Through the roof

AFTER FOUR MONTHS, money was still going out the roof. "It could be millions! How we know?" says an old man waiting to buy Lotto tickets at Russell's Meat Market on King Street. With each day, the Chinatown burglars get farther away and the take gets bigger. Any amount can be imagined, and in a growing appreciation of criminal triumph, the take is presumed more legendary by the hour.

"Maybe they got bonds," says the man as a young clerk steps behind the counter and takes a customer's cash. Russell's is an inspiration for easy money. Lotto tickets sold here have paid out more than $24 million to customers. That's not chopped liver—even in a meat market.

"Could have been all in one safety box," the man goes on.

"You don't know," says a woman standing with him.

"I don't know?"

"You don't."

He laughs. "I saw movie!"

The real thing is as good: Two, maybe up to four, burglars pry open a side door to the four-story red brick building at 666 South Dearborn. They go upstairs and tear out a big hole in sheetrock. Through a crawlspace they push and pull a large, water-cooled boring machine. They position themselves atop the 18-inch-thick vault ceiling of the Chinatown/International District branch of KeyBank. They drill for hours. A hole finally is opened. They drop through and begin drilling and prying open safe-deposit boxes. There are 660 of them. They pry at only 220. They loot only 70 of those: Cash, jewelry, gems . . . bonds? They gather their equipment and earnings and go back out the vault roof. On Sunday morning, August 2, an alarm is set off inside the window-rimmed bank. A cop arrives, sees no one, leaves. Monday morning, the vault door swings open and reveals what appears to have been an unnatural disaster: an upheaval of jagged metal, broken mounds of concrete, a flood of wet papers. Signs are quickly posted at the entrances, in English and Chinese, but still confused: The bank was closed "Due to robbery investigation."

EVERY DAY SINCE, the loss grows. "Bearer bonds," says Chris Arnold, KeyBank spokesperson. "We've heard that one. A million in bonds or something. That's not true."

But only the customers and burglars can say with certainty, and they are not talking for the record. This left the cops and FBI looking elsewhere for answers, including New York. Right away they reviewed the December 1993 break-in at the Brooklyn branch of Chase Manhattan Bank. Thieves with heavy equipment went through the roof and came out with more than $400,000. "I know the FBI was looking at the strong parallels between that case and this one," Arnold said last week. "They broke in much the same way." That burglary has not been solved either. "Since we're still actively investigating this case" in Chinatown, says the FBI's Robbie Burroughs, "we can't discuss the investigation. But there's nothing new to report."

Right off, some also noticed the parallel between Chinatown and another burglary in Seattle. As the 60th annual Policeman's Ball was roaring away a few blocks up the street, burglars broke into the Pioneer Safe Deposit Vaults at 701 First Avenue sometime during the three-day Washington's Birthday weekend in 1954. Using lanterns and heavy tanks and footlockers of tools and drilling equipment, they sealed up the building from light and sound and 1) cut through steel doors, 2) broke down a brick wall, and 3) for hour upon hour burned the steel vault wall with a torch until it melted. They opened just 416 of the 1,640 boxes and compartments. As the cops danced, they waltzed out the door. The take was a few hundred thousand. Then $500,000. Today, inflated to $1 million. "That's back when a million was a million," someone always says, retelling the story.

"We're not disclosing our loss," Arnold, the KeyBank spokesman, says. "Our focus really has been on adjusting and settling customer claims. We've retained a team of insurance adjusters and appraisers, and we're working with affected clients to index and appraise what may have been lost." At the bank branch the other day, no one wanted to say much either. A teller did manage a weak smile when asked about the bank's new posters promoting a prime rate offering. "You need a new roof. Not a rate that goes through it," the poster says. There is a picture of a roof with a hole in it.

"But," Arnold says on the phone, "I'm sure there is new security in place to prevent this again."

Ca-ching! Too late. Another day has passed. More cash has just been imagined into the air.

"Could be 2 million," says the Lotto man. "Anyone's guess."

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