De Beers, which controls more than half of the world’s diamond mines, has a PR department that gives out too much information for the company’s good. On the De Beers Web site’s media page, I learned about a Brinks truck delivery of two cases of rough, unpolished gems to a vault in a big city diamond center.
I decided to use that vault as a model for the fictitious one the characters in my new novel would rob. The question was this: How would they do it?
As it happens, the vault manufacturer’s site boasted of their big sale to the diamond center. They also detailed the system’s cool new heist-proof tech (see illustration below):
1. Combination dial 2. Keyed lock 3. Seismic sensor 4. Locked steel grate 5. Magnetic sensor 6. External security cam; 7. Keypad for disarming sensors 8. Light sensor 9. Internal security cam 10. Heat/motion sensor
Under cover as Examiner reporter writing a story about vaults, I gained admission to the diamond center, and then—two floors below ground to a windowless antechamber the size of a typical kitchen—the four-ton steel vault door. The combination wheel had numbers from 0 to 99. To enter the vault, I would need to dial four numbers, meaning 100 million possible combinations. But by using the right subminiature video camera, I might remotely view the vault being opened.
From my previous spy novel research, I owned five or six such cameras; the most I ever spent on one was $30 (eBay). I stuck one of them on the wall opposite the vault. At seven the next morning, a guard ambled up the vault door and dialed the combination. I watched on my iPhone in the room I was staying in under alias at a hostel on the other side of town.
I decided to try breaking in. There’s just no substitute for first-person research to gather the sights, smells, truth that is stranger than fiction, and so forth. If caught, I’d go with a gonzo-journo cover.
The break-in would need to be at night, after the guards locked down the vault, cleared out of the building, and sent the steel roll-gates slamming down and sealing off all entrances to the vault. During the night, no one patrolled the interior. The diamond center trusted their ten layers of security.
I needed to figure out how to bypass all of those layers. In the course of researching other crime novels, I’ve learned that each time someone invents a security system, someone else finds a way to vanquish it. Take the near-indestructible U-shaped metal Kryptonite lock, a staple of bicycle rack security for fifty years. One day in 2004, a guy in South Dakota figured out that by wedging in the somewhat malleable plastic barrel of a Bic pen, anybody could pop the lock. Thanks to the Web, the next day his discovery was known all over the world. More recently, a home security expert took to the Internet and boasted that he could thwart most burglar alarm systems by finding remote controls from other types of systems—a video game that operated on the same radio frequency, for instance.
A few nights later, I attempted to covertly enter at the rear of the diamond center building, via the courtyard that abuts it.
Using a coil of lightweight climbing rope tipped by a miniature titanium grapnel with retractable flukes, I reached a small terrace on the second floor. A heat-sensing infrared detector monitored the terrace. From my knapsack, I produced a homemade polyester shield; I’d read that the low thermal conductivity of polyester prevents body heat from reaching the heat sensor. It seemed to work now. No alarms—at least that I could hear.
Next I disabled a garden-variety alarm sensor on one of the balcony’s windows—so simple a task that it’s not worth relating. I climbed through the window into a vanilla executive office. Still no alarms. The entire building was silent.
Adrenaline overriding all of my emotions, I proceeded across the hall and then descended the stairs to the antechamber. All the lights were on. Good. I would need them to see, as I’d totally overlooked night vision goggles. I covered the security cameras with garbage bags, then, to cover my tracks, removed my own subminiature camera I’d placed on the wall during my first visit.
The vault’s most significant obstacle was a pair of abutting metal plates, one on the vault door itself and one on the wall to the door’s left. When they’re armed, the two plates form a magnetic field. If I were to break the magnetic field—by so much as cracking the door—I would trigger the alarm. From my knapsack I took a slab of aluminum and, using industrial-strength double-sided tape, stuck it on the plates that regulated the magnetic field, then unscrewed their bolts. I’d read about this on a bank security Web forum. What I was trying to do here is loosen the magnetic plates so that I could pivot them out of my way. I managed to do it, then taped the plates to the antechamber wall, keeping the magnetic field intact. Thus I was able to unlock the vault door—that is, once I correctly entered the combination and deployed the key made from a still photo taken from my subminicam feed.
Before swinging the door open, I flipped off the lights so as not to trip the light detector inside the vault. Once inside, I had to contend with a heat sensor, against which I couldn’t use the polyester shield because I would need both hands free. Turns out if this sort of sensor is coated with a transparent, oily mist, it’s insulated from fluctuations in the room’s temperature, chiefly 98.6-degree me entering. Pam Cooking Spray did the job.
That got me to the inbound and outbound cables powering the remaining security systems and returning their data. I linked the two cables using a precut four-inch length of copper wire, creating a bridge that rerouted the incoming pulse to the outbound wire before the signal reached the sensors, meaning the security company monitoring the vault would get no electronic news tonight.
Resisting the urge to look around, I darted straightaway to the storage compartments, drilled open the De Beers boxes, and tipped the two cases of raw diamonds into my knapsack. As the gems rained against the fabric, I considered for a moment that I might be dreaming. Could I possibly have gotten this far? I hadn’t figured I’d even on making into the vault.
I planned to return the diamonds to the diamond center. Until, back in my room at the hostel, I took a handful out of the knapsack and was enchanted by the way they transformed the harsh light of the overhead fluorescent tubes into the full spectrum.
Unfortunately the one thing you can’t find on the Web is a good fence.