On a Hot Tin Roof
Cat-burglar legends Pete Salerno and Dom Latella stole riches from Fairfield County blue bloods as they dined
By Chandra Niles Folsom
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Cat Burglars have long been revered in criminal circles as the thinking man's thieves—relying on brains rather than brutality to separate hot loot from unsympathetic victims—the superrich. In law enforcement circles, Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella are regarded as the gold standard for cat burglars—finally getting nabbed on a frosty January night in 1992, after completing a successful 30-year string of scores that netted them somewhere around $150 million in cash and jewelry.
They were dubbed the Dinnerset Gang by cops, for their signature style of robbing mansions of the family jewels stashed upstairs, while well-heeled residents sipped Merlot and dined on three-course meals, downstairs.
There have been lots of recent reports of cat burglars who claim to trace their origins back to the Dinnerset Gang, from Alan Golder—the Dinnertime Bandit—recently caught on the run in Europe, to Walter Shaw—the media darling who calls himself the leader of the gang. The hyperbolic musings of copycats prompted Pete and Dom to come forward with the facts, and those facts convinced film producer Dick Atkins to take their story to the big screen.
The Kitten Years
It all when their paths crossed on the Redneck Riviera.
There, in the balmy breezes of the Florida coastline, Pete—a streetwise native of Yonkers—was pulling lucrative heists for the mob when he met Dom, a working musician and sometime ballplayer from Harrison who had once tried out with the New York Yankees.
Pete had been schooled on the finer points of cat burglary by an Army Ranger turned-underworld-figure, but required a collaborator whom he could trust to pull off the type of two-man heists he had been planning. They married Gloria and Sandra Savino—twin sisters from a New York mob family. Afterwards, the two began their partnership in crime.
"Pete had good instincts and Dom was good at planning," said Atkins. "Their heyday was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they robbed mansions that had never been robbed before. But they knew if they were going to be successful, they had to be careful. If anything about the situation didn't smell quite right, they dropped everything and walked away."
They researched their jobs at local libraries, getting leads from Forbes magazine and Who's Who in America. They studied floor plans from Architectural Digest and Town & Country magazine.
Dom's job was to hide outside in the bushes, watching the dining room to make sure nobody left the table.
"They never expected anybody to be around while they were having dinner," said Dom, now living a quiet life in the Fort Lauderdale area. "But, if I saw anyone get up, I'd alert Pete by whistling and we'd take off."
Meanwhile, Pete—short in height but built like a brick house—would scale the second story, slipping in through windows, undetected. He seemed to have a sixth sense about where the jewels and cash were stashed.
"I'd spend three minutes inside—that's it," said Pete, who is currently serving time in a Miami prison, on unrelated charges stemming from supplying his nephew with Oxycontin. "A lot of times they wouldn't even know anything was gone until the next day."
Two Cool Cats
They boosted loot from some of the nation's wealthiest dynasties, including the Gimbels, Macys and Pillsburys, taking on average a $250,000 per job. Their biggest score—valued at $12 million—was during the 1970s at a DuPont rental property on Juno Beach, Florida, where Pete found a leather case tucked away in a linen closet containing, among other items, a 17.65-caret flawless pink diamond worth, at the time, $1.8 million.
"I went in the linen closet and started squeezing the sheets and they were hard so I uncovered it and there was a big traveling case that had stamps from different countries," said Pete.
"I remember everything—something like that you don't ever forget," said Dom. "Two big sapphires, a ruby, a big emerald, a set of pearls—with a 5-karat marquee diamond serving as a clasp."
The Dinnerset Gang hit Fairfield and Westchester counties during summer months and flew south like birds in the winter, following the rich to their vacation homes.
"We loved Fairfield County," said Pete. "We hit a ton of houses in Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien and Westport. We wanted only the biggest and the best so we picked our targets. In Greenwich, we hit the Gimbel Estate. We scouted out the area first. It took me more than three-minutes to run across the property, so I figured it was a half-mile wide."
One of their more innovative approaches was to use a raft to hit oceanfront estates and where there was no water access, hired a driver—usually their brother-in-law Carmine Stanzione—who would meet them miles away from any potential witnesses.
"Up north, our driver would drop us off and we'd walk miles through the woods," said Pete.
On Jupiter Island, they stole $168,000 in jewels from Reader's Digest founder, Dwit Wallace, while he and his wife sipped after dinner cognac.
They drove expensive cars and wore $500 suits. Their wives kept cash in envelopes—spending lavishly on whatever caught their eye. Most of the cash was provided by the gang's main fence, Wally and Flo Gans, who ran a shop in Manhattan's diamond district. "At the 47th Street diamond exchange, they had their own vaults underground and didn't use banks," recalled Pete.
They only collected 10 cents on the dollar—the going rate for stolen jewelry, yet it was as much as necessary for them to live like kings.
Cops on Their Tails
Detectives Jimmy Hirsh and Billy Adams knew exactly who they were, and spent 20 years on their tail.
"In anything you read in the last 40 years in regards to jewel thieves, Peter Salerno's name always comes up and he's the standard by which all other jewel thieves are judged," said Adams, retired cop from the North Castle, New York police force. "You talk about doing surveillance—sitting in a car drinking stale coffee and looking for a place to go to the bathroom—and they're leading the life of Reilly like their a member of the Greenwich County Club. You start to say to yourself maybe crime does pay."
The two lived under assumed names on Indian Field Road, in Greenwich, for about six months in the 1970s, said Pete. "We loved that area until the cops in Greenwich picked us up and charged us with vagrancy. I was driving my Cadillac El Dorado with Florida plates and $1,800 in cash. The judge said to the cops, 'So are you arresting rich vagrants, now?' That's when the lieutenant gets me aside and says, 'Don't bother us here anymore.' So they escorted me to the state line and let me go."
The next month, Greenwich cops picked up Dom at the local A&P and escorted him out of town, making the same request.
They had enough cash stashed away to go into retirement until the end of the 1980s—when Gloria was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"In our business we don't have health insurance so in order to pay the doctor bills we headed back east looking for quick hits—40 jobs per month just to pay the doctor bills," said Dom.
Still needing more money, they decided to return to a place they knew well: Fairfield County. There, they went on a rampage and weren't careful, breaking all their own rules on a carelessly planned crime spree.
"I wasn't gonna let her [Gloria] die for lack of money and that money saved her life," said Pete.
That was when the cops made their move.
"During the 1992 season, we heard about a series of burglaries that fit the same MO as the Dinnerset Gang, so we knew they were back in the area," said retired Greenwich detective Hirsh. "Me and my partner put out an APB to all the precincts in Fairfield and Westchester counties, knowing these guys did quick hits in and out of different towns. In the beginning, they paid for everything with cash but, later on, used credit cards, enabling us to trace their activities."
Cops traced their telephone calls and then discovered who was driving the getaway car. They had hired a new driver, Louie Cardillo, who suggested Clapboard Hill Road in Westport. They started a job at the home of Rosemary Barry—although there was no family dinner in progress.
"Pete went up on the ledge and made an entry though the bedroom and all of a sudden I saw the woman get up and I knew she heard something," said Dom. "She called 911. We didn't even have time to take anything before running. We had told Louie to meet us at 6 p.m. but, when he wasn't there, it was like hide and seek for two hours." Louie, who had parked nearby, noticed the patrol cars arriving and drove away.
"We saw the searchlights and took off running toward I-95," said Dom. "If we had known Louie wasn't going to show up we would have crossed the highway but instead ran back in the direction of the house."
"The cops don't normally stay more than five minutes if the perpetrator isn't located," said Hirsh. "But, because I figured it was them I told the Westport officers—be patient."
They could hear the barking of dogs closing in on them and finally decided to just sit back and wait for their fate.
"It was cold—there was snow on the ground and we were in a box," said Dom. "I looked at Pete and said, 'This is it.' So we sat with our backs against a tree until the dogs came."
Even after they had been caught, the legend of the Dinnerset Gang lived on. And, because they had been attracting hangers-on from the start, copy cat burglars began telling tales out of school.
"Walter Shaw was just a kid when one of the wives' uncles asked them to take him out on a job," said Atkins. "Later, Walter tried it on his own but got caught. Then he started promoting himself as leader of the gang—getting written up in Maxim magazine—and even got himself booked on Oprah. So, that was when Pete and Dom said we have got to get the truth out, now."
"There are over a hundred cat burglars claiming to trace their roots back to Pete and Dom, but Alan Golder is a direct copy," said Atkins. "During the mid 1970s, when Pete and Dom split up for a while, one of their fences found Golder—a teenaged petty thief—and trained him to do what Pete and Dom did. He was better than most, but not in the same league."
Between 1976 and 1980, Golder allegedly pillaged an estimated $25 million in jewels and cash, pleading guilty in 1980 as an accessory to a 1978 murder during a robbery gone wrong. He served time and then went back to robbing houses. He was recently busted in Belgium after nine years on the run. He was returned to Greenwich where cops charged him with 38 felony counts and one misdemeanor. (He plead not guilty.)
Captain Michael Lombardo, of the Wilton Police Department, said things have changed since the days of the Dinnerset Gang and their offshoots. Burglaries in the wealthy little town—the kind Pete and Dom targeted—are at a 14-year low. "But I can remember a time when there were 50, 60 every year," Lombardo said. "There are [now] more officers on patrol. People have become more vigilant." He said this began in the '80s—the start of the culture of fear and the rise of neighborhood watch programs and home security systems.
Lombardo said he can't recall the last cat burglary in this area. "We do communicate with other departments and sometimes the same people who hit a house in Wilton will hit one in New Canaan or so, but there aren't long strings of robberies that everyone is looking to stop."
And, in post-Cheshire Connecticut, cat burglars may have lost their allure, as a new name (and stiffer penalties) for them has taken root: home invaders.
Cats Look Back on Nine Lives
"If I've scarred anyone by making them feel violated, I'm sorry. We weren't there to hurt anybody," said Dom, who served nine years in prison. After making a deal with the authorities, Pete got four.
The Dinnerset Gang avoided confrontation. They never carried weapons and would flee the scene if anyone appeared, leaving the loot behind.
Would they do it all again if they had the chance?
"I would have stopped before the 1980s," said Dom. "We could have just taken the money and been gone."
Not Pete—who gets out of prison on his Oxycontin charge next December.
"I don't regret it—I loved the life the excitement," he said. "I'm the best and this is what I did."