Charlie Santore sees Los Angeles from the inside, by breaking into safes whose owners can no longer unlock them.
The house was gone, consumed by the November 2018 Woolsey Fire that left swaths of Los Angeles covered in ash and reduced whole neighborhoods to charcoaled ruins. Amidst the tangle of blackened debris that was once a house in the suburbs northwest of Los Angeles, only one identifiable feature stood intact. It was a high-security jewel safe, its metal case discolored by the recent flames, looming in the wreckage like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I went out to the burn zone that day to meet Charlie Santore, a 48-year-old safecracker licensed in the city of Los Angeles under the name Santore & Son. Santore, a lean and towering figure just shy of 6 foot 4, stood there in his fedora, black jeans, and a Virgin Mary T-shirt, grinning uncomfortably. He was flanked by two Ventura County sheriff’s deputies. They had been patrolling the neighborhood that day, in the wake of the still-active wildfire—its apocalyptic ash cloud hanging in the sky south of us—when they noticed this gangly man crouched in the ruins, with several drills and extension cords at the ready. Santore’s car, a 1997 Mercedes so overloaded with safecracking equipment that its trunk nearly scrapes the ground, was, from a law-enforcement point of view, not reassuring.