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RI EDUCATION

A hulking safe in a R.I. school building possibly held secrets — if they could get it open

Guesses about the safe’s contents included everything from milk money to absolutely nothing

Safecracker Cesar Lecaros works on a safe in the basement of the Oliver School in Bristol on Tuesday. The town wanted to see what was inside the long-forgotten vault, although Steven Contente, the Bristol town administrator, worried about a Geraldo Rivera redux.Brian Amaral

BRISTOL, R.I. — Steven Contente knew he was tempting fate. The town administrator of Bristol is old enough to remember when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vaults live on television in 1986 and found… well, basically nothing.

But maybe the hulking, 5-foot-tall safe inside the Oliver School on State Street was different. Maybe it had something. Some confiscated loot — yoyos, dice, or other pre-cellphone analog distractions. Or some keepsakes, an inadvertent time capsule. The building was last used as a school around 1980, and ever since has served as an administrative office for the district. But the administrative offices recently moved. As the town prepared to try to sell it, they came upon this safe in the basement, buried behind some boxes.

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Nobody could remember the last time the safe had been opened. And of course, nobody knew the combination.

But there are other ways to get into a safe, especially if you know a guy. On Tuesday afternoon, that guy was Francesco Therisod, accompanied by Cesar Lecaros. They are professional safecrackers. And on Tuesday, they arrived with a drill, a $2,000 fiber-optic camera and a big heavy mallet. The whole operation would cost the town $600, and would unfold live on Contente’s Facebook page.

Whatever was in there, the virtual public would find out along with Contente.

So what do you think is in it?

“Milk money,” said Tom Wood, the school district’s director of facilities, who was one of about a dozen people standing around in a semi-circle as Therisod and Lecaros worked on the safe Tuesday afternoon.

“Nothing,” said Julie Goucher, the town treasurer.

“I’m going to be honest,” said Ana Riley, the newly installed Bristol-Warren regional school superintendent. “It’s probably empty. School people are pretty frugal.”

“If it was important, it would have been opened years ago,” said Tony Avila, who lives in Bristol and came by when he saw Contente’s post on Facebook.

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“You have to understand,” said Bristol Police Chief Kevin Lynch, thinking like a detective, “this was a school administration building. It’s probably personnel files, something people would want to lock up.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” said Therisod, thinking like a professional safecracker, “they’re empty.”

Therisod is originally from Italy and worked for a time as a maitre d’ in Bermuda. He got into the safe-cracking business through his wife, whose grandfather, he said, was a friend of Harry Houdini and helped make some of the trick locks the master magician used.

Therisod is now in his 70s. But he still does some consulting, and although his eyesight isn’t what it used to be, he has decades of experience, and had opened 1,849 safes without a combination before Tuesday. Therisod speaks about cracking safes the way a chef talks about making a delicious meal.

“I love to do this, oh!” he said at one point.

This was a particular challenge. It was a good safe, Therisod said. The door was 6 inches thick. Getting inside first required drilling a hole through multiple layers, which would require multiple different drill bits — copper, insulation, the hard plate. Crouching on the floor, Lecaros slipped the fiber optic camera through the delicate incision to get a view of the inside of the Yale HE lock’s mechanics. While he looked inside, he twisted the combination to watch as the right numbers fell into place.

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That part required fine motor skills. The other part required brute force: Lecaros smashed the front of the safe with a mallet repeatedly, trying to loosen things up inside like trying to free lungs from congestion with a whack on the back.

The room filled in the meantime with chitter-chatter about politics, about Portugal — this is Bristol — and about what might be in the safe.

Gold bars?

Bonds?

Cobwebs?

Or something morbid? Scandalous? Maybe even dangerous? Therisod said safes are sometimes outfitted with tear gas that will explode if you try to break into them. This one? Probably no tear gas. At least one person in the semicircle took a step back anyway.

It didn’t take long for Therisod and Lecaros to figure out what the combination was. But the bolts had oxidized, and the door wasn’t budging when they tried to open it.

Contente was clutching a fedora that he said he would wear while doing a song and dance if there was nothing in the safe. Two hours had passed.

“This is even worse than Geraldo,” he muttered.

Therisod reassured everyone that there was still a way in.

“Dynamite?” suggested Ilidio “Leo” Contente, a former superintendent and Contente’s father.

Not dynamite, but still somewhat forceful: They could cut through the oxidized bolt. Therisod didn’t have the right tools for it with him that day, however, and it would involve a lot of sparks flying. They’d have to come back another day, and do it without an audience.

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“There you have it,” Contente said on Facebook. “We’re going to suspend this. A little bit more anticipation for you.”

Some people started to filter out of the room. But Lecaros wasn’t giving up. He yanked a few more times, hit the front of the safe a few more times.

And then, with the room half-empty, he pulled the handle one last time — and safe No. 1,850 opened up.

“Call them back!” Therisod cried to the people who’d left.

Riley and Goucher had the honor of opening it up. When they did, they found … another locked door.

“Oh no!” Riley cried.

“There’s a key,” Contente said.

There was. Riley pulled the second door open and everyone peered inside.

“I was right,” Lynch, the police chief, said later.

He was: The safe was filled with records: bus contracts, annual reports, registers from 1915 to 1976, school committee records, legal cases, records for the construction of the Bristol Junior-Senior High School on Chestnut Street, extra keys for a postage meter. It was all fastidiously organized.

It was, Riley said, emblematic of a community that cherishes its history. Some of the microfiche records went back as far as the 1830s. And other records extended all the way to the 1970s, when a young Steven Contente was a kindergartner there.

“It’s our history,” said Contente, now wearing the fedora. “We need to protect and preserve it. I would say it’s a successful operation today.”

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Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.