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LAWRENCE — Maria Gomez thought the metal container laying on the ground next to her home for the last three weeks was a junked piece of office furniture.
She said it's not unusual for people to dump trash in the vacant lot next to the white triple-decker at 72 Cross St., and the container resembled a filing cabinet.
But what Gomez mistook for trash turned out to be a safe holding $178,496, probably from a heist in the early 1980s, police said yesterday.
"Wow," a shocked Gomez, 57, said after a reporter told her about the bounty.
A crew of firefighters from Ladder 5 spotted the safe while driving around the neighborhood doing "district familiarization," in which firefighters scope out the area, said Deputy fire Chief Brian Murphy.
Firefighters called police around 10:20 a.m. yesterday, and the police had Valley's Towing haul the roughly 2,000-pound safe to the police station. One of the doors had already been ripped off the safe and there was nothing inside that compartment, save some papers and leaves.
But there was another compartment that had not been accessed, so police called the Fire Department to help them open it, according to a report by police Detective Carmen Purpora.
Firefighters used a metal-cutting torch, a jackhammer and an air hammer to cut through the safe's wall to reveal the treasure inside: four plastic shopping bags from Daher's shoe store at 89 Swan St. in Methuen, and an old white Nike shirt, each containing blue envelopes full of money.
"It was a surprise, that's for sure," Murphy said.
Police took the loot to a room and Capt. Alfred Petralia and Detective Carlos Vieira spent about three hours last night counting the money by hand. Police will use a money counting machine to count the cash again, said Deputy police Chief Michael Driscoll.
The envelopes were from Arlington Trust Co. — a bank that is now defunct.
Police can only speculate as to how and why the safe ended up in the lot and why the person who left it there never broke in to the second compartment.
The newest bills in the safe are from 1982, which indicates the money has been sitting in there for the last quarter century or so, said police Chief John Romero.
"We're looking at a theft that probably took place in 1981 or 1982," the chief said.
Police have plenty of clues to help them figure out who the safe belonged to: the Daher's bags, the Arlington Trust envelopes, the serial numbers on the safe, even a piece of scrap paper with what appeared to be the name Irene and a telephone number written on it.
The phone number is disconnected, but police are attempting to trace it to whoever it once belonged to. Lawrence police will contact Methuen police to see if they have records of safes being stolen in that city over the years, Driscoll said.
Police also are going to work with the U.S. Treasury Department to attempt to trace the bills. Police will begin hunting for the safe's owner on Monday, Romero said.
"My sense is that we'll get to the bottom of it," he said.
Daher's shoe store was opened by Sally Daher, mother to Charlie, John, Ken and the deceased Joyce, in the 1960s and it has recently been sold outside the family.
John Daher, when contacted yesterday, said he doesn't remember anything specific about a safe with hundreds of thousands of dollars being stolen, but he didn't rule it out, either. "Unfortunately there were a few robberies in the store," he said.
Gomez told police she didn't think the safe was suspicious because people constantly dump trash next to her home. Speaking through her niece, Mariel Jimenez, 20, who translated Gomez's words from Spanish to English, Gomez said she has no idea how the safe ended up there, or precisely when it was ditched.
If she knew there was close to $200,000 inside, "She would have contacted the police anyway because it doesn't belong to her," Jimenez said, translating for Gomez.
EAGLE TRIBUNE
 

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I would have anonymously donated about $60,000 to USO, American Cancer Society, Jimmy Fund, Shriners, Special Olympics, and the National Republican Committee.
:innocent:
Then I would run to Four Seasons in Woburn and spend $23,000.
:rock:
Then I would show my wife the rest and say "Honey! look what I found on the side of the road while walking the dog!"
:---)
 

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Czar of Cyncism and Satire
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A crew of firefighters from Ladder 5 spotted the safe while driving around the neighborhood doing "district familiarization," in which firefighters scope out the area, said Deputy fire Chief Brian Murphy.
A.K.A. Joy Ride or goofing off.
 
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