As the state proposes tougher jail time for house break-ins, we talk to Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella, the kings of the cat burglars
By Chandra Niles Folsom, Hartford Advocate, CT
Cat burglars have long been revered in criminal circles as the thinking man’s thieves — relying on brains to loot from the über rich. In law enforcement circles, Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella are regarded as the gold standard for cat burglars — finally getting nabbed on a frosty January night in 1992, after completing a successful 30-year string of scores that netted them somewhere around $150 million in cash and jewelry.
They were dubbed the Dinnerset Gang by cops, for their signature style of robbing mansions of the family jewels stashed upstairs, while well-heeled residents sipped merlot and dined on three-course meals, downstairs.
But Pete and Dom were more than just partners in crime. They married Gloria and Sandra Savino — twin sisters from a New York mob family.
There have been lots of recent reports of cat burglars who claim to trace their origins back to the Dinnerset Gang, from Alan Golder — the Dinnertime Bandit — recently caught on the run in Europe, to Walter Shaw — the media darling who calls himself the leader of the gang. In reality, the hyperbolic musings of copycats prompted Pete and Dom to come forward with the facts, and those facts convinced film producer Dick Atkins to take their story to the big screen.
It all began years earlier, when the two burglars’ paths crossed on the Redneck Riviera. There, in the balmy breezes of the Florida coastline, Pete — a streetwise native of Yonkers — was hard at work pulling lucrative heists for the mob when he met Dom, a working musician and sometime ballplayer from Harrison who had once tried out with the New York Yankees.
Pete had been schooled on the finer points of cat burglary by a former Army ranger-turned-underworld figure, but required a collaborator. After Dom hooked up with sister-in-law Sandra, the two began their partnership in crime.
“Pete had good instincts and Dom was good at planning,” said Atkins. “They knew if they were going to be successful, they had to be careful. If anything about the situation didn’t smell quite right, they dropped everything and walked away.”
They researched their jobs at local libraries, getting leads from Forbes magazine and Who’s Who in America.
Dom’s job was to hide outside in the bushes, watching the dining room to make sure nobody left the table.
“They never expected anybody to be around while they were having dinner,” said Dom, now living a quiet life in the Fort Lauderdale area. “But, if I saw anyone get up, I’d alert Pete by whistling and we’d take off.”
Meanwhile, Pete — short in height but built like a brick house — would scale the second story, slipping in through windows, undetected.
“I’d spend three minutes inside — that’s it,” said Pete, who is currently serving time in a Miami prison, on unrelated charges. “A lot of times they wouldn’t even know anything was gone until the next day.”
They boosted loot from some of the nation’s wealthiest dynasties. Their biggest score — valued at $12 million — was during the 1970s at a DuPont rental property on Juno Beach, Fla., where Pete found a leather case tucked away in a linen closet containing, among other items, a 17.65-caret flawless pink diamond worth, at the time, $1.8 million.
The Dinnerset Gang hit Fairfield, Westchester and Marion County, Penn. during summer months and flew south like snowbirds in the winter, following the rich to their vacation homes.
“We loved Fairfield County,” said Pete. “We wanted only the biggest and the best so we picked our targets.”
A life of crime definitely had its perks — they drove expensive cars and wore $500 suits. Their wives kept cash in envelopes — spending lavishly on whatever caught their eyes.
But, local Detectives Jimmy Hirsh and Billy Adams knew exactly who they were and spent 20 years on their tail.
They had enough cash stashed away to go into retirement until the end of the 1980s when Gloria was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In our business we don’t have health insurance so in order to pay the doctor bills we headed back east looking for quick hits,” said Dom.
Still needing more money, they decided to return to a place they knew well — Fairfield County. There, they went on a rampage. “I wasn’t gonna let her [Gloria] die for lack of money, and that money saved her life,” said Pete.
That was when the cops made their move.
“During the 1992 season, we heard about a series of burglaries that fit the same MO as the Dinnerset Gang, so we knew they were back in the area,” said retired Greenwich Detective Hirsh. “Me and my partner put out an APB to all the precincts in Fairfield and WestCops were able to trace their telephone calls and then discovered who was driving the getaway car.
“They hired a new driver — Louie Cardillo, who suggested Clapboard Hill Road, in Westport, as a good place to rob even though the homes weren’t mansions,” said Atkins.
“Pete went up on the ledge and made an entry through the bedroom, and all of a sudden I saw the woman get up and I knew she heard something,” said Dom. “She called 911.”
Louie, the driver, had parked nearby, noticed the patrol cars arriving and drove away.
Pete and Dom could hear the barking of dogs closing in on them and finally decided to just sit back and wait for their fate.
“It was cold — there was snow on the ground and we were in a box,” said Dom. “I looked at Pete and said ‘this is it.’ So we sat with our backs against a tree until the dogs came.”
The Dinnerset Gang was certainly in a league of its own, but when their luck ran out in early 1992, they were forced to trade in their Armani suits for prison jumpsuits. After making a deal with the authorities, Pete served four years in prison. Dom, who wouldn’t deal, served nine.
Last week, the state legislature approved a bill that would make home invasion a new crime, and raise the prison sentences for burglary, particularly when there are people in the house, all in the wake of a break-in in Cheshire that left three family members dead.
“Prison was horrible,” said Dom. “I hated being away from my family. If I’ve scarred anyone by making them feel violated, I’m sorry. We weren’t there to hurt anybody.”
And nobody ever was hurt. Unlike most copycats, the Dinnerset Gang avoided confrontation. They never carried weapons and would flee the scene if anyone appeared. Would they do it all again if they had the chance?
“I would have stopped before the 1980s,” said Dom. “We could have just taken the money and been gone.”
Not Pete — who gets out of prison next December.
“I don’t regret it — I loved the life, the excitement,” he said. “I’m the best and this is what I did.”