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

Erfurth's informants introduced him as a player, someone looking to make a buck, and he ingratiated himself into the Dinnerset family, most of whom lived in the west Hollywood area. What amazed him most was the utter lack of loyalty among what was in essence a family. "The way that all of them would screw over each other in a heartbeat to save their skin was an incredible lesson," he still marvels. "I'd never seen such a high degree of ruthlessness in my life."

Eventually, Erfurth flipped Salerno, Latella, and other key members, he says. (Latella claims he's never heard of Erfurth. He says he spent the late '80s in Canada, where he ran drug money and cocaine over the border.) Salerno, however, even as he holed up with his son and other informants in safe houses in Broward County to keep them from getting "whacked," continued burglarizing. In February 1986, the aging thief, now over the hill for the profession at age 47, got sloppy during a burglary in Hollywood, and a homeowner bashed him over the head with a sports trophy. Salerno received a 12-year sentence, most of which he would never serve: Within months of incarceration, Salerno was released to the FBI to testify against a Mob hit man in Yonkers. Both spent most of the 1990s in Pennsylvania jails for burglaries in that state.

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.

None of the early gang members has any money to show for the millions he stole. What remains are the war stories, which they hope will ultimately yield as much profit as the burglaries themselves, through books and films. That's enough reason to continue feuding.

Shaw is a walking contradiction when it comes to reflecting upon his life of crime, a dichotomy that manifests itself even in a single conversation.

"I'm not going to go down as having historical value," Shaw declares while driving his Cadillac around the Palm Beach County neighborhoods he once robbed. "We were just a gang of thieves. That's all. The whole group has been dysfunctional for the kind of money we made."

But not much later, he boasts, "I was not one of these half-ass criminals, just stealing toasters and microwaves. I think in the realm of criminal folklore, I stood out." His cell phone ringer, naturally enough, plays the theme from The Pink Panther.

Indeed, his passion for robbing the wealthy is evident when he approaches the security gates of La Lac, an exclusive bastion of mansions belonging to the likes of Ed Morse, a SoFla car dealership tycoon, and Scott Sullivan, the former WorldCom chief financial officer arrested for $3.8 billion in accounting fraud.

"Boy, this brings back memories," Shaw sighs. He and other fragments of the Dinnerset Gang plundered gated communities like this in west Boca Raton in the late '80s and early '90s. He drives through the security gate, which inexplicably stands wide open. "These are the houses I robbed," he gloats. "They can feel safe all the fuck they want; I used to eat their lunch in here. I'm telling you, I used to fucking take them out. I love this place. I start to twitch." He chortles.

Dan Riemer attests to Shaw's ability to infiltrate "secure" communities 15 years ago, when as a police detective he worked the high-end burglaries. Two of the hardest-hit communities were near the Turnpike in Boca Raton, and investigators were baffled at how the thieves were getting in. Riemer eventually figured out that they were being dropped off and picked up on the Turnpike, a discovery that came from painstaking effort.

"I tied black sewing thread over branches and bushes all along the canal on the eastern bank of the Turnpike, which is the western bank of Boca West," he recalls. "They wouldn't notice the thread when they broke it. We'd set up surveillance where it was broken. A lot of time, we'd get into a chase with them, but the problem was, they knew the area a lot better than we did."

Shaw hadn't intended a return to cat burglary after leaving prison in 1987, planning instead to make a living as a born-again evangelist. But he needed quick cash for a girlfriend's custody battle. "I threw away my whole career and ruined any legitimacy for that life," he mutters. After his son, Randy Shaw, was arrested for burglary in 1990, the elder Shaw made a deal with police to help recover stolen jewels in return for leniency for the young man. The elder Shaw ended up on three years' probation, and it was the end of his burglary days.

Today, Shaw seems to seek redemption for a life of crime through producing a feature film about his father's accomplishments. "Did he make mistakes?" he asks of his father. "Yes, but did that negate what he left us when you sum up a whole man's life?"

Riemer offers this armchair psychology: "I think what happened is that he feels he lost his salvation or that he's not good enough to get in heaven because of his actions. But he thinks that if he can do some sort of tribute to his father, it's kind of like his redemption, his sacrifice."

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