The strip mall at the intersection of West Olympic Boulevard and South Palm Drive is hardly something to gawk at–upscale by strip mall standards, but still a strip mall. But since March 22, dozens of local and federal agents have taken over the lot.
The Beverly Palm Plaza is home to an eclectic mix of global cuisine of both the casual and white tablecloth varieties, the obligatory nail salon with two rows of plastic covered pedicure chairs and of course, a Supercuts. What caper could have pulled together the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD) and police departments from El Monte and Chino?
“The business is U.S. Private Vaults. It’s a safe deposit box business,” FBI Spokesperson Laura Eimiller told the Courier.
The FBI is leading the investigation, executing a federal search warrant at the business on March 22. Beyond that, the feds aren’t talking.
“We have not commented on the nature of the investigation because the search warrant, the affidavit supporting the search warrant has been sealed by a judge. And in that circumstance we are prohibited from commenting. We are seeking evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation, but we’re not able to comment on the specifics,” said Eimiller.
Phone calls to multiple businesses in the Plaza yielded just as many clues. “I come to work, I mind my own business,” said a Supercuts stylist who identified herself as Carla. “I see a lot of people come in and out. Seems like they’re doing good.”
Eimiller acknowledged that the presence of an alphabet soup of federal law enforcement agencies might make it difficult for people to access Beverly Palm Plaza. “I want to tell the community that the other businesses in the mall are open for business and we know that we’re a nuisance and we appreciate the cooperation and the patience of the community,” she said. As for patrons of U.S. Private Vaults, “anyone who is a customer at the business, if they would like to make a claim for their valuables, we are asking them to file a claim form, which we have online at fbi.gov.”
Normally, the FBI takes a day to execute a search warrant. But Eimiller said this is a “protracted warrant” that will take five days and dozens of agents working night and day shifts. “It’s a painstaking process, which is why we’re taking our time,” she said. “We’re not going to talk about what specifically we’re looking for, but we’re dealing with a lot of valuables.”
On its website, U.S. Private Vaults touts safe deposit boxes “like those found at banks,” but with the promise of two differences: enhanced security and “complete privacy.” The business claims to keep no personal data except for encrypted biometric information used to access the safe deposit boxes. Even the paucity of Yelp review seems to reflect the central desire of their clientele, according to its first review on the site.
“Everything is also 100 percent confidential,” wrote Yelp user Ben B. in 2015, “so that’s probably why no one wants to leave a Yelp review. But I will, because I no longer store things there.”
U.S. Private Vaults states in its Frequently Asked Questions in no uncertain terms what cannot be stored in its facility: no “illegal drugs, weapons, ammunition, hazardous materials, illegal contraband and illegally obtained property or the products therefrom.” The company claims to conduct checks with dogs trained to detect drugs and hazardous materials.
As for security, breaking in would take a high-wire act à la Mission Impossible or a planning feat à la Oceans 11. Or, of course, a federal search warrant. But barring judicially sanctioned access, one would have to get past a security system as redundant as a one-note saxophone solo. Entering during normal business hours requires no names; rather, U.S. Private Vaults employs a dual biometric security system. Normally, customers submit to an iris scan for access, but the store also uses hand geometry recognition as a “backup in case of severe damage or loss of eyes.”
As opposed to a fingerprint scan, a hand geometry reader measures the unique shape of one’s hand. Again, the company promises that hand shape information “is encrypted in a way that it may only be used to verify access to your box, not identify you.”
Then there’s the vault itself, a structural steel, reinforced concrete sepulcher of secrets and valuables built by American Vault Corp. to withstand fire, earthquakes, “as well as assaults that could occur in the event of civil unrest.” The vault is monitored 24 hours a day by private security ready to call BHPD in the event of a threat. And lest an enterprising cat burglar breach the vault walls, the inside is equipped with motion detectors and heat sensors.
And as if to suggest one last line of defense, one both paper thin and ironclad, Ben B. writes in his Yelp review, “P.S. They have the 4th Amendment displayed, which I thought was cool.” Even the Fourth Amendment, though, has one major backdoor: probable cause.