The Life and Crimes of Andrew Forkes

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

In 1978, the Forkeses moved from Ohio to Arizona. The old man studied art and became an award-winning woodcarver. He has written poetry, done some oil painting.

Forkes spent 12 years chronicling his life in an autobiography called An Honorable Thief, which recently found a home on Xlibris, a small do-it-yourself publisher. The just-released book is now available at most online retail bookshops and on the publisher's Web site.

The book chugs along like a getaway car manned by bruise-knuckled knaves, with the occasional dip into the mawkish and trite. Forkes at once romanticizes the life of a law-breaking insurgent as a kind of John Wayne True American Badass, then turns around and says he spent much of his time "broke, hurting or imprisoned." The thief points out that stealing is more an inborn human trait than some manifestation of a societal ill, but concedes that the beatings he suffered as a juvenile may have kick-started his criminal thinking. What's wondrous is the fact that Forkes didn't begin writing the book until he was in his 80s.

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

First thing noticeable about Forkes is his hands. They're huge. His handshake grip is vicelike. Nevertheless, after suffering two strokes, the snow-haired gent is frail, slightly stoop-backed and moves slowly with the help of a cane. He's dapper, perennially decked in the outfit of a guy whose generation you'd figure was one that peaked in the garish side of the 1950s. Picture Jimmy Durante in the cast of Oceans 11, a kind of a threadbare Peter O'Toole, smartly turned out and trimmed in garish gold. Gangsta-like dollar signs on a thick gold watch band and matching ring, silk ties, pressed slacks and starched shirts in matching patterns. He wears around his neck a gold chain weighed down by a Canadian Queen Elizabeth II coin. "It was in somebody's safe," he says with a wily grin.

Forkes is half deaf, necessitating that questions be repeated at greater volume, but he's very much with it. He's sometimes contrite, sometimes arrogant.

"You know," he says, "I have a code. I have never violated a confidence. Never. And you know what? I can't be intimidated."

The retired safecracker subsists alone in a dreary midtown retirement home, a place whose inhabitants wear expressions born of cheerless routine, faces that relate the downside of neglect. A trail of days-old chicken soup and mothballs permeates the inside of the three-story residence.

Forkes needn't suffer glum routines. Two friends keep close watch. His son Tim lives nearby and visits often. "He's like a kid in an old man's body," Tim says. "When my dad was 65 years old, he was working 12 hours a fucking day. We could all hope to age that well."

Still, the scene is hardly the blueprint Forkes envisioned in his autumn years. He is humiliated and embarrassed by his surroundings.

"I gotta get outta here, and it's all contingent upon how this book does," he says, shrugging. "They resent me here. I got nice clothes, what am I supposed to do? I got on the elevator and this guy looks at me and he says, 'You mean to tell me they still sell clothes like that?' He looks at me and he's laughing . . . this went on for two or three days. So finally I got on the elevator with my cane. I was gonna bust his head. I was waiting for him to say something, but he must have sensed it. I'm glad he didn't open his mouth because he would have had a sore noggin."

Forkes was the victim of a robbery in his previous retirement home. He was nicked for $600 from a dresser drawer. The irony of the housebreak was not lost on the old burglar. "There's nothing worse than a thief who gets beat," he says, shaking his head.

Forkes' small, third-floor room is clean and orderly. The bookshelves and walls reveal a narrative that stretches nearly all of his 93 years. Copies of his book and a pair of 50-year-old safecracking gloves are carefully laid out on his well-made bed.

Forkes estimates that writing An Honorable Thief cost him thousands. He explains how a con artist who made a living robbing the elderly ripped him off. He used Forkes' book as a means to suck money out of him.

"I wanted to kill that guy," says Forkes, lifting a clinched fist into the air. "I was gonna get a shotgun and two .45 pistols. Art stopped me. I wanted to make him look like a screen door. I didn't want him to just die; I wanted him to suffer a little. He deserved to die. He's cheated 40 other old people out of five to 10 thousand dollars each. The assistant attorney general told me the guy has left the country."

"I got rid of all my guns," he continues. "Hey, if I got caught with a pistol, with my record, I'd get 20 years, for Christ's sake. I use the pen instead of the gun now."

Elsewhere in his room, there are framed photos of Forkes' hoodlum pals: Mountain Slim, a hard-drinking gambler who rode the rails during the Great Depression to get from one card game to another; his teacher and Tim's godfather, Leo Hennessey, a man who spent 27 years in the joint.

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