The Life and Crimes of Andrew Forkes

A 93-year-old career criminal looks back in danger

When retired safecracker Andrew Forkes first did lock-down time, bathtub gin was the libation of choice. By his 18th birthday in 1925, he had five years of reform school under his belt, the consequence of a childhood in Ohio spent burglarizing and running away from home.

"Never thought I'd make it past 30," Forkes says. "I've been in so many shootin' scrapes in Detroit. . . . I'm 93 years old. If I were young today, I'd probably have AIDS."

Forkes cracked safes the country over, from Illinois feed mills ("We'd whack open these old-fashioned square-door safes -- in and out -- with usually one or two thousand fast bucks) to Michigan meat packers, Detroit supermarkets to L.A. drug stores. He's nicked diamonds throughout America and fenced everything from jewels to morphine.

Retired safecracker Andrew Forkes opens one for the old times.
Paolo Vescia
Retired safecracker Andrew Forkes opens one for the old times.

Littered with a cast of Runyonesque oddballs and hard-boiled creeps, his is a testosterone-fueled yarn that would make a mean script for a B-movie crime caper. Over the years, Forkes made off with untold loot, and managed to keep his wife Alice dolled up in couture and jewels. He has eluded cops. He's paid off judges. He's been beaten and tortured. He's suffered molls, snitches and a brandy-swilling jewel thief with a weak heart who made a habit of doing "one more score." He's befriended Hollywood stars, tough drunks like John Barrymore. In 1939, his crew outgunned L.A. police on Wilshire Boulevard from the back of a getaway car.

Forkes claims that he "luckily" never bumped off another. "A good thief's intention is not to kill," he explains.

True peril is fraught with near-death episodes, and many of Forkes' are comical in hindsight. One night, a boozy Irish cohort with a heavy-handed nitro habit unwittingly blew up a tanklike safe. Its hefty doors crashed through a giant picture window and four sides of truck trailers parked outside. The explosion made confetti rain of stashed cash and twisted coins into butterfly shapes.

The blast recalled for Forkes the words of Leo Hennessey, a seasoned jailbird who taught Forkes his graft. "Work alone, Andy, or don't do the score. You only get screwed out of money."

By his experience, the most difficult city in which to operate was Detroit, a town built on blue-collar sweat, and that left little room for the comfort of thieves. Detroit became a testament to Forkes' stubbornness; he lasted 16 years there.

"They've done everything to me in Detroit," he says, in a cadence that resembles Michael Corleone's. "I spent 16 years in Detroit. I took everything they had. They [the cops] used to beat me there. They would set me on a chair with arms on it and put handcuffs on each one. They took my shoes and socks off. They rolled up toilet paper and put it between my toes and took a match to it. You know the bottom of your feet are nerve centers. And boy, that's the worst thing that I have ever been through. Sometimes five or six detectives would take turns beating me."

One of 11 siblings born to Hungarian immigrants, beatings were part of Forkes' growth theorem as a youngster. His old man was a tough boozehound who, when liquored up, would use junior as a punching bag. Pops once tried to lop junior's block off with an ax.

"He just missed my ear by an inch and the ax went into the stoop by the door," he recalls. "That's when my mother jumped on his back and told me to run. It was 10 degrees below zero. He had a tough row to hoe, 11 kids . . . and I was the brat of all of 'em. I don't blame him for trying to chop my head off."

Despite his lengthy arrest record, finding work between heists proved less problematic than would be expected. "Unions believed in giving a man a second chance," he says.

After more than two decades of lawlessness, Alice's pregnancy in 1954 had Forkes mumbling promises to "fly right." The couple bought a home in Alhambra, California, and Forkes found employment as a surface grinder at an aircraft company. But when it was learned that Forkes lied about his police record on the job application, FBI agents appeared to rid the company of its threat to national security. His son Tim was born in 1955. It was back to Ohio, back to dregs and safes. In 1959, Forkes was sentenced to two years in a Maryland penitentiary for attempted robbery; a payoff shortened the stint to 10 months.

He walked away from the racket for good after one last score in late 1960. He went working-class for the next 12 years, putting in upwards of 12 hours daily as a millwright. In 1972, he retired for good.

Forkes' son Tim, now a Phoenix jazz musician and recording-studio owner, says life as a young boy was colored with "all these mob types hanging around. In our house in Ohio, I would go down to the basement and there would be the crew. Just these guys straight out of gangster movies. I remember once he gave me a set of handcuffs to play with."

The basement of their home contained a full-on locksmith shop. Tim figured the old man was merely a locksmith with a penchant for fanciful duds. He remembers when Dad went to prison: "It was traumatic on me. You know, my dad was gone and they just told me he had to go away and work."

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