shows something great, and they should have rewarded that."
Mr. Gray said Mr. Watters gave quite the performance.
"I know enough about Roy that I think he's a genius," Mr. Gray said, describing him as being "eccentric in a good way." Manipulation is one of many skills necessary to be a successful safecracker.
"He's an absolute master at several disciplines -- tool making, machining and metal work, as well as safe and vault locks," he said. "He's great at many specific skills."
Mr. Potter also said Mr. Watters "was just on fire this year" by opening locks made by Kaba Ilco, Sargent and Greenleaf and Big Red.
"This is something you practice all the time," he said. "It's kind of like an Olympic skater or athlete. You don't sit around for 11 months eating popcorn. You have to fine-tune your skills. Like an athlete, you are constantly honing your skills and practicing.
"There are literally hundreds of safes of all types and sizes, and each can require a different technique."
The prize is bragging rights.
"They get a plaque and a handshake from me," Mr. Potter said, "I don't know which is more valuable."
From father to son
On this Father's Day, Mr. Watters said being a skilled machinist is his magic. And that skill was fostered by his father, the late Harry Watters, who taught industrial arts at Canon-Millan High School, where he would take young Roy on weekends to hone his skills with the shop equipment.
Mr. Watters said he could weld at age 5 and use a lathe at age 6. But his true passion was locks, which he considered to be metal puzzles. His father acknowledged he had a real gift for opening locks, which he would dissemble to learn their mechanical workings.
Now retired from 32 years as a University of Pittsburgh scientific instrument maker for the chemistry department, Mr. Watters is introducing his 34-year-old son, Adam, to the safecracking trade. The two often work as a team to open, repair, move and deliver safes. They also repair, deliver and manipulate open gun safes -- all the rage with the controversy over gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Mass.
"We're doing the father-son thing," Mr. Watters said.
Being a good safecracker continues to get more difficult with ever more advanced and clever technologies and the introduction of space-age materials in locks, safes and vaults.
"But the brains are working good. My hands are working good. And I keep learning all the time," Mr. Watters said. "A lot of guys know I come from another background. I look at it in a different way. What really has helped me, I went back to learn how things are manufactured. I know how they work."
On Monday, Mr. Watters arrived at 1388 Freeport Road in O'Hara to open the 1860 Pittsburgh Barnes safe at the former Dinty Moore site. Always the showman, Mr. Watters turned over an hourglass to time himself while providing an onlooker with a stopwatch. He bored a hole near the dial and opened the safe in 6 1/2 minutes.
He later would say he dogged it a bit, actually relocking it several times out of respect for the old safe. With the newspaper present, he said he didn't want to open it in a minute or two to set customers' expectations too high, especially when larger, more complicated safes and vaults can take hours to open.
Thomas Wilson, building owner for 25 years, opened the safe door that Mr. Watters had unlocked for the first time in a quarter century to reveal an empty safe.
Another success for Mr. Watters.
A Geraldo moment for Mr. Wilson and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM