Day 604: Lock Up Your Goodies Before You Empty Your Plate

originally published August 26, 2013

A few things have always kept me from being a master burglar: clumsy fingers, freakishly audible and inopportune stomach grumblings, as well as a sense of balance that best resembles a Barbapapa on PCP.

Despite these shortcomings, I have always been fascinated by those who have approached the criminal arts with some sense of innovation or creativity. A guy who murders a lot of people with a machete is boring and jejeune. But a serial killer who impales his victims with birthday sparklers and covers the bodies in cake frosting? Now that guy has my attention.

But the world of master thievery often lacks such a flair. Sure, maybe someone has a habit of stealing only the red M&Ms, or solely the tenth page of every magazine at the newsstand, but when does that ever really happen? No, the thieves who warrant a closer examination aren’t often interesting for what they steal, but rather how they steal. There are exceptions; someone actually walked off with Edvard Munch’s The Scream back in 1994, but for the purposes of today’s little air-bubble of curiosity, I’m digging through the pin-pile to find a story with some sharp creative oomph in it.

A story like that of the Dinner Set Gang.

Dominick Latella (on the left) and Peter Salerno married Sandra and Gloria, two twin sisters. The two men hit it off, and before long Pete revealed his penchant for thievery. He had been trained by a former WWII Ranger team leader named Frank Bova, who used to steal valuable documents from right under the Nazis’ noses. He knew how to get in, to move around and get out without being noticed. And this was the secret to Pete’s success – he’d work his magic while the residents were at home.

It was a ridiculously simple concept. When the ultra-wealthy were enjoying dinner, everyone in the family (as well as most of the servants) would be in the kitchen/dining room area. The house alarms would be off, and their precious jewelry would not likely be hanging off their bodies. This was the 1960’s, so even the largest mansions wouldn’t have been equipped with security cameras or sophisticated motion sensors. People feel safe when they’re dining at home. It was the perfect time to strike.

Finding victims was easy. Forbes publishes a who’s-who of the wealthiest Americans on a regular basis, and it didn’t take much work to figureout their addresses. Pete and Dominick would follow their affluent targets on their annual migration patterns, from Long Island and New England in the summer down to Palm Beach, Florida in the winter.

The team soon discovered the best way to hit a beach-front property was to arrive and leave via the water. A guarded and gated community didn’t usually patrol the sea, and if something went wrong, a water escape meant police roadblocks would be useless. Dominick would set up and watch the family eat while Pete slipped in through an upstairs window and did his work in three minutes or less. If something looked a little off, Dominick would let loose a quiet whistle to alert Pete to get the hell out.

Even casing the joint in advance was a piece of cake; most of these Forbes-worthy money-makers would have their homes decked out in Architectural Digest or Town And Country, showing off their private lairs in a boastful (and ultimately costly) fashion.

They came to be known as the Dinner Set Gang. The FBI estimated the team had hit several hundred homes in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The names of their victims read like an all-star roster of the obscenely wealthy: the DuPonts, the Pillsburys (who had plenty of dough – sorry), the Flaglers (that’s the Standard Oil founder’s family), and the Wallaces (heirs to the Reader’s Digest fortune). They even grabbed some goods from Liberace, who was known for having more than a smidgen of bling in his life.

On average, the Dinner Set Gang walked away with about a quarter-million dollars in jewelry from each job. Pete was always ready to abort the mission if he hadn’t found the goods inside three minutes or if Dominick gave the alert whistle, but that didn’t happen often. There were copycats of course – the gang had become somewhat famous – but by all measures, the team’s efforts resulted in a massive success.

One night in 1973, the gang targeted an heir to the DuPont fortune in a snazzy waterfront community just north of Palm Beach. Pete slipped inside and his uncanny sixth sense steered him to the bedroom linen closet, where he found a case among the sheets. Inside that case was a number of jewels, including a 17.65 carat flawless pink diamond worth about $1.8 million. All told, Pete walked out of that place with around $12 million (in 1973 money) worth of goods – the most successful home burglary in history.

That’s not to suggest that Pete, Dominick and Carmine actually pocketed all that money. They had to use a fence, and Wally Gans, a shady character based out of Manhattan’s diamond district on West 47th street, was their connection. Wally was in it to make a profit also, and he usually dished out ten cents on the dollar for everything the Dinner Set Gang brought him – the gems of those with deep pockets are not the easiest things in the world to move on the black market. Shortly after the DuPont score, Wally and his wife retired to Florida.

There was no magnificent take-down to put a neat little bow on the Dinner Set Gang’s story – that’s partly what makes it so interesting. The story goes that they were ‘advised’ to stop burglarizing by their wives’ family, which was extremely mafia-connected. At one point, Pete entered the witness relocation program when he informed on a mob boss to avoid getting killed. By the early 1980’s, the Dinner Set Gang had hung up their burgling boots and called it a career. That is, until Gloria Salerno, Pete’s wife, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 90’s. They didn’t have the money or insurance to cover the treatments, so the gang returned to work, acting faster and looser than they had done previously. They hit about 40 homes before it all came to an end.

On January 21, 1992, the police were called in when a woman in Westport, Connecticut heard Pete slip in the upstairs window. Both men went to prison.

Pete was released in 2008, and he currently resides with Gloria in Florida. Dominick is also living there, out on parole. The Dinner Set Gang may have been the most successful and downright brilliant team of jewel thieves in history. They never carried weapons and avoided confrontations at all costs. Sophisticated equipment and Bond-esque gadgetry were unnecessary – they simply did what they did when people’s guards were down.

I can’t wait to see who plays them in the movie.

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