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Chartiers man has inside story on safecracking

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.”

License plate readers helping police solve crimes

CHARLEROI – A license plate reader installed at a fixed location recorded most of the suspects in a brutal assault, allegedly carried out by Pagans, as they left the Charleroi area together in April.

The data helped Charleroi Regional police build evidence to make arrests in the case, just one of a growing number of crimes that are being solved with the help of Automated License Plate Readers, authorities said.

“I love the way we’re deploying them at major intersections,” said Canonsburg police Chief Al Coghill, who also is president of the Washington County Chiefs of Police Association.

There are a dozen ALPRs in Washington County, and Allegheny County “is flooded with them,” Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said.

“They save police time, Vittone said. “The don’t have to put out BOLOs or sit at intersections now to wait and to watch for licenses plates.”

The cameras take photos of vehicles and use character recognition technology to identify vehicle registration plates. The software also tags the plates to locations, allowing police to track their movements.

“It’s been very beneficial, Vittone said. “It’s solved a lot of crime.”

Eight members of the Pagan Motorcycle Club and two alleged accomplices are awaiting trial on attempted homicide charges in Washington County Court in the April 18 assault of Troy Harris in the Charleroi Slovak Club. Video surveillance in the club’s bar also helped investigators identify the gang members.

“It’s a great tool for sure,” Charleroi police Chief Eric Porter said.

This technology also helped South Strabane Township police identify Elvis Roman of Romania in a 2018 case involving a credit card skimmer that resulted in the thefts of thousands of dollars from local banks, township police Chief Drew Hilk said.

Federal prosecutors took over the case resulting in Roman being indicted in November of that year. He pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft, bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud and was sentenced Thursday to spend 34 months in a federal prison, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh said.

Hilk said his department has used ALPRs to make dozens of retail theft arrests. Officers there have located stolen vehicles and solved fraud cases using the devices, he said.

“The list of it keeps growing,” Hilk said.

He also said judges have indicated they want prosecutors to use technology more to prove their cases.

The APLRs were installed with the thought that they would be helpful in cases involving abducted children, Vittone said.

“You hope you don’t have to use it,” Coghill added.

Pompeo: State Dept. will follow law in impeachment inquiry

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday the State Department intends to “follow the law” in the House impeachment investigation and vigorously defended President Donald Trump, dismissing questions about the president’s attempts to push Ukraine and China to investigate a Democratic political rival.

The Trump administration and House Democrats often disagree about what the law requires, leaving open the question of how Pompeo may interpret Democrats’ demands for key information about Trump’s handling of Ukraine.

Pompeo, speaking in Greece, said the State Department sent a letter to Congress Friday night as its initial response to the document request and added, “We’ll obviously do all the things that we’re required to do by law.” He has allowed Democrats to interview a series of witnesses next week.

The administration has struggled to come up with a unified response to the quickly progressing investigation. Democrats have warned that defying their demands will in itself be considered “evidence of obstruction” and a potentially impeachable offense.

Pompeo has become a key figure in the Democrats’ investigation. He was on the line during the July phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter – sparking a whistleblower complaint and now the impeachment inquiry.

Pompeo had initially tried to delay a handful of current and former officials from cooperating with the inquiry and accused Democrats trying to “bully” his staffers.

On Saturday, Pompeo did not back off his defense of Trump’s call with Ukraine.

“There has been some suggestion somehow that it would be inappropriate for the United States government to engage in that activity and I see it just precisely the opposite,” he said.

Trump has offered a series of contradictory statements when it comes to the Democrats’ subpoena of White House records.

Asked Wednesday whether the White House intended to comply, Trump told reporters, “I always cooperate,” even as he dismissed the inquiry as “a hoax.” A day later, however, Trump had a different answer for the same question, saying he would instead leave the matter to his lawyers.

“That’s up to them to decide,” he said, “But the whole investigation is crumbling.”

By Friday, however, Trump confirmed reports the White House was preparing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arguing that Congress cannot undertake an impeachment investigation without first having a vote to authorize it. Pelosi has insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the Constitution regardless.

It was unclear Saturday when or if that letter would be sent.

Pompeo, meanwhile, made clear that the State Department had yet to turn over any document, but intended to follow a proper review. And he said he would do so faster than the Obama administration.

“I remember precisely once when I was on that side and we were looking for documents, I remember precisely how long it took for those documents to come across,” he said in an apparent reference to his experience as a congressman during the investigation into the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

“We’re going to beat that. We’re going to be more responsive than the Obama administration was in the years that preceded this particular Congress,” he said.

A congressional aide familiar with Pompeo’s response confirmed that the State Department had indeed been in contact, even if Pompeo had failed to meet a Friday deadline to produce documents required by the subpoena.

Trump, meanwhile, continued to seethe Saturday, denouncing the investigation as yet another “Witch Hunt!” and “a fraud against the American people!”

In a series of tweets Saturday, including several sent as his presidential motorcade ferried him back and forth to his Virginia golf course, Trump defended his conduct and lashed out at critics, including a past foil, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

“I’m hearing that the Great People of Utah are considering their vote for their Pompous Senator, Mitt Romney, to be a big mistake. I agree! He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats!” Trump wrote. He ended his tweet with an extraordinary call to impeach a senator from his own party.

Yet Romney was joined Saturday in his criticism by a second Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, who said “it’s not OK” for a president to encourage a foreign state to investigate a political rival.

Speaking after a firefighter memorial service in Maine, Collins said Trump made a “big mistake” when he piled on his outreach to Ukraine by publicly calling on China to investigate the Bidens.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is the only other Republican senator to publicly criticize the president’s comments that further fueled an impeachment inquiry.

Lawmakers are focused on Trump’s efforts to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. A whistleblower complaint said that Trump sought to use military assistance for Ukraine as leverage to push the newly elected Zelenskiy to launch an inquiry into the 2020 Democratic hopeful.

Late Thursday, House investigators released a cache of text messages that showed top U.S. diplomats encouraging Zelenskiy to conduct an investigation linked to Biden’s family in return for granting a high-profile visit with Trump in Washington.

The release followed a 10-hour interview with one of the diplomats, Kurt Volker, who stepped down as special envoy to Ukraine after the impeachment inquiry had begun.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, another key figure in the probe, will be interviewed Tuesday.