Picking up the story of Sal the con man

THIS JUST IN ...

March 12, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

The name popped up again -- Salvatore Pasquale Spinnato -- and immediately my mind raced off to that distant West Virginia morning when a man in a maroon bathrobe tried to do to me what he'd done to countless others -- con me.

Sal Spinnato was from East Baltimore, a slithery man who'd hooked up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an undercover investigation of suspected corruption in the city's Department of Public Works. It was Abscam before Abscam, with FBI agents posing not as Arab sheiks but as blue-jeaned contractors looking for government jobs. Sal was in a whole heap of trouble from his various frauds -- a line of shampoo, a cologne, a shrimp farm in Central America -- but the FBI was giving him a chance to run with the good guys.

This all happened more than 20 years ago, when William Donald Schaefer was mayor and there were still plenty of polyester suits being worn with white belts and white pattern leather shoes. It was an end of a era, the sunset of the old-time Baltimore political bosses, and the FBI went into this undercover operation looking to catch one.

They used Sal Spinnato, a genuine wise guy, as bait.

The opertation was relatively successful, too. Two FBI agents, posing as owners of a company that specialized in cleaning the masonry exteriors of municipal buildings with chemical solvents, went into business out of a small shop in Govans. (It's now the Afro Hut, I believe.) Sal Spinnato was their front man -- he'd had some experience in the field -- the one who would provide entree to the various pols and bureaucrats who could influence the issuing of city contracts. (Sal conned everybody, even the FBI, into thinking he had lots of connections.) Eventually, Spinnato and the agents made cash payoffs to a large, polyestered state delegate from East Baltimore and a few bureaucrats. Extortion charges came out of a grand jury.

Soon Spinnato was gone -- out of town, waiting to be called back to Baltimore as the government's star witness.

My assignment, as a mere cub with The Evening Sun, was to profile this Spinnato character, find him, confront him and get his side of every story I'd heard about his various swindles. By then, we'd documented his getting people to invest in a Central zTC American operation that was to grow and harvest "giant shrimp" for a frozen product called "Beast In The Basket." He'd taken money for a line of cologne called Roman Leather, and a shampoo called "Shampoo and Curl." (One of Sal's investors showed me a whole case of the stuff in a warehouse; all the bottles were empty.) He'd posed as a priest, a doctor, a physical therapist.

So we were prepared to publish a story about his cons.

But we needed to be fair, right? We needed to ask Spinnato for his side, right?

One problem: Sal was in the federal witness protection program because, supposedly, his life was in danger. (Even that was an exaggeration.)

He had a new name and a new identity -- something that pesky con man was used to -- and a new location.

So, don't ask me how -- truth is, I can't remember exactly -- but I got his new address. It was in a small town in West Virginia. (For some reason, the U.S. Marshall's Service allowed Spinnato to relocate to a town where his family had roots. It always seemed stupid to me.)

I had an address. I went to the house, knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman answered.

"Is Mr. Spinnato here?" I asked.

She slammed the door.

I went to the next house. A man who looked like a character actor in a Martin Scorcese film, wearing a maroon velvet bathrobe, answered. There was a large, elaborate monogram on his robe, the initials "SPS."

"Mr. Spinnnato?" I asked.

"Oliverio," he chirped. "Sal Oliverio. But come in, come in."

I knew I'd found the man I was after. He matched the Spinnato descriptions I'd been given and he had light pink splotches on the skin of his hands (from handling chemicals). He tried to convince me that he was Sal Oliverio -- showed me his new credit cards -- and that Sal Spinnato might be the son of the woman who'd slammed the door in my face.

I got his phone number, flew back to Baltimore, called him back the next day and told him I wanted to order a skid of "Beast In The Basket."

He admitted being Spinnato -- the woman who'd slammed the door was his mother -- but pleaded with me not to publish his whereabouts or new identity. Months later, he came back to Baltimore for the corruption trials. The state delegate went to jail, and eventually the federal investigation led to a ring of bid-rigging demolition contractors and a public works boss who'd happily taken their kickbacks for years.

Spinnato disappeared. But soon he was back to his old tricks. The feds grabbed him on bad check charges in Alabama and West Virginia in 1980; he'd posed as a doctor and an FBI agent.

Years went by and I lost track of Spinnato. Turns out he was back in the Baltimorea area by the late 1980s, operating a physical therapy clinic in Arbutus and making loads of friends in the business community out there. (More on this in a future column.)

But there's always something with Sal.

Last year he was arrested in the alleged kidnapping of a his ex-wife's boyfriend. He did not show up for trial in Towson. So, he's on the run again.

But I'm not going to go looking for Sal this time. I figure, he'll come back to his roots. He always does. Sal, come on home. We'll leave light on for ya.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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