Before he started drilling through the 3-ton door of the super-secure music vault at Paisley Park, the estate of the late rock star Prince, Dave McOmie pulled out his cellphone and played a round of Words With Friends with his wife.
The point of a little recreation at that tense moment wasn’t bravado in front of the cameras, lawyers and federal agents watching McOmie’s every move — not to mention the countless mourning Prince fans outside the estate gates and all around the world. It was just the opposite: McOmie was clearing his head, both of stress and of any casual carelessness that might have accrued after successfully opening upward of 10,000 locked safes and vaults in a decadeslong career.
Now sufficiently relaxed, McOmie returned to the vault. He triple-checked microscopic measurements for the Sharpie point where he would penetrate the supposedly impenetrable door, last closed by Prince himself, with a super-hard carbide drill bit.
“Allowing myself to drift on autopilot isn’t an option,” McOmie writes in “Safecracker,” a new memoir about his uniquely fascinating life’s work. So, when the pressure is at its highest, he frequently checks in with his family at home.
McOmie and his wife and kids live in Camas, Clark County, where his parents used to own the downtown Dairy Queen and his mother served up burgers and milkshakes. As a kid growing up in Vancouver, McOmie was a huge fan of the hit TV series “It Takes a Thief,” starring Robert Wagner as a former burglar who puts his sneaky skills to use for the forces of good — and who manages to unlock the hearts of many lovely ladies along the way.
“He was the coolest character ever,” McOmie said in an interview with The Columbian.
Then, the young McOmie watched a local locksmith arrive and save the day for a neighbor locked out of her car and house.
“It was mesmerizing to watch him pick the lock on her front door, which took about eight seconds,” he said. “We chatted while he disassembled the lock. He showed me the tiny little tumblers and explained how the pick manipulates them into position, and I was hooked.”
McOmie pestered his parents until they took him for a visit to the locksmith shop, where he wound up apprenticing after school and on Saturdays. That local locksmith was Gene Corey. The personal connection changed the course of McOmie’s life — even though he pretty quickly graduated from keying locks for neighbors, which paid about $5 a pop, to drilling safes, which paid more like $500.
“It was like learning the greatest magic trick of them all, and getting paid for it,” he writes. “I left general locksmithing early on and went to work as a professional safecracker, specializing in difficult lockouts, and have spent much of my working life crisscrossing the country, opening bank vaults and high-security safes.”
Who hires such a specialist, and why? There are a few classic reasons, McOmie writes. Lock mechanisms do malfunction on their own, or get broken by hapless burglars applying overwhelming force.
“Brute force attacks may provide temporary relief from testosterone overload, but they lock up the safe even tighter,” he writes.
The combination may be unknown, forgotten or lost with its late owner, as happened with Prince’s music vault. Risk-takers have been known to purchase locked safes on Craigslist, or elsewhere, and turn to McOmie to free the fortunes they hope are inside. Every once in a while, McOmie writes, they’re not disappointed.
But good old operator error is the most common reason McOmie gets called in, as he explains in a passage about human fallibility and the classic vault technology known as a timelock. This involves three redundant clocks that are all wound up by one bank employee and checked by another. Once the clocks are set and the vault is locked, it cannot be opened until the time runs down at least one of the clocks.
“This ultra-secure method of locking … has deterred potential kidnappers and rogue employees for the past century and a half. Bank personnel can’t open the vault for any reason, not even at gunpoint,” McOmie writes.
“But then one day, perhaps after years without a mistake, tedium takes its toll and too many hours are wound on all three clocks. The person double-checking, who by this time has become more of a rubber-stamper, fails to notice, and the vault is closed and locked. The next morning, it won’t open. This happens somewhere in the United States every week, most often on Monday.”
That’s when McOmie is invited to swoop in as fast as he can, sometimes via a chartered flight, lugging suitcases full of tools like high-powered drills with diamond bits and surgical endoscopes that have been modified for peering inside machinery and wiring rather than human bodies.
Big banks, fishy jobs
McOmie said he usually accepts assignments only from banks, big businesses and government agencies he knows he can trust. He takes jobs by referral only, he said, and has never advertised. His steadiest employer is Diebold, a financial-technology company that maintains safes, vaults, ATMs and safe deposit boxes in all 50 states.
Whenever anything feels fishy, McOmie passes on the job. In “Safecracker” he describes his unease with a call from a Salmon Creek woman who said she suspected her husband of infidelity and wanted McOmie to break into the husband’s gun safe secretly and quickly — before hubby got home. McOmie didn’t know what she expected to find in there, he writes, but assured her there were better ways of handling her suspicions.
More than once, McOmie has found himself in the supremely uncomfortable position of discovering secrets that nobody expected or wanted to find. He’s opened the personal safes of prominent, respected, recently deceased men and discovered cringeworthy evidence of infidelities — including lurid photographs and videos — that he was asked to destroy, discreetly, before the widow or family realized what was up.
That’s not his job, McOmie said, but he’s done it. One of his cardinal rules, he said, is never to be left alone with valuables he’s released — be they money, jewelry, drugs or secret government documents.
“Safecracker” contains many suspenseful episodes that lock and other gadgetry geeks will eat up for their detailed descriptions of vault and safe technologies. But the most surprising thing about the book is the humane personality and thoughtful voice of its author. While it’s no surprise that he’s an unquenchable puzzle-solver with a calm, introverted demeanor, “Safecracker” also takes side trips into McOmie’s other selves: a music lover and former rock guitarist who once opened for Emmylou Harris; a dedicated father and husband who juggles family responsibilities with his unpredictable schedule and travels; a graduate philosophy student who considered becoming a college professor.
He didn’t do that, but McOmie still approaches life and safecracking philosophically.
“Studying philosophy changed my life,” he writes, “by forcing me to sit still and think.”