For Village locksmith, no safe is mission impossible


By Cathy Jedruczek

“Tick, tick…click”— and the door finally opens. Philip Mortillaro says there’s nothing that makes him feel better than the sound of wheels in a safe’s lock lining up. “When you hear that and you get it opened, it’s like perfect,” said Mortillaro of his expert safecracking skills. “I don’t know what it is, but it feels like Christmas morning.” And it’s not because he finds treasures inside — most safes he’s called on to open are empty — it’s the satisfaction in getting to the “click.”

Mortillaro breaks into an average of three to 10 safes a week. In his 30-year career, he has opened hundreds of them and he’s one of only few safecrackers who are familiar with cast-iron vaults. Mortillaro says there are locksmiths calling him on a daily basis asking for tips, but he refuses to reveal his secrets of the trade. During a recent interview, he stopped short from describing in detail how he goes about opening a safe.

“The safe business is interesting because not everybody does it and it’s a real niche and you have to know what you’re doing,” said Mortillaro, whose Greenwich Safe and Lock Company on Seventh Ave. S. between Morton and Cherry Sts. Celebrated its 25-year anniversary in April. Mortillaro says that each job he gets is different because it depends on the type and condition of the safe. There are TL — tool-rated safes — meaning, they are tool resistant and could take from 15 to 60 minutes to open. “TL 60, six sided, which means not only the doors are rated for 60 minutes, but the whole safe — bottom, top — get 60 minutes,” explained Mortillaro. He laughs at Hollywood’s depiction of safecrackers and he’s critical of the new electronic locks. He says they are easier to break into.

The safes he cracks have frozen wheels from disuse or, in the case of safes in restaurants, can’t open because grease from the air gets in the lock and gums up the wheels. “A lot of times, all it takes is a block of wood and a hammer,” said Mortillaro. “Sometimes people don’t use the safe, they open it up once a year. When you dial it, wheels line up, but they are frozen. That’s when you need a hammer and a wooden block.” But not all jobs are that simple.

Mortillaro finds safes damaged by burglars particularly hard to crack. “Burglar comes in and breaks everything with a hammer, knocks off the dial, punches the lock in, breaks the handle,” described Mortillaro. “The safe is made this way so the handle and things on the outside break easily.”

If he can’t manipulate the wheels, Mortillaro drills through the hot plate and then carefully through the lock. Then he uses a boroscope, a tool orthopedists use to peer inside a patient’s knee, to dial the combination. It’s time consuming and to be effective, you have to be organized, Mortillaro says.

Mortillaro started working at Reimer Locksmiths on 53rd St. and Second Ave. at age 14. He never made it past eighth grade and teachers thought he was just a lazy student. What they didn’t know is that Mortillaro worked all the time and read a lot. He still does. During an interview at his store earlier this month, Mortillaro would answer questions and then sidetrack into talking about the early history of the Village. He was born on Elizabeth St., lived in Astoria, owned an apartment in the Village and now lives in New Jersey. He misses living in the city, even though, during the week, he spends 12 hours of his day here. “New York gets into your blood, it gets under your skin,” explained Mortillaro whose parents came from Sicily.

At 20, Mortillaro opened up his own shop at 25 Union Sq. W. and had Andy Warhol as his neighbor. “He was crazy,” said Mortillaro. “He would always come in to change locks — very nervous guy. It always had to be done immediately.”

Mortillaro also had a store on 86th St. and First Avenue and a store at 68 Trinity Pl. He operated the latter along with the one in Greenwich Village until 1992.

Getting back to his safecracking skills, a subject he likes to discuss, he says he did a “terrible job” opening his first safe, but was never a quitter. He learned a lot from a Romanian locksmith named Jacob; the rest was just experience and good puzzle-solving skills, Mortillaro says. He has a lot of notes and schematics that help him make a “very educated guess,” when cracking a safe. Mortillaro opened a lot of government safes, including a bank vault at 90 Church St. The vault was used to store the bomb information for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, he learned. That safe was also empty.

Mortillaro also specializes in master keys, but with New York going residential it’s likely that he will get less business. “An office building might have 25 offices on the floor and each office has a door, safe, cabinets,” said Mortillaro. “When it becomes a residential building, they’ll put six apartments on the floor, we’ll change the locks once and then we’re finished.”

But Mortillaro is confident about his business and says he could do well even if only opened safes. He’s teaching the trade to one of his three sons — 18-year-old Philip — who will eventually take over the business. “I’m, proud of my business even though it’s small,” said Mortillaro. “We go there and the job is not right and we go back and we make it right. If you’re really not happy, we will give you your money back. Consumer Affairs — never had a complaint; Better Business Bureau — never had a complaint. You can charge as much as you want, but you have to provide the right service.”