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The Dinner Set Gang

This story originally aired on Oct. 9, 2005.

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.

Retired detectives Billy Adams and Jim Hirsch knew exactly who they were and spent 20 years trying to catch them. "In anything that you read in the last 40 years in regards to jewel thieves, Peter Salerno's name always comes up. And he's the standard by which all other jewel thieves are judged," says Adams.

He says the pair usually hit large homes, with an average haul of a quarter of a million dollars. "For the work they were doing, they were doing better than Wall Street. It was a nice day's pay."

"They loved it, we didn't," says Hirsch, laughing. "You talk about anybody that was doing surveillance, and sitting in a car for 24 hours, watching the house, eating oranges, and looking for a place to go to the bathroom. Drinking stale coffee, and they're living the life of Riley, like they're a member of the Greenwich Country Club. I mean you start to say to yourself, 'Damn, maybe crime does pay.'"

The duo researched their jobs in local libraries, developing leads from Forbes Magazine's list of wealthiest Americans, getting addresses from Who's Who in America, and perusing photo spreads in Architectural Digest and Town and Country.

They stole $168,000 in jewels from the home of Reader's Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, while he and his wife were finishing dessert.

That was pocket change compared to the $5 million they scored from an heir to the Flagler railroad fortune while she was hosting a seated black tie dinner.

But their biggest score was north of Palm Beach, in the exclusive community of Hobe Sound. The town is an impregnable refuge for the wealthy with one road in and one road out, so Salerno and Latella bought a raft and mounted an amphibious assault.

One night, as an heir to the Du Pont fortune sat down to dinner, Latella and Salerno beached their raft, breached the bedroom and in matter of minutes pulled off one of the biggest jewelry heists in history.

"I went in the linen closet. And I start squeezing the sheets that were in there, right. And the sheets were hard. And I uncover it, and it was a big leather traveling case that was stamped where she came through customs in different countries. And it was locked. And I popped it open," recalls Salerno.

Inside the case was an unforgettable treasure, including 25 carat and 22 carat sapphires and a five carat marquis diamond.

But the biggest treasure was a flawless 17.65 carat natural pink pear-shaped diamond, worth at that time $1.8 million.

Salerno says the current owner is an Arab sheik.

The total haul was $12 million and they headed to New York to celebrate with a business associate long suspected, but never indicted, for helping them move their merchandise.

Kroft asked Salerno who their fence was. "A guy named Wally Gans, who was in the 47th Street diamond exchange, which was the biggest exchange in the world to me. I mean, you know, I'd been under the ground, they had their own vaults. They don't go to banks. They got more diamonds and cash there than God."

Salerno says Gans was a reputable guy, except for the fact that he was a fence.

The duo only collected ten cents on the dollar, the going rate for hot jewelry and there was the occasional tribute to friends in the mob, but there was more than enough money for Salerno and Latella and the twin sisters they married, Gloria and Sandra Savino.

The sisters remember that there was always a lot of money around. "Bags full. Suitcases full. We would put it in envelopes of $20,000 dollars at a time…. And I can remember having to go to the safe deposit box and changing it, because I couldn't put another envelope in it," recalls Sandra.

What did the families do with the money? Gloria and Sandra say they spent it, on everything from new clothes to boats and fancy cars.

Ironically, the money started to run out in the 1980s, when they flirted with the notion of going legit.

They started a construction company that built condominiums, and lost their shirts when the real estate market crashed. Both men developed a taste for cocaine and Salerno did a stretch in prison. When he got out, his wife Gloria had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Salerno didn't have health insurance and to get proper care for Gloria, he needed a lot of money. They headed north in the winter of 1991 and went on a major crime spree, looking for quick scores.

"I never did 40 jobs in one month. I was just obsessed. I wasn't gonna let her die because of money. For the lack of money. That money saved her life," says Salerno.

The pair admit they got careless. "We broke our rules, you know? Not knowing your target. Not knowing where you're going and knowing your escape. Working in the winter, especially in the snow," says Latella.

One of the first houses they hit was one they had broken into nearly 20 years before. Even the victims were the same.

"Everything was identical except the date on the police report. It was unbelievable," recalls Detective Adams, who sent out a bulletin alerting police that "The Dinner Set Gang" was back in town and back in business.

Their luck finally ran out on January 21st, 1992 at a home in Westport, Connecticut.

"I recall the woman, being downstairs in her foyer. And Pete says 'Put me up on the ledge.' He went up and made entry into the bedroom. And all of a sudden, I noticed the woman look up. And I knew she heard something," remembers Latella.

The owner of the house called 9-1-1 and within a few minutes the woods were teeming with cops and dogs.

"I recall it was like blowing snow. Maybe ten degrees out. And finally we just conceded to the facts saying, 'You know, Pete? It doesn't look good. This is it. We're done,'" says Latella.

Both men were arrested and police were able to link them to a number of previous burglaries. Latella served nine years in prison, Salerno served four.

For Adams and Hirsch, the thrill of the chase was also over. "Great we caught them. But as Billy said, this sucks. We got nobody to chase no more," says Hirsch.

They don't have anybody to chase anymore because they're retired and collecting pensions.

The "Dinner Set" wives have drifted back to the middle class, working retail in a Fort Lauderdale mall. And Dominick Latella, who is still on parole, is selling used boats. He says he's out of the burglary business now and felt it was time to tell his story.

Asked if he would do it over again, Latella said, "The certain regrets I do have is if I've scarred anybody from feeling violated, I'm sorry in that respect. You know? Because I'm sure a lot of people felt that way. Because I know how my wife would feel. You know? If it's any consolation, you know, and it was by us, believe me, we were gentlemen, and we weren't there to hurt anybody."

They goal was just to rob people.

Salerno says he has no regrets about becoming a jewel thief and liked the life and the excitement.

He is scheduled to get out of jail in December, 2008.

When asked if was planning another job, he says no. But asked if he would tell us about it, Salerno said laughing, "No. No I wouldn't."

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