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.