You Call This a Safe-Deposit Box?

In the summer of 1996, the considerable European jewelry collection of an elderly Italian woman vanished from a safe-deposit box at Intervault, a private vault on Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale.

The woman claims an olive-skinned man who introduced himself as a Brazilian jewelry-buyer accompanied her inside the vault to examine her largest diamond, a luminous seven-carat rock. A few weeks after that meeting, when the woman returned from a vacation in Europe, she discovered that her box had been cleaned out. The diamonds, pearls, and gold jewelry she had collected over a lifetime had disappeared.

The FBI is questioning an Israeli man arrested in New York in connection with a number of safe-deposit box robberies about the woman's missing jewels, appraised at more than $600,000. The woman identified him from photographs as being the same man who examined the diamond in the vault.

Management at Intervault reported no break-in and claimed that she herself had emptied the box prior to leaving the country. The woman filed a lawsuit in an attempt to prove the owners were at fault but so far has racked up only headaches and attorney's fees.

"I thought Intervault was as secure as a bank," says the woman, who prefers not to be identified. "I might as well have stored my jewels on the street."

This was neither the first nor the last time Intervault would face allegations that valuables had vanished from safe-deposit boxes in their vault, which is promoted as being more secure than most banks. A half-dozen lawsuits, the first one filed in Broward County in 1990, claim that almost $1 million in cash and other merchandise has disappeared from Intervault since 1989. (Two of those cases were resolved after Intervault made restitution.)

Maurie Fox, an elderly man whose box was opened for nonpayment of the annual rental fee, claims that he had $25,000 in cash stored in his box. Intervault is entitled under state law to drill a box and remove the contents after four months of nonpayment of the rental fee. Business owners are not allowed, however, to appropriate anything before a full year has elapsed. Intervault claimed that the amount of cash Fox said was in there wouldn't even fit in the box. "I have enclosed pictures of what $25,000.00 would look like in a standard white number 10 business envelope as you stated and you can see it does not fit," read the letter sent to Fox and signed by William Gilchrist, Jr., Intervault's owner.

No indication of Gilchrist's true whereabouts was ever divulged during the legal wrangling with Fox. A number of letters, apparently authored by Gilchrist, claimed that he was out of state preparing for heart surgery but would soon return to deal with the problems at Intervault. "If you will bear with me for just a short time more, I will be back and I will personally take charge and get this matter settled," read one letter dated March 30, 1995. As it turns out, Gilchrist was indeed suffering from heart ailments, but he would not be returning anytime soon from the prison medical facilities where he was receiving treatment.

Gilchrist, a Pompano Beach businessman who founded Intervault in 1982 with investors from Switzerland and the Netherlands Antilles, had begun serving an eight-year sentence for money laundering in 1994. He was charged in 1989 with laundering $20 million of the illicit profits of drug traffickers. Intervault, where at least one of his drug-trafficking associates rented a safe-deposit box, was the headquarters for Gilchrist's money-laundering operation, according to court documents. The company served as a sort of way station for the trafficker's cash. After storing the money in safe-deposit boxes at Intervault, Gilchrist would personally transport the cash overseas, where it would be deposited in bank accounts in London and Basel, Switzerland. The money was then funneled back into the traffickers' legitimate businesses in the United States, such as real estate holdings in Georgia and a pig farm in Texas. During this time Intervault continued operating as a full-service, legitimate private vault catering to customers who favored discretion.

The company's big selling point has always been that, unlike banks, Intervault is able to rent out safe-deposit boxes under fictitious names without requiring proof of identification. Customers, who can apply for a box using any name, are provided with an identification number and are not required to furnish an address or contact phone number. This lack of accountability may attract clients who have something to hide. So it could not have been good for business that, since Gilchrist's indictment in 1989, $1 million in cash and $10 million in counterfeit bearer bonds have been seized by law-enforcement officials from safe-deposit boxes at Intervault.

On a recent visit to Intervault's North Ocean Boulevard storefront it wasn't cash but staff that seemed to be missing. No guards, no clerks, no human eyes were there to scrutinize a rental application or take note of who might be fiddling with the surveillance cameras or the locks. A note taped to the counter read, "back in five minutes," but after fifteen minutes nobody had returned.

Back in August 1994, someone was there, behind the bulletproof glass, to explain to the woman renting box 2451 how Intervault had supposedly managed to misplace her $56,000 in cash. The money was removed from the box, which was registered under a female alias, after it was opened for nonpayment of the rental fee. When Lisa Holder came forward to claim her cash, she was informed it had been locked up for safekeeping in one of the 4300 other safe-deposit boxes at Intervault. The only problem, according to court documents, was that nobody at Intervault could remember in which box the cash was stored. To get back the money, it took Holder two years and a lawsuit.

"We think they were stalling for time in order to get the money together," says Mike Gelety, Holder's attorney. "They really had no defense." Intervault claimed the cash had genuinely been misplaced. Gilchrist's wife, Linder, who took over the company after her husband's incarceration, declined to answer questions about the missing cash or any of the other lawsuits.

In April 1997 she did have a good explanation of where to find the 224 mint-condition gold coins removed from Glen Speck's safe-deposit box after it was opened for nonpayment. A letter, signed by Linder Gilchrist and addressed to the Florida State Office of the Comptroller, claimed that the company had sent Speck's coins to the abandoned-property division of that office shortly after his box was drilled. There is no record any property has ever been sent by Intervault to the Comptroller. In fact, because the Comptroller regulates banks but does not regulate private safe-deposit box companies, had such property been sent to that agency, it probably would have been returned. Although there are statutes governing companies like Intervault, it turns out there is no state agency that enforces those statutes, though the Division of Consumer Services of the Florida Department of Agriculture does investigate complaints about all sorts of companies, including private vaults.

Speck claims that six months after his box was drilled, 124 gold coins, of inferior quality to the originals, were returned to him. That number is 100 coins short of the amount he says was originally in the box. Next month Speck's lawyer, Jack O'Donnell, plans to interview Tom Pilitowski, a Fort Lauderdale coin dealer who advertises at Intervault, about gold coins he allegedly purchased from Gilchrist's son, William III. The younger Gilchrist began helping out at Intervault after he was fired in 1994 from his job as a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy for reportedly helping a Cuban drug trafficker plan a jailbreak. Neither Gilchrist's son nor Pilitowski would comment on the alleged coin purchase, but Intervault's attorney, Michael Widoff, was quick to defend the company. "If these people had paid the rent on their boxes, they never would have been drilled," said the lawyer. "Banks are sued on a regular basis, but that doesn't make them crooks." He would not comment on the specifics of any of the lawsuits.

Gilchrist Jr. recently became eligible for parole. By the time he gets out of federal prison, sometime in the next few months, the Italian grandmother may have abandoned her lawsuit. She says the two-year legal battle to find answers about what happened to her lost jewels has wreaked havoc on her health. "I am 74 years old, and I'm a fighter," she says. "But this thing has been running my life for the last two years. I don't need the money, I don't need this trauma. I just wanted to have something to pass on to my grandchildren.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jay Cheshes