The Burglars Who Came to Dinner—but Didn’t Stay to Eat
Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella weren’t your average jewel thieves. For one thing, they didn’t wait until a house was empty. Instead, they made sure the owners were home.
Author’s note: Pete Salerno and Dominick Latella became the most successful jewel thieves in America because they had learned how to innovate. Researching magazines like Town and Country and Architectural Digest to identify some of the wealthiest homes in America, they would sneak into those mansions when the owners were inside, having dinner or hosting a party. They later developed a unique method for targeting beachfront properties.
The idea came to Salerno from a commercial he saw on television for an inflatable raft. Equipped with a 10-horsepower engine, the raft was built to carry two people at a gentle pace. It was the perfect carrier for a couple looking to float down a river or chug across a lake. But Salerno saw a different use for it: as a means to access wealthy beachfront properties.
At the time that he saw the commercial, Salerno was thinking specifically about the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Lined with opulent estates owned by some of the wealthiest families in the world, the shoreline was referred to as the Gold Coast. Salerno had long fantasized about robbing some of those mansions. Now he had the perfect plan to do it: he would get to the properties from the ocean, rather than by land, and escape the same way. He was certain that the coastal boundaries of these estates were not as well protected as their entrance—after all, their owners had paid millions for them precisely because they wanted the ocean in their backyards. By altogether avoiding the roads leading up to the mansions, Salerno would also minimize the risk of having police cars on his trail.
Despite having been a former seaman, Latella was initially skeptical of the idea. “That’ll never work out,” he said.
“Don, listen to me,” Salerno said. “Everything else I told you worked out, right?”
Latella had to agree. Salerno’s idea of robbing homes with the owners inside had seemed outlandish to him, too. Yet, it had proved to be a winner. “This’ll work too,” Salerno said.
He bought the raft and got to work modifying it to suit their purposes. He didn’t think the 10-horsepower engine was powerful enough to enable a quick getaway, so he replaced it with a 25-horsepower engine. Since this was a heavier engine, he had to reinforce a part of the raft with rods to keep it balanced on the water. “With this engine, we’ll be able to fly up and down the ocean,” he told Latella.
Within days, the trio of Salerno, Latella and Salerno’s brother-in-law—Carmine, who served as their driver—began using the raft. When deflated, it fit easily in the back of Carmine’s station wagon. Carmine would drive Salerno and Latella to a drop-off point along the coast, a few miles from the home they intended to rob. Salerno would inflate the raft using a foot pump. Then, he and Latella would slide it into the ocean, mount the engine and motor off. Chugging along the shore, they would steer the raft back toward the beach as they got close to the target. Pulling the raft up onto land, they would venture onto the estate. The rest of it they pulled off with practiced ease.
From 1971 to 1972, they hit about a dozen homes up and down the Gold Coast. The only time things didn’t go as planned was when the police found the raft on the ocean’s edge before Salerno and Latella could get back to it. The two had just finished the heist and were making their way back to the beach when Salerno spotted the silhouette of a person standing near the raft, which they had left docked in the water instead of dragging it up onto the beach as they usually did. He and Latella froze where they were.
The night was calm, the stillness punctuated only by the gentle sound of waves lapping the shore. The two heard the person near the raft speaking to somebody by walkie-talkie. “Just stay there,” the voice on the other end was saying. “They’ve got to come back. They can’t leave without the raft.”
It wasn’t clear to Salerno if the police had responded to a call from homeowners who had noticed the raft or if a cop had just happened upon it while patrolling the beach. What was clear to him was that they could no longer use the raft to make their getaway. And if the police were indeed looking for suspected intruders, the roads leading out to the highway were probably also being watched.
Latella began to panic. “What’s my mother going to think?” he whispered nervously. His biggest fear was having to admit to his parents that he was a burglar. They just didn’t see him that way.
“What’s she gonna think? When she has to come and bond you out of jail, Don?” Salerno replied with annoyance.
He looked around. A short distance up the coast was a yacht, anchored a couple of hundred yards from the shore.
“We’re going to swim to that yacht,” he told Latella.
They walked back through the estate, away from the raft, parallel to the shoreline. When they were near the yacht, they walked to the ocean and waded in. The cop was too far away to notice them in the faint moonlight.
Swimming to the yacht, Salerno climbed aboard, water dripping from the backpack strapped on his shoulders. The jewelry they had stolen was secure inside it.
Hiding on the yacht, the men watched as more cops arrived and took the raft away. About an hour and a half after they had boarded the yacht, the coast seemed clear. Salerno started up the engine and pulled up anchor. They motored across Long Island Sound, northward, to the Connecticut coast. Beaching the yacht, Salerno and Latella got off. From a phone at a pool house, they called Carmine, who had returned home, worried, after waiting for several hours where he had dropped the two off earlier in the evening. All was well, Salerno told him. They had lost their raft, he said, but the package they’d returned with would more than make up for it.
In the winter, the trio spent almost all their time in Florida, in the manner of the wealthy New Yorkers they liked to target during the rest of the year. It was in Florida, at the beginning of 1973, that their newly mastered innovation of using a raft helped them pull off what would be the biggest heist of their lives.
Like the detectives up north, the Florida police had been keeping an eye on the group. By the end of 1972, Salerno and Latella knew that they were under surveillance. Salerno and Gloria were living with John and Ruby Savino on Raleigh Street in Hollywood, Florida, while their home in Golden Isles underwent renovations. Over the course of a few days in January, 1973, Salerno realized that cops in plain clothes were watching the house almost round the clock, either driving by periodically or sitting inside a vehicle parked on the street.
One evening, after Latella came over to the house, he and Salerno propped two inflatable dummies on the couch in the living room and turned on the television. From the street, it would have looked like two men watching TV. Crude as the trick was, Salerno believed it was good enough to reassure any cops surveilling the house that he and Latella weren’t going anywhere that evening.
They slipped out through the back door and met up with Carmine, who was waiting for them in his station wagon on Hollywood Boulevard. They drove for about an hour before stopping by the shore at Riviera Beach. From there, Salerno and Latella set out in a raft.
Their destination was Juno Beach, one of the country’s wealthiest towns, which lay about 8 miles further north. When they got there, Salerno and Latella steered the raft ashore near a row of sprawling oceanside estates. After dragging the raft onto the beach, they began walking through the shrubs separating the estates from the soft, white sands on the water’s edge.
Two of the five houses in front of them were dark, ruling them out as targets. If the owners weren’t home, Salerno wasn’t interested. Two other homes had the lights on but Salerno and Latella couldn’t tell from looking how many people might be in and where in the house they could be. Salerno turned his attention to the one-story mansion at the northern end of the stretch. It was brightly lit, which was a promising sign. When Salerno and Latella got close enough to be able to look through the windows, they saw the kitchen staff lighting candles on the dining room table. Salerno knew they had found their target.
They waited until an elegantly dressed, elderly couple who they presumed were the owners came in and sat down for dinner. Going around to the back of the mansion, Salerno—with Latella’s help—hoisted himself up onto the deck of what had to be the master bedroom. As had been his experience so many times in the past, the door leading to the deck was unlocked, allowing Salerno to slip inside without hassle.
The bedroom was dark. Salerno turned on his penlight, scanning the room with its beam to orient himself. Venturing into the bathroom, whose door was ajar, he found a pair of diamond earrings on the window sill. He put them in his pocket. Surveying the bedroom once again, he located the dresser and walked toward it. Holding the penlight in his mouth, he began systematically searching the dresser drawers, opening them one by one and pressing the contents inside with his gloved fingers to feel for anything concealed under fabric. In the second or third drawer he checked, he felt something hard.
Underneath a layer of sheets inside was a valise—a small traveling case. Salerno swung the penlight’s beam onto it. The case had multiple stickers on it from what appeared to be the customs agencies of different countries the owner of the case had traveled to. Opening the case, Salerno saw several pieces of jewelry glinting under the light. It took his breath away.
He closed the drawer. With the case in his hands, he began walking back toward the deck. Then he stopped and turned. Taking out the earrings he’d pocketed earlier, he put them back where he’d found them.
He and Latella went back to Riviera Beach by raft, and then drove to Latella’s house in Emerald Hills. Gloria and Sandra were waiting for them. Tingling with anticipation, Latella opened up a foldable card table to examine the evening’s haul. Reading the customs stickers on the case, Latella and Salerno discovered that it belonged to Esther DuPont, a member of the family that founded one of the world’s largest chemical companies. She was an heir to an incredibly vast fortune—one of America’s richest individuals.
“Gloria, I want you to see something,” Salerno called out to his wife. “Look at this!”
Breathless with excitement, he and Latella took out the jewels from the different compartments in the case and laid them out of the table.
Gloria was stunned by what she saw when she walked in. “Oh my God, this is beautiful!” she exclaimed.
Among the jewels were a large pink pear-shaped diamond, a blue sapphire, a second sapphire, a blood-red ruby, an emerald, and a yellow marquise diamond. In their years of jewel heists, Salerno and Latella had rarely seen such large gems.
Latella wondered if they were fake. “Who the fuck has pieces this big?” he asked.
“I’m telling you they are real!” Salerno told him.
“Sandra! Come in here, you have to see this,” Gloria called out to her sister.
Sandra refused to come into the room. “No, no, I don’t want to see. I don’t care!” she yelled back. She wasn’t about to actively undermine the lie she told herself often—that her husband wasn’t a thief.
So big was the haul that Salerno had to find a place to stash it. He buried most of the pieces in the ground right outside the Latellas’ kitchen, next to where Sandra kept a trash bin. Weeks later, when Latella’s parents were visiting, his father told Sandra he was going to pave that dirt patch with concrete blocks to prevent the bin from wobbling. To stop him, Sandra transplanted one of her potted sunflower plants in the ground where the jewels were buried, and told her father-in-law that she was growing a flower garden on the patch.
When Salerno ripped out the plant a few months later to dig up some of the pieces, Sandra yelled at him. “Why did you have to take out my sunflower?” she asked, as if the answer wasn’t known to her. Over a period of several months, Salerno and Latella sold off all the jewels one by one to Wally and Flo, making a few hundred thousand dollars. The amount was a pittance compared to the actual value of the heist, which the FBI estimated years later to be $12 million.
Excerpted from The Dinner Set Gang with the permission of the author.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a contributing writer at National Geographic and a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He is also the author of the New York Times bestselling thriller The Spy Who Couldn't Spell. The Dinner Set Gang is his second book.