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

The story surrounding his father's inventions now consumes the 56-year-old former cat burglar, but at the time, he says, he felt only betrayal. His father had introduced his bookmaking acquaintances as accountants or business associates. Only afterward did he learn they were part of an organized crime family. "I was shocked that my dad was involved with these people. I was in disbelief not because of what it was but because he lied to me. These guys were criminals, the bad guys."

With his parents consumed with "money, lawyers, bonds, and losing everything," the young teen started hanging with the wrong crowd, including some of the Mob figures who'd associated with his father. One of them eventually advised the young Shaw that his career options included loan shark, bookmaker, or extortionist. "But I have a nephew, one of the top jewel thieves in the country, and he's so successful because he hides behind a ski mask," he advised Shaw. "If he thinks you've got what it takes, I'll hook you up."

His nephew was Pete Salerno.

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.

Shaw says he joined the Dinnerset Gang in 1967, when he was 19 years old. "I started as a driver with Pete and Don because their brother-in-law retired with a heart condition," Shaw says. "Pete said, 'I'll give you $300 a week and you'll learn what it's like to be a driver in the field -- how, where, and when to pick us up. It's a big responsibility, but the driver has the least amount of risk because he's never in the perimeter when the police block it off. '" But it ate away at Shaw that there was more money to be made as an inside man, and he pestered Salerno for six months, until he let him in. "I knew I had it," Shaw boasts. "I adapted to everything -- dogs, cops. I was not afraid out there."

Shaw recalls an acrimonious parting with Salerno. "I found out through a fence that Pete was getting more money than me," Shaw says. "I went to him in 1974 and told him I was leaving him. 'Everything I have, I learned from you and got from you, but now you're robbing me. '"

Shaw, however, got his wings clipped after his young getaway driver was arrested and flipped for police. He regaled authorities with details of past burglaries that implicated his boss. Cocksure to a fault, Shaw rejected a plea deal that would have let him serve two years. Instead, a jury quickly found him guilty, and he was handed a 15-year sentence.

Meanwhile, Salerno was sentenced to six years in an Atlanta federal penitentiary for selling cocaine to an undercover Broward sheriff's deputy in 1975.

After years of highlife, Salerno didn't much like wasting away in the pen. Not that he let his fabled physique go to the dogs: During the exercise period outside, he'd flip to a handstand and then run around the track.

Soon after he arrived, Salerno began talking to the FBI about his Mob friends, some of whom had fenced the stolen jewels. By 1978, he was helping the U.S. Justice Department make a case against a gangster underboss for an execution-style murder. Salerno had been a good earner for the Gambino crime family, which took a percentage of anything he sold to its jewelers. Latella and John Savino also cooperated, says Fred Schwartz, the federal prosecutor in the case. "Pete basically got a clean slate from us in the late '70s," he says.

Salerno, Latella, Savino, and their wives entered the witness protection program and lived in several states. But Salerno's lust for gems would bring him back to Florida.

The Dinnerset Gang had gained the grudging respect of law enforcement during its early years. Twenty years after Salerno had begun heaving himself onto second-story balconies, however, the gang was a shadow of its glory days.

Late in 1984, Bill Erfurth, a 25-year-old green detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department, received an anonymous tip that would lead him into the seamy underworld of the Dinnerset Gang. The once-disciplined, highly skilled ring of cat burglars had morphed into a coterie of drug-addled bandits who turned on one another with barely a nudge.

Today, Erfurth hardly resembles the mustachioed, brash undercover agent who infiltrated the gang 20 years ago. Soft-spoken, with a vanishing hairline, he splits his time between the Police Department and a high-ceilinged office at Cineworks in Miami, from which he consults as a technical adviser for movies, such as Bad Boys II. The walls are adorned with mementos, photos, and decorations, including an exceptional-service award for helping close 709 burglary cases and recovering more than $2 million of stolen goods involving the Dinnerset Gang.

The anonymous tip helped Erfurth bust a number of minor players in the organization, most of whom were relatives and close friends of John Savino. The trail of informants led to Pete Salerno, who was then going under his witness protection moniker, Pierre Cardin. "His insatiable desire for money and jewels and crime brought him back to South Florida," Erfurth recalls. "For a while, he was driving around in a Rolls-Royce and living large using his federal name."

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