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Thieves burglarize Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults in Seattle over the three-day Washington's Birthday weekend that begins on February 20, 1954.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8110 : Printer-Friendly Format

Over the three-day weekend of Washington’s Birthday, February 20-22, 1954, burglars break into Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults, located at 701 1st Avenue in Seattle, and rifle more than 400 safe-deposit boxes for money.  Although negotiable instruments, stolen jewelry, and other items are covered by insurance, cash is not.  Actual losses are estimated from $200,000 to $500,000.  The only clues are a mysterious man who accumulated a wide variety of tools and equipment used in the burglary, and a single bond cashed later in Nevada.  The perpetrators of one of Seattle’s biggest heists will never be identified or caught, and case never solved. 

An Old Safe

Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults was located in the basement of the Kenneth Hotel, 701 1st Avenue in Seattle, once the site of the Merchant’s National Bank Building, built circa 1884.  Although the bank was destroyed in the 1889 Seattle fire, which leveled the business section of the city, the Diebold fireproof vaults survived and were incorporated into a new building.  It was the Safe Deposit Building, a slender seven-story ornate stone structure, housing the Kenneth Hotel and Merchant’s National Bank business offices on the main floor.  In 1956, the hotel was purchased by the Reliance Overseas Inc. an import company, and renamed the Reliance Building.  It housed The Penthouse Tavern, a nightclub renowned locally for its great modern jazz music. The building was demolished in 1968, during Seattle’s infamous purge of historic structures in the 1960s, to make way for a “modern” 10-story parking garage. 

In 1954, the Kenneth Hotel was owned by Dr. Lawrence Sherman, a retired chiropodist, who leased the vaults to Frank J. Goodman, doing business as Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults.  The only direct access to the vaults was through the basement business office, protected by heavy steel doors.  The vaults were protected by a Diebold bank-vault door, four-inches-thick; steel walls, one-and-a-half- inch-thick;  and brick walls, eight-inches-thick.  The facility contained 1,640 safe-deposit boxes of varying sizes, but only about half were in use. 

In 1919, safecrackers had tried to break into the safe-deposit vaults, but failed.  They set off dynamite at the vault door, but it withstood the charge.  Both police and insurance underwriters judged Seattle’s oldest safe-deposit vaults to be burglarproof as well as fireproof.  In addition, the facility was located in a busy building, only two blocks from the Public Safety Building, headquarters of the Seattle Police Department.  Unfortunately, the hotel had an old, unused entrance to the basement on Post Avenue, and Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults had no burglar alarm system or guard. 

Picking and Entering

The burglary occurred over the rainy Washington’s Birthday three-day weekend, February 20-22, 1954, while local law enforcement officers and their spouses were occupied on Saturday with the 60th annual Police Ball at the Civic Auditorium (formerly the Seattle Center Opera House, now Marion Oliver McCaw Hall).  The burglars gained entrance to the building from Post Avenue by picking the rear-door padlocks into a large storage room where they marshaled their equipment: acetylene and oxygen tanks, a welding outfit, and a large footlocker containing wrenches, sledgehammers, crowbars, pry bars, impact hammers, cold chisels, electric extension cords, drills, special drill bits, goggles, and gloves. 

After making their way through the basement into the Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults waiting room, the safecrackers sealed the cracks around the front door with tape, then burned the locks from two steel doors to reach the inside office.  They attempted to drill a hole in the heavy vault door to access its locking mechanism, but without success.  Next, the burglars excavated a large hole in the vault’s brick outer-wall with sledgehammers and pry bars, and then, using the acetylene cutting torch, proceeded to burn a hole through the steel inner-wall, large enough for a man to enter.  Once inside, the burglars used crowbars, impact hammers and cold chisels to break open the safe-deposit-box doors.  Boxes were removed and passed from inside the vault to the office where the contents were rifled and emptied onto the floor.  Empty safe-deposit boxes were stacked in the office like cordwood. 

Crime Scene

Frank J. Goodman, manager of Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults, discovered the break-in on Tuesday morning, February 23, 1954, and immediately notified the Seattle Police.  Detective Sergeant Kenneth Thomas and seven detectives were immediately assigned to the case.  Police believed the job was done by at least three men and there was likely a fourth gang member posted outside as a lookout.  As was common practice for professional safecrackers, who didn’t want to get caught with tools in their possession, everything, including the acetylene welding gear and tanks, was left behind when the job was done.  Detective Sergeant Thomas told reporters: “The burglars evidently were highly skilled operators, a type from which Seattle has been free for several years” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).   

Papers, negotiable stocks and bonds, jewelry, gold, and other valuables had all been dumped in a large pile on the office floor.  It appeared as though the thieves limited themselves to taking only currency, leaving behind items that had to be fenced and could be identified and traced.  They didn’t even bother to open sealed envelopes, many which were found to contain money. 

Losses Claimed and Unclaimed

Once news of the heist hit the airwaves and papers, the Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults waiting room was jammed with anxious customers.  Two police officers, with a list of the opened boxes, were stationed there for security.  The National Surety Corporation sent two insurance adjusters, Robert Chase and Thomas Martin, to the scene to handle customer’s claims.  Insurance covered nearly everything of value, except cash.  Chase told reporters: “There would be no way to check the accuracy of cash claims.  Most valuable papers, such as stock and bonds, can be checked, however” (The Seattle Times). 

Once the crime scene had been processed for evidence, Goodman and his staff began the tedious task of sorting through heaps of important papers and valuables.  It took three days to clean up the office and vaults, then Downs Northwest Diebold Safe Company dispatched locksmiths and vault installers to repair the damage, a job which took two weeks. 

By Friday, February 26, reported losses had risen to $150,000.  However, only about half the owners of the 416 rifled boxes had reported their losses to police.  The insurance adjusters thought insurance losses would remain light, since apparently all the thieves had taken was cash. Detective Sergeant Thomas believed many victims were reluctant to declare how much or what had been in their safe-deposit boxes, fearing problems with police or the Internal Revenue Service.  The biggest loss was suffered by an Alaskan who reported keeping $33,000 cash in his box.  Another victim reported that $10,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds had been stolen and provided the police with the serial numbers.  Investigators estimated actual losses were probably between $200,000 and $500,000.  

Thieves Local and Knowledgeable

Seattle detectives had few clues to follow.  A picture of the tools used in the burglary was published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, captioned: “Can you recognize any of these tools?”  On Saturday, February 27, Detective Sergeant Thomas disclosed to the press that many of items had been purchased in downtown hardware stores.  A clerk at Schwabacher Hardware, 401 1st Avenue S, positively identified a sledgehammer as one purchased there on Thursday, February 18. 

Detectives also learned the heavy acetylene and oxygen tanks and welding equipment had been rented from a welding supply company in Tacoma on Friday, February 19.  After picking up the apparatus, the suspect made two more trips to the supplier for parts.  He told the clerk the apparatus was for a garage and gave the address of the Pierce County Hospital.  The suspect, described as a thin, white male, about 30-years-old, with wavy blond hair, was driving a nondescript 1940s-model Chevrolet delivery van.  The description tallied closely those of witnesses in Seattle. 

And that’s where the investigation died.  Some cynics supposed the vaults were used by corrupt city officials to hide caches of “dirty” money and inside knowledge of the vaults, the perfect timing and flawless execution of the burglary suggested police involvement.  The perpetrators of one of Seattle’s biggest heists were never identified or caught, and the case was never solved.  The only other clue to surface was a single stolen bond that showed up later in Nevada. 

Sources:
Don Duncan, “Holiday Heist on First Avenue,” Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle: The Seattle Times, 1989) p. 84; “Police Ball Due Saturday,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 1954, p. 11; George McDowell, “Yeggs Loot Safe Deposit Vault Here,” Ibid., February 24, 1954, p. 8; “Vault Theft Loss Now $90,000,” Ibid., February 25, 1954, p. 1; Dan Coughlin, “Vault Theft Loss Hits $150,000,” Ibid., February 27, 1954, p. 1; “Douglas Welch, “Equipment Traced in Vault Burglary,” Ibid., February 28, 1954, p. 1; “Police Find New Clue in Vault Theft,” Ibid., March 1, 1954, p. 17; “New Save Deposit Law Studied,” Ibid., March 2, 1954, p. 5; “Safe Deposit Loot Clues Narrowing,” Ibid., March 8, 1954, p. 5; “400 Boxes in First Ave. Vault Looted,” The Seattle Times, February 23, 1954, p. 1; “Joy Follows Pathos in Breaking News of Looted Vault,” Ibid., February 24, 1954, p. 1; “$105,000 Cash Loss Listed in Vault Theft,” Ibid., February 25, 1954, p. 8; “Clue Found in Safe-Deposit Burglary,” Ibid., February 28, 1954, p. 1.


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Seattle Times headline on Pioneer Square vault heist, February 23, 1954
Courtesy The Seattle Times


Merchants Bank following the Great Seattle Fire, Pioneer Square, Seattle, June 1889
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. CUR1318)


Gordon Hardware Co. Building (l) and Kenneth Hotel (or Safe Deposit Building), 1st Avenue, Pioneer Square, Seattle, ca. 1900
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Randolph photos, No. WAR0175)


Parking garage, 1st Avenue and Cherry Street, Pioneer Square, Seattle, February 12, 2007



Post Avenue entrances near 1st Avenue and Cherry Street, Pioneer Square, Seattle, February 12, 2007
Photo by Daryl C. McClary


Civic Auditorium (later, Seattle Center Opera House, still later McCaw Hall) Mercer Avenue, Seattle, ca. 1929
Courtesy MOHAI (Image 1983.10 3722.3


 
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