LEWISTON — When the locking bolt breaks and the safe door swings ajar, Maurice Robichaud needs only a moment more.
“I ask if I can have a little time so I can gather up my tools and step away,” Robichaud said. He doesn’t peek inside. And if the valuable object inside is personal to the customer, he might never know what was locked away.
“Any time we open a safe, a door or a storage container, we always back off,” he said. “That’s the customer’s. It’s not any of our business.”
Rather than the big reveal, he’s more intrigued by the challenge of opening a safe.
In 36 years as a locksmith — based in Lewiston but working all over Maine — Robichaud has never met a safe he couldn’t crack.
But he’s come close.
Last summer, a military safe almost cost him his streak.
“It was the type of safe that was very, very frustrating, very time consuming and very costly to open because the equipment we had to use,” he said.
One day turned to two. Two became three.
“It wasn’t because of lack of experience, because we knew where to go,” he said. “We put the hole in the right place.”
There was a complication.
“It was full of ammunition, so we couldn’t use a torch,” Robichaud said. So he drilled and drilled, using diamond-tipped bits that cost about $27 each. “We went through 30 of those.”
In the end, it took three-and-a-half days, but this safe opened as every safe eventually does.
Robichaud, a compact man of 64, didn’t always work on safes.
“When I came back home from Vietnam, I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I went to a business school for one year,” he said. He then got an office job, but it lacked something.
“One day I was talking with a friend of mine and said, ‘I really don’t want my life to be behind a desk,'” he said. At that moment, Clarence Fortier of H. Fortier & Sons Locksmith walked in. He was there to change the safe combination.
“My friend says, ‘You ought to ask him for a job,'” Robichaud said. He did. After several no’s, Fortier finally agreed, hiring him in 1975.
Quickly, Robichaud began learning about locks, learning to manipulate the lock tumblers inside a car door or a bank’s safety deposit box. And he learned the business.
When Clarence Fortier retired in 1988, he sold to Robichaud, known to most folks as Moe.
The business has changed from the creation of skeleton keys to electronic safety systems and keys that have transponders. Meanwhile, he maintains a family presence. His wife, Lucille, worked there for years. And their daughter, Carrie Hinkley, has worked here for 18 years.
In total, Moe’s business employs eight people, about half of whom spend their days on the road, either installing locks or opening them.
It’s a tough business that can stretch for long hours, Moe said.
But the time behind the desk is offset by the need to go into the field and a measure of unpredictability, from the time a guy showed up in his shop handcuffed to a bar stool to the times police rushed him to a crime scene, often to free a child from a locked car.
He was once called to the old Androscoggin County Jail with its floor-to-ceiling bars to help rescue an inmate locked in his cell. The guys in an adjacent cell had stuffed the lock with matches, making it impossible for the guards to free him.
“The prisoner was upset because he couldn’t go see the movie,” he said.
There was also the time police led him to a locked trunk and asked if he could open it without disturbing the fingerprints on the lid. He did. Inside was a body, murdered by a pair of men who are now in prison.
More often, he’s just helping folks.
Recently a couple called, saying the keys to their new locks didn’t work.
Moe drove to the elderly couple’s home. The keys didn’t fit. Then, he noticed another set on the ground. Those keys worked.
“The people were grateful, and they had been waiting in their car patiently,” he said. “That was nice.”
As he’s gotten older, Moe has slowed and focused on cracking safes.
The safes he opens are usually inherited. Often the combination is lost, and the contents are forgotten. People often ask if he’ll waive his fee for a piece of the treasure inside.
He always says “No.” There are few forgotten fortunes.
In one case, helping an Auburn woman who was renovating a building with a safe, he listened to the offer again and again.
Eventually, she said, “What the heck, I’ll give you half anyway.” And he opened the safe.
On the middle shelf — the only thing inside — sat a roll of toilet paper.
“I’ll take the first half,” Moe said.
Photographer Russ Dillingham contributed to this story.