Longtime con man is on the run again His kidnapping trial on hold, man of many identities is missing

February 02, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Salvatore P. Spinnato has been on the run most of his life -- from the law, from the people he swindled, from those he conned into thinking he was a brain surgeon, an FBI agent and even the owner of a Salvadoran shrimp farm.

"I remember him trying to tell me he played quarterback at Morgan State. I don't to this day know if it was true," says Gerard P. Martin, a former federal prosecutor who knew Spinnato in another role -- star witness in a high-profile public corruption case in Baltimore in the 1970s.

After Spinnato informed on Del. George J. Santoni and a city bureaucrat in an extortion scheme, he disappeared from Baltimore into the federal witness protection program. Santoni was convicted.

Now, the 53-year-old convicted felon and admitted con man is on the run again -- this time to avoid charges that he kidnapped and threatened to kill his ex-wife's boyfriend in July in a vacant house in Arbutus.

He did not show up for trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court Jan. 21. His lawyers said in court papers that they had not heard from him since November.

Spinnato's disappearance is the latest act in the life of a man who grew up in East Baltimore and donned nearly a dozen aliases, including Kentucky physician Dr. Nicholas Tomasi and Canadian Dr. Dante St. Claire.

Spinnato left Baltimore in the 1970s, moved to West Virginia and assumed a new name -- Salvatore Oliverio -- under the federal witness protection program to avoid retaliation from the people he testified against in the Santoni case.

His criminal acts got him thrown out of the witness protection program.

"Spinnato lasted in the federal witness protection program about two weeks," said Dudley F. B. "Butch" Hodgson, an FBI agent who worked undercover with Spinnato in the 1970s.

"He would go to a bank [in another state] with a stethoscope around his neck, calling himself a noted brain surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and ask them to cash a $10,000 check," said Hodgson.

"He was the best con in the world."

By the 1980s, Spinnato had moved back to the Baltimore area. He married Elizabeth Smith in 1988. They were later divorced.

He was arrested last year in the alleged kidnapping of Lynn Hogg, a Catonsville man who was dating Smith. At the time, Spinnato was serving five years of probation for stealing $75,000 from an Ellicott City physical therapist who thought he was making a loan to Spinnato.

Police also have charged a second man in the kidnapping, Paul Homer Shaffer, who is awaiting trial at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

Hogg described to police a harrowing experience that he said lasted several hours at the hands of Spinnato and Shaffer, who carried a gun and repeatedly struck Hogg with a device that gave him electric shocks.

As Hogg told the story to a county police officer, the ordeal began on July 3 when Hogg agreed to meet Spinnato at an Arbutus 7-Eleven to discuss concerns Spinnato supposedly had about Smith's teen-age son.

Hogg agreed to follow Spinnato to another location, which turned out to be a vacant house. Once inside, Spinnato pounced on Hogg while Shaffer prodded him with a stick that gave off an electrical charge.

According to Hogg's account, Spinnato said Shaffer was "going to pop you right now. You're never going to see your kids again."

Hogg said Spinnato told him, "You will die a very slow and painful death."

Several times, Spinnato pointed to a rolled-up carpet in the house, saying of Shaffer, "He's going to kill you, wrap [you] up and put you on a train to New York."

"If you cause a scene, I'll have your kids killed," Spinnato said, according to Hogg's account.

Prosecutor Mickey J. Norman said Hogg became particularly alarmed when Spinnato and Shaffer mentioned details about his children that the kidnappers could only have learned from being inside the children's bedrooms.

Police later determined that Shaffer had visited Hogg's Catonsville home, which was up for sale, posing as a prospective buyer.

After several hours of threats, Hogg agreed to fabricate a story, telling Smith he could not see her anymore because he was dating someone else.

"We don't see many cases in which the way to woo an ex-wife back is to kidnap the ex-wife's current boyfriend and threaten serious bodily harm to his children," said Norman, an assistant state's attorney who is prosecuting Spinnato and Shaffer on charges of kidnapping, assault and carrying a weapon with intent to injure.

The kidnapping charges against Spinnato come after decades of lawbreaking and swindling people out of thousands of dollars to invest in phony enterprises, including the shrimp farm in El Salvador and a cologne and shampoo venture in Baltimore.

Not long after he left Baltimore with a new identity provided by the FBI, Spinnato was caught impersonating doctors to forge checks in several states, including Kentucky and Alabama.

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