Many readers remember Spinnato, but not fondly

This Just In...

March 24, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

I expected this to happen. As soon as I associated myself in print with Salvatore Spinnato, longtime con artist and fugitive from justice (TJI, Mar. 12), the phone started ringing with more stories, most of recent vintage, but some from Sal's earlier swindles. Lots of people have memories of this guy, and none of them fond, though the Rev. Norman Handy, a Baltimore councilman, says he was surprised to hear about Spinnato's criminal background. He thought the guy was earnest.

Handy, pastor of Unity United Methodist Church in the Harlem Park section of West Baltimore, recalls that Spinnato approached him last year in the hopes of marketing products commemorating the Million Man March.

"He wanted entree into the churches," Handy says. "I was introduced to him by [former City Councilman] Joe DiBlasi. At that time, [Spinnato] represented himself as a guy who had a printing business with computer imaging. He claimed to have a process for printing images of the Million Man March -- one photograph, in particular -- on coffee mugs and clocks, that sort of thing. This photograph he had was supposedly taken of the march from Newt Gingrich's office."

Handy says Spinnato wanted to sell the photographs -- enlarged and framed -- through Unity United Methodist, with the church getting half of the profits. Further, Handy says, Spinnato talked about having neighborhood teens make and market the items. "He thought it could be a crime-prevention tool," Handy says. "I thought he was being generous. He didn't ask us for any money up front."

That's a good thing, in light of Spinnato's record of con games and felony convictions in the 1970s and 1980s.

More recently, the 53-year-old admitted con man has been in trouble with the law for allegedly kidnapping and threatening to kill his ex-wife's boyfriend in a vacant house in Arbutus. Spinnato, who uses the alias Salvatore Oliverio, did not show up for trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Jan. 21. His lawyers said in court papers that they had not heard from him since November.

Handy, the city councilman, says he knew nothing about Spinnato's criminal background or his new troubles with the law, despite two recent accounts in The Sun. "In my experience with him, he was likable and open," Handy says. "We had frank conversations about why he was going through the church to establish this business."

But the business never flew. The Million Man March photographs never sold. The market was either already saturated with them or there was not the interest Spinnato had believed. "Our church even had a booth at the follow-up [Men of the March] event at the Baltimore Arena [in June]," the councilman added. "And we had three sales all day."

His church still has about 500 copies of the photograph, Handy says. Spinnato left them behind. "We can't even give them away," Handy says.

How is it that a former city councilman, DiBlasi, came to introduce Spinnato to a current council member? Watch this space.

Old salt has 2 tales to tell

Walter Matheson is an old salt from New England who now calls Beaufort, N.C., his home. For decades he's knocked around on ships at sea, skippering charters and salvage ships, basically doing whatever it takes to pull in an income and stay on the water.

This month he made the big time, when it was announced he'd been at the helm of the salvage boat that found what is believed to be the 279-year-old wreckage of Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of Blackbeard the pirate. For four months it was all Matheson could do to keep the discovery a secret among his seagoing buddies, so that the venture's leaders would have time to verify their findings and secure the underwater site against looters.

Now that Matheson is free to boast, it turns out he has another, older sea tale of special interest to Baltimore, of a moment that still sends chills up his spine. As a charter boat captain in the Virgin Islands in May 1986, Matheson saw the original Pride of Baltimore at its last port of call.

The ship sank a few days later while cruising toward the Chesapeake through the Caribbean, toppled by the freak, sudden winds of a "white squall." Four crew members were lost at sea. Eight survived, and the tale of their ordeal kept the city talking throughout the summer.

"I saw her down there, and they were cleaning her up from Spain," Matheson told Sun reporter Dan Fesperman. The Pride had just crossed the Atlantic after a European tour, presumably having completed the most treacherous part of its journey.

A few days later he was cruising home in the Ox Nest, taking virtually the same course as the Pride had sailed a few days earlier. By this time the Pride had sunk, but no one yet knew. The survivors were still somewhere bobbing in a leaky raft, wondering if anyone would ever find them.

"And one night, coming out of the islands, we came across all of this odd debris." There were dresser drawers and other shipfurniture, the sort of flotsam one generally finds in the wake of a nautical disaster.

He sensed an eerie presence of a sunken ship down below in the clear waters of the Caribbean, then sailed on, altering his course northward for Boston after clearing the islands.

"When I reached port they told me the Pride of Baltimore had gone down. She was a very big and fast boat, very dangerous if you got hit by a squall, and I asked myself, on that night, did I really feel anything? It was crazy. And if I'd only known there were survivors out there still in the water, I'd have gone looking for them."

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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