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

But Salerno had a change of heart not long after. He quizzed his future brother-in-law about his hometown of Harrison, New York. Did he know the neighborhood well? Did he know where the wealthy lived? Of course he did. Latella was given the role of driver and ended up making $1,500 for a few nights' work in his hometown.

In 1967, Salerno quarreled with his burglary partner -- a different brother-in-law -- and coaxed Latella to take the role of lookout.

"Do you think you'd be capable of coming into a house with me?" he pressed him.

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.

Latella felt an urgent need to vacate his bowels. "I don't know," he stammered. "Just the thought of it gives me the shakes. I have a nervous stomach. What if the house is dark and someone takes a shot at us?"

Salerno already exerted a lot of control over him, a sway that ate away at Latella's girlfriend, Sandra, who loathed her brother-in-law for stealing away her twin sister. "If Pete was a planet, then Dominick was the moon revolving around him," recalls Fred Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor. "Dominick got reflected luster off Pete. Not that Dominick was dumb, but he was a second-in-command type. I think if Dominick had tried to go into the crime business himself, he wouldn't have been the success he was with Pete." Pictures taken around that time of the pair with family and friends dining at Miami Beach hot spots like the Fontainebleau Hotel reveal two virile-looking men in snappy suits with thin, black ties. Salerno's eyes smolder above his grave face.

Salerno quelled his would-be partner's fears by promising him an easy first job. He'd gotten a tip that a bookie in White Plains, New York -- not far from Latella's hometown -- kept a money stash in his house. But he rarely ventured out. "If we do get him, he can't call the cops anyway," Salerno reasoned.

The first night, they cased the house by hiding in the shrubs outside, but Latella's anxiety got the best of him. "I had to end up shitting between two houses by a bush because I was so nervous," Latella recalls nonchalantly. "I'm using leaves to wipe my ass."

For three months, they reconnoitered the home, waiting for an empty house. Then their tipster, who stood to gain a third of anything they stole, told them that the bookie's mother had died and that the funeral would be four days later. The house, at last, sat empty. Dressed in light-colored clothing to blend in with the snow, they walked along the sidewalk and then darted between two houses that led to the bookie's backyard. They quickly got through the back porch, and Salerno posted Latella at the front door as the lookout. "I'm nervous as hell," Latella recalls. "I'm seeing the guy coming, cops pulling up, me going to jail. I hear things upstairs. Boards being ripped. He's prying up the floor."

Salerno bounded down the stairs with a steel ammunition box filled, they discovered later, with about $50,000.

No one called the cops.

Walter Shaw, unrelated to the family network that made up the Dinnerset Gang, wasn't a natural fit for the group. He married his high school sweetheart, and they lived the suburban life with two children. But he possessed a slick tongue and a zeal for thievery that ingratiated him with Salerno -- until things soured.

Shaw was a gawky 13-year-old attending Oakland Military School in New Jersey in March 1961 when the superintendent showed up at his classroom door. The boy was led to the infirmary and told that his mother would be calling him soon and that she'd be arranging for him to travel back home to Miami Shores. The next morning, he boarded a Greyhound bus alone for the 1,600-mile trip.

Only after arriving home did he learn that he was expelled from the school, not for anything he'd done but because his father, Walter L. Shaw, had been arrested in Mamaroneck, New York, in connection with a $10 million-a-year bookmaking ring. The elder Shaw, whose face was long and serious, had begun supplying the bookies with devices to help them elude telephone wiretaps by police. One of these devices, which bookies had nicknamed the "black box," prevented long-distance calls from being registered; it was as though the call had never been made. The black box baffled investigators. Telephone technicians couldn't figure out how it worked, because it self-destructed when it was examined. (The elder Shaw ultimately served a year in a Florida prison for tampering with the telephone system.)

Shaw had worked for Southern Bell Telephone Co. from 1936 to 1950 as an equipment engineer. Shaw told his son later that he'd left the company because his employer wanted all rights to anything he invented, "past, present, and future." Shaw, on his own, would go on to conceive and patent the speakerphone, call conferencing, touch-tone dialing, and other advancements. By the time of his death in 1996, Shaw had profited little from the technology that's now ubiquitous in telecommunications. (The Florida Legislature paid tribute to his accomplishments through a proclamation in 2003.)

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