To Re-Catch a Thief

For the old cat burglars, all that's left is a movie script, a book proposal, and undying hatred for one another

On a cool Sunday evening in January 1973, just days after Richard Nixon's second inaugural, Peter Salerno and Dominick "Don" Latella crept along the ocean beachfront of a small jut of land in Juno Beach. The handful of mansions was isolated from the mainland by a gate and surrounding water -- the kind of barricade that makes wealthy homeowners feel secure in their opulence.

Salerno and Latella, both handsome Italians originally from the New York area, were in their physical prime, barely out of their 20s. But for the fact that they were married to twin sisters, they had little in common. Salerno was a foul-mouthed street tough with Mob connections. His glare and almost freakish upper-body strength intimidated many. Latella, the product of a middle-class family and once an aspiring pro musician, was as skittish as Salerno was nervy. Dressed in their black cat-burglar garb, however, they blended into the darkness as one.

Ahead of them that night would be the largest score of their lives.

Walter Shaw: The memory lingers on.
Colby Katz
Walter Shaw: The memory lingers on.
Cat burglar mastermind Pete Salerno was a friend of the Mob and the bane of wealthy Floridians.
Cat burglar mastermind Pete Salerno was a friend of the Mob and the bane of wealthy Floridians.

By now, after almost six years of burglaries across the nation, they'd earned the nickname "Dinnerset Gang" because of one simple premise: A woman doesn't wear her best gems while dining alone with her husband because he just doesn't give a damn anymore. She leaves them in the bedroom.

Their modus operandus was distinctive. Spy from the shadows at dusk into a fully lit mansion. Wait for the prosperous occupants to settle in for dinner or after-meal conversation. Pinpoint the whereabouts of the butler, the maid, and the cook, all of whom are busy in the orbit of their masters. Make sure the one essential room is vacant -- the master bedroom, where almost certainly the precious jewels are kept. Salerno would be in and out in a matter of minutes. He had a nose for hidden jewels like a bloodhound does for escaped convicts.

This night, however, looked like a bust. They'd surveyed the oceanfront homes as they walked, but none was right to hit. Two were dark; their owners -- and their best jewelry -- were likely out. Then again, the occupants might actually be in there, maybe lying in the master bedroom with a small reading light. Maybe with a gun. No, the best, safest way to do this was to know exactly where everyone was. The other homes had movement, but the would-be thieves couldn't figure out who and how many people were home. Not worth the risk.

Then they saw lights in the last mansion at the north end of the beach. It was a dark brown, one-story home, built in a square to surround a large pool. Between it and the sea were about 60 feet of sand and shrubbery. Hunkered down in the tropical flora encircling the home, the pair watched the movements inside. A maid and butler lit the candles on the dining-room table. Dinner would soon be served. Latella felt his stomach roll; it didn't look like they'd walk away from this one. The middle-aged wife, a beautiful and regal woman with frosted blond hair, walked through the room. Salerno followed her, watching through the windows until she went to the one room he was interested in, the bedroom. Then she returned to the dining room and sat down with her husband.

"It's now or never," murmured Salerno, and both made their way back to the window of the master bedroom. The room faced the ocean, and a door opened on to a small wooden deck, about four feet off the ground. Latella boosted Salerno up, then situated himself at the corner of the house where he could see both Salerno and the dining room. Salerno readied his essential tool, a small pry bar. He twisted the doorknob first. It popped open. Unlocked. He gave Latella a thumbs up.

Once inside, Salerno crept to the inside bedroom door and locked himself in. With a keen sense of night vision -- aided by a small penlight -- Salerno found his way around easily. He searched the dressing/makeup alcove but found only empty jewelry cases. Moving quickly, he discovered a set of diamond earrings atop a dresser. He opened the top dresser drawer, patted it down. Nothing. He moved down the drawers and in the bottom one felt something hard beneath the clothing. He moved the garments aside, revealing a valise covered with customs stickers from around the world. His instincts as a thief caused him to involuntarily gasp.

Moments later, Salerno was at the window. He motioned for Latella. "Don't drop it," Salerno whispered to him. "We're in the crane business." Latella knew exactly what that meant -- a score so big that they could expand their steel construction company and go legit.

They were gone in a flash, heading back to the raft in which they'd arrived. Latella looked back at the house. No one had heard a thing. They supped contentedly that night, their world undisturbed for now.

It was only after they were safe on land that they realized they'd just robbed Ethel DuPont, daughter of Alfred DuPont, one of the richest men in America. The FBI valued the stolen gems at $12 million, one of the biggest home burglaries of all time.

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