Con man's wife sorts out the lies

THIS JUST IN ...

March 31, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

Months before she discovered the truth in a box in her basement, Beth Smith had suspected that her husband might be a master of secrets and lies. Her three-year marriage to Salvatore Oliverio had fallen apart, splintering into arguments and broken promises. She had seen Sal once too often in surgical scrubs, stethoscope about his neck, answering to, "Hi, doc," when he had no business doing so.

And then, in the fall of 1990, Beth heard Sal's reason for refusing to have a child with her: As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he said, he had made a deal with the devil to give up his first-born to the Prince of Darkness in return for safe deliverance from Communist captors. Sal couldn't bring Satan's child into the world.

"His body actually shook as he told me that," Beth recalls.

That was the day she started making plans to leave.

Then, several months later, while alone in the big house she had built with Sal in southwest Baltimore County, she came across a box marked with words that caught her eye: "Correctional Institution." She opened it.

On the very top of a pile of papers was a photostated copy of a 1979 article from Baltimore Magazine that profiled the central figure in an FBI sting operation. He was identified as a longtime lTC con man named Salvatore Spinnato, also known as Salvatore Oliverio. Having burned a number of investors in various scams, this Spinnato had been recruited to pose, with FBI agents, as a contractor for an undercover investigation of corruption in Baltimore's Department of Public Works. Federal trials followed, with Spinnato as a key prosecution witness. Several officials and contractors eventually went to jail on extortion and racketeering charges. In 1977, Spinnato vanished into the federal witness protection program, garnering the name Oliverio along the way. He emerged two years later to give an interview to an Evening Sun reporter The Sun's TJI columnist) about his life as a con man.

"As a con man, you have a winning way, don't you?" Spinnato once was asked under oath.

"Yes, sir, that's the ability of a good con man."

Beth Smith had opened a box of secrets and lies. As she read the story and picked through other documents, she felt herself caught in a cross-fire of emotions -- confusion, betrayal, self-doubt, anger, humiliation, fear. Her experience shows how profoundly a skillful con man can affect another person.

"I was suddenly afraid to be there, to be in that house," she says. "I knew something was wrong -- I knew I had married Jekyll and Hyde -- but I didn't know to what extent. I didn't know the man I had married and was living with."

The man she had married in 1988 was, according to the tales Spinnato told while they were dating, a Navy SEAL, a survivor of Vietnam who had seen comrades slaughtered in combat, and who had endured brutal treatment in a North Vietnamese prison. He also claimed to have been an FBI agent who left the bureau because of threats to his life. None of that is true, though several people besides Beth Smith have heard Spinnato assert it over the years. "A helicopter would go overhead and he'd always stop and look up and get upset," Beth says. "He said it reminded him of Vietnam."

Spinnato returned to the Baltimore area -- as Salvatore Oliverio -- to start a new life as a physical therapist. That's how he met Beth Smith -- while making house calls to one of her elderly neighbors in Arbutus. He wooed her with romantic gestures. "At one point, I had 13 bouquets of flowers in my house," says Beth, who at the time was the divorced mother of two children and an independent computer consultant with a solid clientele. "On our second or third date he said he was going to marry me. He said he wanted to settle down. He wanted an instant family."

She married Spinnato five months later. She helped him start a therapy clinic in Arbutus. She lent him thousands of dollars, and computerized his billings and payroll. She helped him keep the business afloat when it started to list badly from too much debt.

Now, having opened that box that told her of Sal Spinnato's past -- including an eight-year federal prison stint for forgery through most of the 1980s -- she wanted to flee.

She did.

And never went back.

That was six years ago, and she's still spooked by the experience. She had married a con man. She had been courted with lies. At one point, Beth tried to have the marriage annulled. Eventually she got a divorce.

"Within a year, all the reasons I had married him fell away," she says. "I stuck with it for a while. I kept thinking things would work out. I really didn't want to be divorced again. But, see, I handled his billing and his payroll [at Chesapeake Physical Medicine, Arbutus] and I saw problems coming. He had debt beyond his income. I questioned everything he did, and he argued with me, constantly."

And then there was the bizarre story about his deal with the devil. Sal and Beth wouldn't have the child he'd said he wanted.

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