Before his death last week in a gun battle outside his Northwest Washington repair shop, Samuel (Piggy) James had fashioned two successive careers out of the lock business, one for each side of the law he had lived on.
For nearly 30 years James was one of the city's leading safecrackers, specializing in breaking into the offices of big-time gamblers and numbers kingpins, hauling away their safes and picking them open at his leisure.
Thirteen years ago James decided to turn his skills to other uses, becoming one of Washington's most celebrated lock, luggage and shoe repairmen.
James' second career ended last Monday night when he was shot to death outside his luggage and shoe repair shop at 1024 Ninth St. NW. Two men have been charged with homicide in the shooting of James, 61, but police still are investigating the case and anticipate that there will be more arrests. Police declined to speculate on the motive.
James' relatives described him as a mainstay of the ramshackle neighborhood at Ninth and L streets NW, two blocks north of the D.C. Convention Center.
"If a wino from the neighborhood came to him and said, 'I'm hungry and I need something to eat,' Uncle Piggy would give him $20," said James' nephew, Adrian James. "But he'd never give money for booze. He was a good man."
Nobody knows how Samuel James got into the safecracking business, but he apparently began in the 1940s when he also was working at shoe and upholstery repair, a trade that he had learned from his father. He was known for his quiet professionalism in both lines of work.
"He used to say was it was the same thing to him, picking safes, picking locks, fixing locks," said his brother, Richard James.
"He was good, real good," said nephew Adrian. "He could open any kind of lock just by looking at it. He had a touch."
James specialized in hitting the homes of local gamblers who he knew were likely to keep large amounts of cash in their safes, Adrian James said. The young man remembered his uncle telling the family about the time he drove by the house of a big-time numbers operator who spotted him from a window. Apparently anxious to protect his money, the numbers man and his aides were seen minutes later lowering the safe out of the second-story window and into a car.
The height of James' notoriety came in 1952, when police charged that he and several accomplices broke into the home of Roger (Whitetop) Simkins, identified by police at the time as one of the city's leading gamblers. They tied up the maid, stole the cash-stuffed safe from the second floor and opened it several blocks away. Two of those charged in the robbery were teen-agers trained by James, police said, and the newspapers described him as "a modern Fagin."
James was in and out of jail in the 1950s and '60s in connection with safecracking-related convictions, according to family members, although his sentences rarely were very long. In 1966, however, James began a four-year sentence in Lorton Reformatory following one of his convictions.
Upon his release, James decided to leave safecracking and, with the help of businessmen friends, returned to the trade he had learned from his parents: shoe and leather repair. He opened a shop on New York Avenue NW, and customers who had known his work from his earlier days followed him there.
Loyal customers came from throughout the Washington area to have their luggage, shoes and leather goods fixed by James. His family tell stories about his famous customers, and one wall of his A-1 Airline Luggage Repair shop is lined with autographed pictures of such dignitaries as Vice President Bush and his wife Barbara, former president Jimmy Carter, former secretary of state Cyrus Vance, the late Hubert Humphrey, former senator Abraham Ribicoff and former D. C. mayor Walter Washington.
James' family recalled a number of other notables, including senators and Supreme Court justices, who had their shoes repaired by him.
"Jacqueline wouldn't let anybody do their shoes but Piggy," said another nephew, Oliver James, recalling visits from John F. Kennedy's family.
"It's the workmanship," recalled Richard James, one of James' 11 brothers and sisters. "He put his soul into his work."
"He was a first-class craftsman," said Anthony Bredice, owner of Bredice Brothers Shoe Repair in Georgetown. "You'd think he was actually born in Italy, the way he hand-made shoes. When he worked for me during the 1960s , he was the number-one craftsman in Georgetown."
During the past year, James had planned a training program for ex-Lorton inmates at his repair shop and was working with foundations and city officials to set it up. He told friends that, as an ex-offender, he knew that people released from jail had to find a way other than crime to "get those Cadillacs."
But that dream ended May 16 in the gunfight at his repair shop. At about 7:40 p.m., his stepdaughter's boyfriend, Wayne Jones, and another man knocked on the door to James' apartment, family members said. Seconds after he answered the door, James, who was not known to carry a gun, pulled a handgun and shot Jones, 25, of the 1200 block of Holbrook Terrace NE, police said.
James was shot in the head by a second man during the shootout, police said, and died a short time later.
D. C. police have charged Jones, who has been discharged from a hospital, with homicide in James' death, and have obtained a warrant also charging Aaron Palmer, 25, of the 3600 block of 11th Street NW, with homicide in connection with the slaying. Police also have charged William Inman, 30, of the 600 block of 50th Place SE, with homicide in the case. Homicide charges against Vincent Henderson, 25, who was arrested last week, have been dropped.
Neither Jones nor Inman could be reached for comment. Jones' lawyer, Joe Bernard, and Inman's lawyer, Karen Christensen, declined to comment on the case.
Family members interviewed last week were shocked by James' death and said that they intend to continue his plan to help ex-offenders find a second life.
"It was his dream," Adrian James said. "He knew from his own life that someone coming out of jail has only two ways to go: He can go backwards, or he can go forwards."