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Canonsburg master machinist cracks safes for government agencies

| Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009

In the 30 years that Roy Watters has been cracking safes, he's found piles of cash, gold, silver and a lot of drugs.

His clients include banks, jewelers, even the federal government.

"It's been a great ride. It's still a great ride," Watters said from the Chevron Science Center in Oakland where he works as a machinist making scientific instruments for the University of Pittsburgh's Chemistry Department.

A master machinist and safe and lock technician, Watters, 56, of Canonsburg has worked as a consultant on scenes involving safes for NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "CSI" on CBS.

He started tinkering with locks when he was a kid. The son of an industrial arts teacher, he was welding at age 5 and working on a lathe at 6. While his classmates got cars for graduation, Watters got a lathe of his own.

Over the years, he amassed a collection of locks that ranges from 30-ton bank vault locks to small German padlocks. Some have intricate details that offer a hint at their value.

"Locks are priceless, but they are underrated (by collectors)," he said, pointing to an 1877 Sargent & Greenleaf time lock with three timing mechanisms.

His business is changing, though. Few young people are following in Watters' footsteps.

"This is a very hurting business," he said.

Associated Locksmiths of America counts about 7,000 members, down from a high of 9,000 in 2005, said David Lowell, its executive director. The number of those working in safes and vaults has dropped from about 2,500 to 1,800, he said.

But changing technology is attracting some people who are interested in electronic and biometric locks — those that use fingerprints as a key, he said.

"The traditional locksmith shop where they grind keys might not be the thing to get into. ... But there is a kind of expansion in safe and vault," Lowell said. "A lot of the technology is more to their liking."

Watters has worked at most of the banks in Pittsburgh, sometimes opening old, forgotten safes that were found when offices were moved.

"No one remembers the combination, so they call me," he said.

Among his clients is jeweler Joe Urbanowicz.

"We had a safe that failed and we wanted someone to open it and not butcher it. Roy is like a surgeon," Urbanowicz said.

Watters cracked a safe in Mt. Pleasant filled with gemstone carvings that were being sold for $30,000 to $50,000. Inside a large safe, he discovered the "real safe" where contraband could be hidden, he said.

Sometimes he's able to "manipulate" the locks, listening or feeling for subtle clicks and changes in tension as the grooves line up. Other times he reaches into his bag of tools.

"Some go nice ... and then there are certain times I bring out the big drill," he said.

One of his jobs involved making a flexible drill bit that he could snake through a bank vault door from a high spot to reach under the lock's protective plates. He also uses a borescope — a tube with fiber optics — to look inside the lock.

The FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service also have called on his expertise, though he won't discuss specifics of cases.

Watters was named the second-fastest safecracker in the world during a contest at the Safe and Vault Technicians Association convention in Reno, Nev., in 2002. He brought home nine other awards between 1990 and 2008.

The competitions pit experts and novice safecrackers against randomly selected safes with combination locks. Drills, explosives and listening devices are not allowed. Competitors have to manipulate the locks to open them.

Watters recalls a safe he opened for a woman whose husband died. After she led him to the safe in the basement, she said she didn't expect anything of value to be inside and started to climb the stairs. Watters wanted her to remain for the opening, in case there was.

After working the lock for a couple of minutes, he opened the door. Inside was a stack of cash.

The widow shook her head and called her husband "that son of a (expletive)," Watters said.

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