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

"He's a phony, a pussy," Latella lobs back when asked later about Shaw, whom he won't even concede was a bona fide gang member. "I'm not a tough guy, but I'll beat the shit out of him."

Their mutual hatred is visceral and seething.

Their high-flying criminal careers ended, Latella and Shaw have stories both hope to sell. Shaw is in preproduction on a Dinnerset movie (Christian Slater is reportedly interested), and Latella is hoping for a book deal.

Walter Shaw used a wine bottle to severe his relationship with one crime partner.
Colby Katz
Walter Shaw used a wine bottle to severe his relationship with one crime partner.

Both remember the final schism that led to Shaw's departure from the gang in 1974; like almost all their recollections, there are differences. Shaw, Latella, Salerno, and two others had flown to California and robbed a few seaside homes on Pebble Beach. Their escape route was a brisk walk along the beach with their pants legs rolled up -- just a group of friends out enjoying the surf. Later that night, they dined together at a hotel restaurant, and the conversation inevitably turned to the shares. Shaw wasn't satisfied with the amount of jewels Salerno said he'd found in the homes; Shaw had a steady beef about Salerno, claiming he held out on him. "Don got snide with me, and I bashed him in the head with a wine bottle," Shaw says. (Latella remembers Shaw only smashing the bottle and menacing him with the shards.) Salerno broke it up.

Whatever their personal beefs, both men have practical reasons for squabbling over the Dinnerset legacy. For years, Shaw has been trying to get a movie made based on his criminal life. Early incarnations of the script focused on him, but in recent years, he's shifted the emphasis to his illustrious father, Walter L. Shaw, an engineering genius who created the technologies for call forwarding, speakerphones, and other innovations. Despite the success of those inventions, though, he sealed his ruin when he created a device for Mob bookies to render their phone lines untraceable.

The backbone of Shaw Jr.'s script, however, remains the son's time with the Dinnerset Gang. The film lives or dies on Shaw's criminal creds.

Latella, who spent most of the '90s in prison in Pennsylvania and was paroled in 2001, has laid low until recently. He says he went straight after his release, but few employers are willing to hire a 63-year-old, lifelong criminal. Latella is irked by Shaw's claims of running with the Dinnerset Gang on its biggest capers, and he sees the possibility of making some money from a book deal. Indeed, the media appetite for true-crime tales is bottomless. Latella recently appeared on a segment of Court TV's Masterminds in which he recounted the Dupont theft. Regardless of what else might motivate him, Latella knows the biggest asset he now owns is the story he can tell.

As for Salerno -- without question the mastermind -- he's now serving a seven-year sentence in Collier County for trafficking in the narcotic oxycodone and is in no position to exploit his iniquitous past.

It's a long way down from the glitzy Miami Beach life the Dinnerset Gang swam in 40 years ago.

The Dinnerset Gang was born in the days when South Florida still felt a little like frontier territory. Its two primary members, Salerno and Latella, were Northern transplants looking for the good life, brought together through marriage and Italian ties.

In the 1960s, South Florida was a magnet for New York mobsters and their friends looking for a break from the scrutiny of cops up north. The U.S. Justice Department had only recently begun to understand the organized crime network that spanned half the United States, and Mob soldiers enjoyed a degree of impunity in Florida.

It was the perfect milieu for a guy like Salerno.

The five-foot-six firecracker had launched his criminal career at age 16 when he took a swing at a cop in Yonkers, New York, where he'd grown up. He got five years in 1958 for grand theft and assault, and after his release in 1963, he headed to Miami, where he continued to support himself through burglaries.

At some point during these formative years -- so the lore goes -- Salerno met a veteran of either World War II or the Korean War who had been trained in reconnaissance. Back in civvies, he made use of his skills breaking into homes undetected. Salerno was an apt pupil, fanatical about his new profession.

"Pete was very egotistical about being this great cat burglar," Shaw recalls. "He had a philosophy: no drugs, work out, run miles on the beach." Salerno had 21-inch upper arms and hands like iron claws.

Salerno married Gloria Savino, a petite Italian girl who made the bantam thief look tall. Her father, John Savino, a heavyset man with a Mobbed-up brother-in-law, owned the restaurant in the Tangiers Hotel on Miami Beach. The marriage ultimately led to an organized cat-burglary ring of family members that spanned four decades.

While Salerno perfected his criminal skills in the early 1960s, Latella, bedecked in baby-blue suit and tie, played with a high school guitar band called 2+2. He joined the Navy, served a couple of years, and then resumed playing music. His parents moved to Miami Beach in 1966, initially staying at the Tangiers Hotel, where they immediately bonded with the Savinos, who were from Yonkers. Latella quickly became interested in Sandra Savino, whose identical twin sister was married to Pete Salerno. In the close-knit group of Italians in Miami, Latella heard asides about how Salerno made money. ("They're in the iron and steel business," the joke went. "She irons, and he steals.") Salerno reacted coolly when, in 1966, Latella broached the possibility of helping out some time for a few bucks.

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