Geraldo Rivera brought you The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault.
Today we bring you The Mystery of John S. Knight’s Safe.
Geraldo’s 1986 syndicated TV show drew 30 million viewers.
Our nonsyndicated Saturday afternoon adventure drew five — including the safecracker.
At the end of Geraldo’s two-hour extravaganza, he discovered virtually nothing: a few empty bottles and some dirt.
We actually found things. It wasn’t earth-shattering stuff, to be sure, but it was a lot more than Geraldo came up with. If nothing else, the safe’s contents should be of particular interest to an Akron woman whose name is on a $115 check.
This came about because Don Parsisson, who manages Summit Artspace on East Market Street near the Akron Art Museum, told me about an abandoned safe that once belonged to legendary Beacon Journal Editor John S. Knight.
Knight’s personal office was on the second floor of Parsisson’s building from 1927 until the Beacon moved to its present location in 1938. The building has changed hands a number of times, and nobody seemed to have the combination, including Summit County, which has owned the place for 38 years.
So I put out a call for volunteers and heard from half a dozen. One of them seemed perfect: Mike Potter of Malvern, whose late mentor was generally regarded as the best safecracker in the world.
Other people in the business told me nobody does the kind of safecracking you see in the movies, where the wily expert kneels down and works the dial until the door magically swings open. What everyone does today, I was told, is drill. Trying to sort out the numbers by hand — “manipulation,” it’s called — is just too difficult.
Well, this guy opened Jack Knight’s safe without using a single tool — and he did it in 42 minutes.
That, in the safecracking business, is quite literally world-class speed.
No surprise, perhaps, that Potter’s mentor was Skip Eckert of Medina, who died unexpectedly in October at the age of 62.
Eckert was in the Guinness Book of World Records as “Fastest Safecracker.” The two met in the mid-1990s.
“I had opened safes before, but he really polished me up,” says Potter, 51, a barrel-chested man with blue eyes, thick hair and a solid handshake.
After his polishing, Potter quit the locksmith trade and devoted all of his time to safes and vaults. Business was spectacular — as many as 800 jobs a year — but his work was consuming every waking hour, and he had a toddler. So a couple of years ago, he joined Diebold, which gave him a thumbs-up to do a bit of pro bono work on a dreary Saturday afternoon.
Despite his expertise, Potter didn’t seem terribly optimistic. He warned that the process could take two or three hours — and even then might require a trip to his car for a drill.
1:30 p.m.: Potter gets down on one knee and starts to move the dial back and forth, back and forth, over and over and over again. He will spend most of the next 42 minutes doing the same thing.
“No explosives, no sanding of the fingertips — sorry to disappoint you,” he jokes.
When asked whether he is going by feel and sound, he says, “I’m going by sight and feel. The sound is not as important as you might think. I’m tone deaf in [that audio range]. When I go camping, I can’t hear crickets.”
He is looking for “the drop-in zone, where everything kind of comes together and unlocks. When you manipulate, you can feel ... an indication of change, little variations.”
Back and forth. Back and forth.
1:49 p.m.: “This thing is definitely playing hide and seek with us,” he says.
1:53 p.m.: Potter grabs his notebook from a nearby table and lays it on the floor beside him, but doesn’t write anything.
1:55 p.m.: He makes a notation. “Did you get a number?” I ask. “I’m getting an indication. Whether or not it proves out, I don’t know yet.”
2:00 p.m.: “Sixty-five just jumped out at me here.” But he doesn’t know where 65 is located in the sequence of numbers, and he still needs two more.
2:12 p.m.: We hear a loud click, look up and see that the big brass handle has been turned to the side and door is ajar. Victory!
Potter steps back casually and extends his arm, a silent invitation to grab the door and pull.
He was figuring we’d find nothing but dust. Who would move out of a building before emptying the safe?
I was figuring the same thing. So were Don Parsisson and his wife, Diane Chambers. Ditto for Beacon Journal photographer Phil Masturzo.
(Not sure about Geraldo; he wasn’t immediately available for comment.)
I slowly pulled open the door and saw ... loose papers and a folder.
Although the county had indicated the safe had not been used in decades, it was opened as recently as 1996, the date on a check written to Susan Kimmel of Akron by the state auditor.
We found a case file for a supplemental Social Security application, $50 worth of federal food coupons and an IOU: “11/3 — Removed $65 for groceries. Deb.”
We trust Deb has long since repaid her debt. Yep.
For the record, here’s the combination to Jack Knight’s safe: 15 to the right four times. Left three times to 40. Right two times to 65. Back to the left to a dead stop.
Forgotten combinations play only a small part in the work of a safecracker. In most cases, the problem is mechanical. “They are full of screws and springs and things go bad, just like a car.”
For that reason, the contents of the safes he breaks are rarely a surprise. But the surprises can be noteworthy.
“Two years ago, I ran into a safe that was just about ready to go to the scrap yard, but they asked me to open it up, and we found a quarter of a million dollars in gold coins.
“They didn’t even give me a tip.”
Well, some things never change.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.