Teaching teens to work with their hands was the mission of the late Harry Watters, a longtime industrial arts instructor at Canon-McMillan High School. It’s not certain how many talented crafters he helped to develop, but there is little doubt who is the most accomplished.
A kid from a neighboring school district.
“At 5 I was welding, at 6 I was operating a metal lathe,” Roy Watters said, reflecting back more than a half-century when Harry – his father –would take the lad to his unconventional classroom on weekends and train him on the intricacies of machinery.
It did not take long for the youngster to realize “if you put something mechanical in my hands, I’m magical.”
That is the sentiment of almost everyone who encounters, or hires, this Chartiers Township resident – and that number is huge. At 66, he is recognized nationally, and in other countries, as a master safecracker. He does it legally, although he would be a massively successful thief, capable of opening any safe in mere minutes.
“I’m a world-class manipulator of safes,” he said proudly.
Watters estimates that he has worked on more than 20,000 safes and vaults, and not just for private citizens. His clients – many of them high profile – include banks, police, the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and various governments.
A number of safes he has opened are empty – no gold, no million dollars, no Ark of the Covenant. Yet there have been various bonanzas, including gold valued in the millions, piles of cash, wine collections, drugs and pornography.
A Chartiers-Houston graduate, Watters is regarded as an elite safecracker. He was one of two interviewed for a CBS-TV “Sunday Morning” segment on his specialty, a four-minute feature that aired July 28. Asked by reporter David Pogue, “Out of 100 safes that people hire you to open, how many stump you?”
“Zero,” Watters responded, pausing only long enough to grin. “I’m too well prepared.”
Amazingly, there is a competitive element to this work, pitting Watters against other elite safecrackers in international events. He said he has finished second and third in the world, “but I’ve never taken first place.”
Watters has a museum in the basement of his home, featuring a few thousand locks “from all over the world,” which he has taken the time to archive. Asked for an approximate number, Watters flashed that smile and said, “a lot.”
His collection extends to the grotesque, and includes a wooden lock from 1831 that was used at a gallows in England. Unlocking it triggered a hanging. He also has a ball-and-chain from the infamous Alcatraz prison, and hourglasses and crystal balls.
There are keys as well, some four or five inches long, and handcuffs, which are useless on Watters. He frees himself in seconds.
“This collection should go to a museum somewhere,” he said, laughing. The irony is it already has.
Watters’ devotion to this arcane endeavor began when he “played with locks as a kid.” He has been breaking into safes for 47 years, since he was 19, and is an avowed “gun safe expert” who, he added, has moved, installed, serviced and “opened every brand of gun safe ever made.”
Yet it is safe to say Watters’ skills go beyond cracking. He is a master machinist and master welder who also builds and repairs safes, bank vaults and high-security jewelers safes. He also moves and installs safes up to 8,000 pounds – four tons.
“I’m a machinist, so I make my own equipment that can pick locks,” he said. Watters’ dexterity led to a 32-year career at the University of Pittsburgh as an instrument maker for the chemistry department, a position from which he retired.
He is still working, though, the demand for his safecracking/locksmithing services sufficiently high. Watters works with his son, Adam, 40, whom he’s mentored akin to how his father counseled him.
“I always took my son with me to Pitt,” Roy Watters said. “He’s done this his whole life. We team up on everything. We’re very safe about it and we look out for each other because one wrong move and it will bite you.
“My son probably will take over from me ... maybe soon.”
Watters stringently adheres to a couple of guidelines regarding safes, and recommends that consumers do the same. He advises anyone planning to purchase a safe to avoid the cheap route, that the quality of the product is equivalent to what you pay.
“The public is so misled,” he said. “Buy a safe that is comparable to what you put into it. If it’s jewelry, spend more.”
And after making that investment, he said, treat it with TLC. Service that safe. “If the public would service their safes periodically, they would function better.”
As for himself, Roy Watters said he has functioned well in his roles as safecracker, safe builder, safe installer, safe mover, safe repairman, safe contestant. It has been a safe, fun and intriguing existence.
“If I had to live life again,” he said with that trademark grin, “I’d do it all the same.”