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The Life and Crimes of Andrew Forkes

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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.

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."

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.

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.

"This is my beautiful wife," Forkes says ruefully, pointing to a large, framed black-and-white photo of Alice Forkes on the wall. Alice died of Alzheimer's two years ago. The image recalls Clara Bow in her prime, bright-faced with thick cheeks and a gracious smile. "She had a magnetism about her. . . . She coulda married millionaires, and wound up with a bum like me."

Some non-book anecdotes suggest Forkes might not let accuracy get in the way of a good tale. He claims a millionaire crony once offered him a tidy sum for his wife. "He offered me a million dollars for Alice. I fractured my hand when I hit him. I put him in the hospital. I said, 'What the hell do you think she is, a used car or something?' The whole thing cost me $1,600. A thousand for the hospital, and I paid off two detectives for $300 apiece. Thank goodness for crooked politicians and policemen."

Forkes produces a photo album filled with decades of grainy remembrances. A picture of a well-tended rose garden in Akron ("They came from all over to look at my roses"). Snaps of the Forkeses at Charley Grapewin's Hollywood manse, of Forkes perched atop a totem pole at John Barrymore's Benedict Canyon digs.

He pulls from a shelf a hardbound volume of poems published in 1989 by the National Library of Poetry. The book contains a Forkes original, titled "Father Time."

He digs out other poems, most written from the vantage of a post-World War I outlaw looking back. In "Square Pegs, Round Hole," he writes: "Even though society brands me a thief/To hell with society, because I've had it made."

Byrd Holland, Forkes' literary rep and editor, says things are looking up for Forkes and An Honorable Thief. In the works but not on paper are possible television and movie deals, but Holland wouldn't be specific.

"I do have some good prospects in that area," he says via phone from his Hollywood home. "It's a bad time; Hollywood is gearing up for the Oscars."

"He's had this tough life, he really has," says Art Terrosof, a friend of Forkes' who, ironically, owns a jewelry store equipped with a large safe in back. "And it's all true. He's talented. I mean, he's supported himself by carving birds. He's made jewelry, done oil paintings. He's a poet. It's not like he's cracked safes all these years."

Forkes is sitting in the moneyed air of Terrosof's central Phoenix jewelry store, his powerful, veiny hands resting on his cane in front of him.

I ask Forkes if he has any regrets after decades of thievery. He stares straight into a glass case that displays a collection of ornate jewels and shakes his head. "No. No regrets."

There's a point in An Honorable Thief that sees the burglar come clean, embarking on a life on the up and up, yet sidestepping a nauseating moral high ground. He says his decision to walk from the crime game came after he nearly murdered a man in the Maryland prison. It's a redemption of sorts, with no apology.

"This book, I've been told, belongs in every library," he says. "It belongs in every school. And to anybody that aspires to be a thief or break a law it will be a deterrent. If my book stopped one person from going to prison, I would feel amply rewarded.

"Bottom line to this autobiography is that I never wanted to be a thief, I was born that way -- best I can figure. . . ."

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