In the hierarchy of the underworld, no criminals are more romanticized than cat burglars. They're thinking man's thieves, who rely on stealth and surprise instead of violence, using planning and imagination to separate valuable baubles from unsympathetic victims, meaning the super rich and their insurance companies. That's the movie version any way.
Despite technological advances in burglar alarms and motion detectors and the proliferation of security firms, more than a hundred cat burglars are thought to be operating just in the state of Florida. And, as correspondent Steve Kroft first reported last fall, the Palm Beach Sheriff's office says many of them have adopted their techniques from two of the very best, who were called "The Dinner Set Gang."
Peter Salerno, the founder of the gang, says he was and still is the best jewel thief. But he is currently indisposed, serving time in a Miami prison. Surprisingly, he is not behind bars for stealing jewels, but for illegally distributing Oxycontin, a pain killer he was taking to ease the occupational back ache from decades of climbing up the sides of buildings and breaking into bedrooms.
His long time accomplice, lookout, and logistics man was brother-in-law Dominick Latella.
Over the years, Latella says they brought in a hefty haul. "I'd say maybe in the tens of millions."
The late 1960s and 70s were their heyday, when they preyed on the super rich who wintered in Palm Beach, with their jewels in tow.
It was in South Florida that Salerno and Latella revolutionized society burglaries.
Instead of robbing the rich while they were out on the town wearing their best pieces, they cleaned them out at home while they were eating dinner. It's why the police dubbed them 'The Dinner Set Gang.'
It should be noted that the wealthy don't eat dinner like most Americans.
First of all, they dress for it, usually invite guests, and are summoned to the dining room by butlers or maids, for multi-course meals and polite conversations that can go on for hours. It's considered impolite to get up from the table, so if you are a burglar watching through a window, the ritual becomes very predictable.
"They never expect you. They don't expect anybody to be in there with them while they're having dinner," says Salerno. And of course, the burglar alarms are shut off.
The best jewelry was kept upstairs and Salerno was the second-story guy.
What was Latella doing, while Salerno was pilfering valuables? "I'm downstairs watching the people – if I feel someone's going up the stairs –
I'm gonna alert him that someone's coming up." He used a little whistle to alert his partner.
And Salerno spent very little time inside. "Three minutes. Three minutes."
"It's remarkable, but he had that sixth sense of finding it, and you're talking about a big master suite with dressing areas, you know, closet areas…. If it was there, he found it," says Latella.
"A lot of them don't even know it's even gone till the following day," adds Salerno.
When the social season ended in Palm Beach, and the wealthy moved north, "The Dinner Set Gang" followed them to New York and Connecticut.