Planning the Perfect Heist - B.T. Polcari

Planning the Perfect Heist

In Part 1 of “One Plotter’s Approach – How a Mystery Novel is Born,” I talked about all the research I performed during the writing of my critically-acclaimed book, Fire & Ice, that ended with me “building” the Carlton Museum and its highly sophisticated below-ground vaults and security systems. The museum is located in Washington, D.C. on Constitution Avenue, directly across from the National Mall.

In the book, the protagonist, Sara Donovan, thinks the Carlton Museum’s valuables vault was broken into and a 175-carat diamond was stolen, despite zero evidence of a heist. However, this is just Sara being Sara, and if you know anything about her, then you understand. But because Sara believed this, I had to figure out how to realistically rob the vault without leaving any evidence.

It was the perfect heist.

So, for fun, I’m going to lay out the Carlton’s security posture and let you try to plan the perfect heist. If your plan matches mine, congratulations, you planned the perfect heist. Feel free to send your plan to me at and I’ll tell you if you got it right. And if you didn’t, I’ll give you my thoughts. Who knows, maybe your plan will be even better than mine!

Museum Security

The Guards

As a brief overview, the museum has a security guard force that operates 24/7 on 8-hour rotating shifts with each change occurring at 7am, 3pm, and 11pm on the half-hour.

During the day, there are both static and roving guards. After-hour guards remain in the control room monitoring the cameras and sensors but there are no roving guards due to motion sensors being activated throughout the building during after-hours, as further noted below.

The Case

The diamond is kept in a tamper-proof, bulletproof display case with two separate battery-powered magnetic locks and wireless tamperproof sensors that send alerts to security if the lid is raised before disabling the sensors.

Imagine it looks something like this, but twice the size.

When the diamond first arrives at the museum the day before the grand opening of the Fire and Ice Exhibit, it will be kept in the locked display case inside a walk-in valuables vault until closing time, after which the case will be taken by security to the Gem and Minerals Hall (which is in the same building) and secured to the floor. The case with the diamond will only be in the walk-in valuables vault for four hours prior to its transfer to the Gem and Minerals Hall.

The Two Vaults

Behind the scenes, the Carlton Museum has a two-vault system each with its own security protocols. There is the main vault space, which looks like a regular work floor, and then a walk-in valuables vault, which is a second vault inside the main vault space.

The walls, ceiling, and floor of both vaults are comprised of three-foot reinforced concrete, with the interior of the space lined by two three-inch steel plates sandwiching a copper alloy center designed to defeat an acetylene torch.

The steel doors to each vault are also three feet thick, followed by an electric locked steel day gate. Every morning the vault doors are opened by authorized personnel for the day, leaving the day gates locked and only able to be accessed with appropriate authorization protocols

From Wikipedia: “This large 24-bolt Diebold vault door at the Winona National Bank was built in the early 1900s. On the right is the back side of the open door. To the right of the door's center are two linked boxes for the combination mechanisms and to the left is a four-movement time lock.” This is an example of the door and day gate system employees must access for both the main vault space and the walk-in valuables vault.

Main Vault Space

The main vault space is in the basement of the Carlton Museum and is where the Acquisition and Exhibit Design department offices and workspaces are located. Each morning, security opens the vault door to access this main vault space. Authorized employees are then able to swipe their ID card through the reader and enter through the locked steel day gate on the other side of the vault door.


Walk-In Valuables Vault

This vault is aptly named as this is where all the museum’s high-value jewels, artifacts, and irreplaceable documents are held. To open this secondary vault, first the vault door must be unlocked, requiring two combination codes – a supervisor code and a security code. What’s the added catch? Only two supervisors and two security personnel know the necessary combinations to open the steel vault door. Then there is the electric locked steel day gate that requires both an approved ID scan and biometric reading.

Schematic of Smithsonian of American History Numismatics Vault Door


The Renovation Security

The only unusual activity going on at the museum is the main lobby’s renovation, but no work is conducted during operating hours to minimize the disruption to daily activities. Vibration and sound sensors in the valuables vault are turned off at night during scheduled demo work, which is a one-week activity, but all other sensors and cameras in the building and both vaults are not impacted by the work. Guards are posted in the lobby during the renovation work. Construction workers are escorted to/from the service entrance in the rear of the building, and they have no access to anything outside the main lobby.

Each day after the museum closes, security clears every space in the building to ensure nobody is hiding in a closet or restroom. As each space is cleared, the control room activates the access control measures for that space.

Cameras and Sensors

Exterior Cameras and Sensors

On the exterior of the building, CCTV cameras mounted on the third floor provide continual surveillance of all four sides of the building. There are two cameras on each wall pointing down the façade, plus cameras on the corners of the roof pointing inward. All openings into the building are monitored with intrusion detection devices that deliver an alarm to the security control room. This means all openings into the building (doors, windows, ventilation shafts, roof penetrations of any kind, etc.) have devices that send an alert even before the building’s perimeter can be fully breached.

Interior Cameras and Sensors

Inside the building, a legion of cameras and motion detectors monitored by guards in the control room are situated throughout the building. The cameras are active 24/7 and the motion detectors are active after hours. There are no blind spots. Motions are strategically placed covering all windows, doors, elevators, stairwells, and high-security areas including directly outside the basement’s main vault door. All doors to non-public spaces are tied to an access control system with card readers, and certain high-security doors also have biometric scanners.

Do you dare?

If your crew is able to: 1) get past the perimeter security devices without setting any off or being picked up by the cameras; 2) navigate through the building to the main vault while evading additional cameras and motion sensors; 3) get past two three-foot-thick steel doors that are also monitored by cameras and motion sensors; and 4) open two steel day gates that each require their own unique authorization…

They will still have to contend with additional security devices inside the valuables vault. These include more cameras and motion sensors, vibration sensors, and sound sensors. And don’t forget the vault’s six sides are three-foot reinforced concrete, with the interior of the space lined by two three-inch steel plates sandwiching a copper alloy center designed to defeat an acetylene torch.
Not quite to scale, but this is to give you an idea of how the walls/ceiling/flooring is constructed.
All security devices are powered by a transformer located in the basement’s electrical room. In the event of a power failure, two diesel generators automatically start up and power the building. It only takes one minute for the generators to fully start and begin supplying power throughout the building. Access to the electrical room is controlled by a card reader and biometric scanner.


That’s about it. You have all the information you need to plan the perfect heist. And remember, this is purely fictional! Don’t try something like this in real life because—you will get caught!

Good luck!