Montgomery Master Safecracker Unlocks The Impossible

March 24--Small fire safes. ATMs. High security bank vaults. Phil Crawford is up for the challenge.

"SafeCrackers," a new reality show that premieres at 9 p.m. tonight (central time, 10 Eastern) on truTV, gives viewers a chance to live vicariously through a Montgomery, AL, man who truly, madly, deeply loves his line of work.

Phil Crawford of Montgomery Lock & Key is a certified master safecracker -- the highest qualification available in the world of safe and vault opening. For 23 years he has made a living bringing to light objects that for spans of decades have been sealed from the outside world. Going in, he and his clients never know what's inside. But they know they're about to find out.

"I am totally, 100 percent dedicated to what I do," Crawford said. "I love opening safes. I look at them as puzzles. I have to figure out where the pieces go to get it done. It's a mental challenge for me. Once you get really good at something, you walk in with an air of confidence."

Two years ago, a Los Angeles production company got wind of Crawford's work and sent a lone cameraman out to meet him in Montgomery and accompany him on his adventures. One look at the footage, and they knew they were onto something. In its debut season on truTV, six half-hour episodes follow Crawford to jobs in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the upper panhandle of Florida.

Crawford said most people have no knowledge of the vast landscape of sealed vaults, safes, bunkers and other hidden spaces scattered throughout the South and beyond, all with their own peculiarities, challenges and, often, long-forgotten loot that either piques curiosity, brings on a rush of memories, offers a heavy payload -- or all of the above.

"That was one of the reasons I took advantage of doing the show," said Crawford, who'll be watching tonight from home with his two daughters. "Your average citizen has no idea there is an army of us guys out there that help keep your contents safe. There's a lot of stuff out there, and I can't wait to find it."

Getting in

Crawford, who is originally from Florida, took his mother's words of wisdom to heart: "Do what you love, and you never have to work a day in your life." And it has paid off. There are moments in the show where Crawford cracks open a vault that has been impenetrable, abandoned for years. A look of glee lights up his face. He might pump a fist, break into a short victory dance and utter a hearty, "Oh yeah!" Or, "That's what I'm talkin' about!" Or, "Sweet!" (also a favorite reaction of his sidekick, Blaze).

The heavily tattooed and long-bearded Blaze, a private contractor, was mentored by and has worked with Crawford for 15 years, the amount of time Crawford has been in Montgomery.

"He had some good instincts to begin with," Crawford said of Blaze, whose wife, Summertime, sometimes assists the duo in finding new terrain to explore.

The two guys, who make every effort to keep a safe intact but have been known to blow some of them up or shoot at them, are pioneers of a sort. They've mastered combination lock manipulation and strong, safe drill techniques, and they've escaped a fair amount of booby traps along the way.

Then there is the willingness and drive to do the work.

"Master safecrackers are few and far between. We absolutely are a rare breed, because it's a very difficult business to be in," Crawford said.

He is not just referring to excessive mental strategy. Safes can be heavy -- up to thousands of pounds -- and the guy cracking the safe is also on the team that is rigging it. It's not a job a lot of folks are willing to take on. People have been killed doing this for a living, he said.

Crawford may be more eager than anyone to conquer a monster of a safe, but patience is not just a virtue here. It's a life-saver.

Mad respect

Crawford said his skills not only bring him personal fulfillment, but "mad respect" from others. That includes his colleagues.

Mike Prickett, an in-house locksmith and longtime colleague of Crawford at Montgomery Lock & Key, said the accolades showered on Crawford are no exaggeration.

"He's probably the best in the Southeast at what he does -- that is spot-on," said Prickett, who added that Crawford's big personality and in-depth know-how will make the show "factual as well as entertaining."

"He likes to get things done. He likes to see stuff from start to finish -- he's not one who likes to start something and finish later."

Prickett said safecracking is just one aspect of the locksmith trade, which covers commercial and residential work, cars -- anything that takes a lock.

"Safe work is a whole other game. Phil can do the safe work and all the other stuff, too," he said, adding that even though Crawford has been able to balance his job in Montgomery with his burgeoning TV career, there may be a looming concern among Crawford's colleagues.

"If he takes off as a superstar, what are we going to do?" Prickett said, laughing. "That's a whole other chapter."

Always watching

Cameras tracking his every move? That doesn't bother Crawford, who insists that customers be on hand while he labors to open their safes and vaults.

"I'm used to having folks be right on top of me. Everyone stays in the room until the door comes open, and 99 percent of the time I will have the customer turn the lock and open the door," he said. In fact, he has become very good friends with some of the "SafeCrackers" crew members.

Crawford and Blaze negotiate fees depending on the job, often settling for a percentage of the value of what is inside the safe -- and that's not always much. At least not monetarily. Cash, and valuables such as the ivory carvings that recently resurfaced after decades in hiding, are king. But then there was the safe that contained a finger in a jar. There have been postcards, old photos, knick-knacks and, now and again, stashes of porn.

But for this duo, just finding their way into the long-locked box is a joy in itself.

"I'm going out and performing small miracles every day, doing what's not supposed to be done," Crawford said of his work. "I do the undoable, and that gives me such a rush."

Copyright 2014 - Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

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