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

Salerno and Latella could have made an easy exit from the life of crime with the DuPont loot, but greed got the best of them. Instead of quitting, they expanded their operation. They drew in family and friends to form a loose-knit crew that, for 30 years, became the scourge of the well-healed, from Florida to New York. Detectives, routinely stymied, learned to recognize the gang's trademark: meticulous planning and an utter lack of physical evidence.

Dan Riemer, now a 45-year-old private eye, was a burglary detective for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in the late '80s. "I never investigated a burglary unless the loss was over $100,000, and in 1990, I worked probably a little over 100 burglaries, all attributed to the Dinnerset Gang. It was their m.o.: no evidence, no apparent sign of forced entry, and nothing was disturbed or torn apart." The Dinnerset Gang holds a special place in the pantheon of Florida crooks, and police detectives today concede that the original members displayed a level of skill and professionalism second to none.

A former police detective, Dan Riemer fruitlessly tracked cat burglars who laid siege to Boca Raton.
Colby Katz
A former police detective, Dan Riemer fruitlessly tracked cat burglars who laid siege to Boca Raton.
Undercover detective Bill Erfurth stepped into a den of jackals when he infiltrated the Dinnerset Gang in the 1980s.
Colby Katz
Undercover detective Bill Erfurth stepped into a den of jackals when he infiltrated the Dinnerset Gang in the 1980s.

The burglars didn't go into neighborhoods or homes blind. They prepared. Posing as well-to-do buyers, they'd visit the sales offices in tony gated communities and ask for floor plans, blueprints, a map of the tracts. And, of course, they'd ask about security measures. Salespeople would eat it up.

They painstakingly reviewed architecture magazines, like Architectural Digest, that featured wealthy homeowners. They pored over Forbes' annual lists of richest Americans and studied Who's Who reference books.

With their technical skills, home alarms were impotent. The thieves removed panes of glass so that alarms designed to react only to sliding window frames wouldn't go off. They exploited design flaws in motion detectors, Most were silent alarms designed to dial up either police or private security firms; the burglars simply spent the few seconds of the alarm's grace time to find the phone and lift it off the hook. Alarm neutralized.

"They were masters at their trade," Riemer recollects. "They made no noise. There were no neighbors alerted. They left no fingerprints. They left no footprints."

But as its founders aged and its younger members became consumed with $1,000-a-day drug habits, the gang, most of whom lived in Hollywood, conveyed the nastiness of Scarface more than the sophistication of To Catch a Thief. Bill Erfurth, a Miami-Dade detective who infiltrated the gang in the 1980s, recalls a nightmarish world of callous hubris.

Even in the old days, the gang was never known for European-style savoir-faire. That wasn't Cary Grant scaling those mansion walls. "I remember going to one of their houses for dinner one time, which was one of the weirdest things in my life," Erfurth says. "The dinner conversation was like, 'Fuck him, and fuck that. I'll kill that motherfucker, blah, blah, blah.' I just remember Peter Salerno's sister made a turkey and they just frickin' scavenged it down like rabid animals."

Other visits were equally bizarre. "There were many times when they were getting blowjobs or banging somebody, right in front of you," he says. "It was almost like a game to show off and do crazy shit."

Protégés of the original thieves are still active -- though with only a modicum of the prowess exhibited by their mentors. There's no clearer example of this than 45-year-old Dale McClain, a former Dinnerset protégé who received a ten-year jail sentence last summer for a burglary that ended with his jumping into a police car he mistook for a getaway vehicle.

All that's left of the old gang now is a few freelancers plying South Florida's wealthy communities, looking for quick scores, and the memories of the original gang members.

If there's one trait that embodies the Dinnerset Gang lore, aside from expertise at casing high-end homes, it's the long-standing acrimony among its early members. Thirty years have passed, but Latella and Walter Shaw, who both now live in Fort Lauderdale, loathe each other no less.

Walter Shaw is pissed, and his voice booms -- the way it does anytime he talks about his former partner. At age 56, Shaw looks like a character torn out of The Sopranos -- a show he dismisses, however, as a joke. His black hair is slicked back, and he wears a pinky ring and the kind of tailless, untucked shirt favored by New Jersey men young and old. He's behind the wheel of his black Cadillac Eldorado, cruising around Palm Beach County and pointing out neighborhoods he and his crew burglarized after he finished his 11-year jail sentence in 1987, long after his time with the original Dinnerset Gang.

"We never got along," Shaw roars about Latella. "We tolerated each other. He was always a pussy, a bullshit guy. I hear he's doing a book, but it's about a guy who's been in the Navy and got into crime. He was on a TV show bragging about the Dupont score, like it was a joke. I don't see any humor in that." He calls Latella and Salerno "rat bastards" because of their history of becoming informants to get out of serious jail time.

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