PLEASANTVILLE - In what looked like a scene out of a movie, a small group of people wearing black stood around a large safe inside a nondescript warehouse on Thursday as an expert safecracker quietly manipulated the dial to get to the contents inside.
And after the safecracker entered the last part of the combination, he coolly put his tools away, slowly stood up, jerked the handle open and then - turned around and walked away.
The safe was purchased at a Virginia auction for $300 last month as a "gamble" by local businessman Eric Doran - the owner of the Cambria Avenue-based Doran Liquidators - who hoped to sell it on eBay for a small profit because of its unique look.
"As far as we know, it hasn't been opened in about 20 years. But from what we've been told, it weighs much more than it should," Doran said before the safe opened. "There might not be anything in it, but I'm a gambler. But if there is something valuable in it, we'll donate 10 percent to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission."
On Thursday, that gamble paid off in the form of more than $500 in cash, another couple hundred dollars in quarters and, more significantly, an untold fortune in seemingly rare coins dating to the 1800s.
"We've absolutely hit the jackpot," a smiling Doran said moments after the safe opened. "We still have quite a bit to sort through, but this is great."
As Doran and his staff cheerfully sorted through the treasure, the safecracker - eight-time World Champion Jeff Sitar - admired the intricate design of the safe's interior and then loaded his tools back in his truck for the two-hour trip back home to Clifton, Passaic County.
Sitar - who cracked his first safe at the age of 15 - is a celebrity in the safecracking world, having been featured on the Discovery Channel, CNN and programs like "Good Morning America," as well as serving as a consultant on movies like this year's Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller caper "Tower Heist."
Though explaining his occupation to people has not always been easy, he said.
"I used to ask people not to refer to me as a safecracker because the title had such a negative connotation. But usually safecrackers are the most honest people in the world. ... They have to keep their noses clean because they are usually dealing with people's most prized possessions," said Sitar, 49, whose clients range from government agencies like the FBI and DEA to sultans and celebrities.
However, sometimes the "possessions" inside the safes he is called to crack are not always as prized as his clients would like.
"Once I had a safe filled with women's underwear and another one had 500,000 rubber bands in it. So sometimes people are very disappointed when they see what's inside," he said.
But Doran's approximately 140-year-old safe did present some challenges, even for a seasoned safecracker like Sitar.
"I've been doing this for 35 years and this is only the fourth MacNeal and Urban safe that I've seen, so it is rare. And the alphabetical dial it has is definitely also something that's different," said Sitar, who was also slowed by a metal ring that was attached to the inside of the damaged locking mechanism and created extra "clicking" sounds when he turned the dial that made it harder for him to hear.
And on Wednesday, an Atlantic City bomb squad inspected the safe because a locksmith who had worked on it about 20 years ago told Doran that it had been "booby trapped" with harmful gases, like tear gas or nitroglycerin. But that claim proved to be false.
Obstacles and all, it only took Sitar less than an hour to crack the safe.
"I'll tackle any safe," Sitar said. "No job too big or too small."
When Doran asked the safe's former owner what was in it, he did not get a straight answer.
"One of the things he said was that it was where he kept the change from his candy machines," Doran said of the safe, which was housed in an automotive shop for years.
So when the first thing that was visible when Sitar opened the safe was M&M's bags, the first reaction was that of disappointment.
"It's candy!" laughed members of Doran's staff.
But as Doran lifted the heavy bags out and poured their contents onto the floor, it became clear that contents were much more valuable than candy-coated chocolates.
"I couldn't even begin to guess what this is all worth," said Doran, adding he would get the coins appraised by multiple professionals in the coming days to find out. "But it was worth the gamble, that's for sure."
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