A con man tries last con, fails to impress the judge

This Just In . . .

March 06, 1998|By Dan Rodricks

Salvatore Spinnato, the con man, sat near the pale wall of the courtroom in Towson, his ankles chained together, and, appearing painfully bored with the grim proceedings, stared for the longest time at something above the door.

As his lawyer went on and on with an argument for leniency, Spinnato, 55 years old, hair graying and thinning, crossed his arms against his black-and-white sweater, turned toward the wall, and fixed his eyes on the only thing up there - the bright green letters in a brown wooden box: EXIT.

It's impossible to know exactly where his thoughts took him - what he wanted to tell the judge he'd written on yellow paper, folded and slipped into his hip pocket - but it's a smart bet Spinnato entertained schemes of flight.

Flight is in his repertoire. Before two detectives brought him back from Texas for his most recent trial, Spinnato had been eight months a fugitive. Last week, his brother died and the administrative judge of Baltimore County Circuit Court wouldn't let him out of jail for the funeral.

Wednesday morning, Spinnato went in ankle chains before Judge Barbara Kerr Howe for sentencing, having been convicted a month ago for kidnapping, assaulting and threatening to kill his former wife's boyfriend.

Spinnato had never been in this kind of trouble - convicted of a crime of violence.

His earlier wrongdoings were all of the white-collar-impostor-fraud nature - posing as doctors and nurses, seminarians, federal agents, well-heeled businessmen. In a life of secrets and lies, Spinnato was a duke of deception. He presented himself as more than a dozen people, and Justice Department records show an alias for each one.

Two decades ago, he persuaded several Baltimoreans to invest in a line of cologne and shampoo, a chemical solvent for cleaning buildings, a shrimp-farming operation in Central America. He left a trail of angry people who felt they had been bilked. Some went to the FBI.

But Spinnato turned a problem into an opportunity. He persuaded the FBI to hire him as point man for an undercover investigation of the city's government-contractor bidding network. The investigation lasted many months and resulted in some convictions.

But - there's always a "but" with this guy - Spinnato had exaggerated his political connections in the city, and the FBI agents who worked with him felt double-crossed by the end of the investigation in 1976.

Spinnato went back to his old ways. In the early 1980s, he served several years in federal prison for transporting phony securities and for writing bad checks while posing as a Navy doctor.

That was the longest he'd been in jail.

Until now.

This latest episode started in 1996, after Spinnato, despite a lot of slick talk and earnest-seeming gestures, failed to win back his ex-wife. He apparently couldn't bear the rejection.

Wisely, Beth Smith was trying to shake Spinnato for good and move on to a guy she could trust. "It's all about control with [Spinnato]," she told us a year ago. "He wants to control people like puppets. So I think he was just trying to win me back. See, to him, it's all a game, and this game didn't end on his terms. I walked out."

Spinnato wouldn't give up, though. He snookered a young thug named Homer Shaffer into an attempt to scare off Smith's boyfriend, Lynn Hogg. Spinnato kidnapped Hogg and took him to a vacant house in Arbutus, where Spinnato and Shaffer zapped him with a stun gun and threatened to kill him and harm his children.

Shaffer, for his part, got 20 years in prison. That seems heavy, until you note the credentials of Spinnato's accomplice: previous convictions for battery, handgun possession, burglary, housebreaking and arson. (One of the most pathetic things we've seen in 22 years of observing Maryland courts: Shaffer's young wife, dressed in a black cocktail dress, holding a toddler in one hand, a 2-year-old by the other, pleading that Howe not send her children's daddy to jail, then sitting and sobbing into her little girl's little pink coat. The children cried a lot, too. Maybe that's why Spinnato kept his eyes turned to the exit sign.)

When it was the con man's time to speak, he stood and slipped the speech out of the hip pocket of his black pants. He mustered a solemn tone and apologized for what happened. What happened "never should have happened," Spinnato said, and he told his victim that right after he was attacked. (Nice of him.)

"I deserve to be punished," Spinnato said, but - there's always a "but" with this guy - not without telling Howe that events had been exaggerated. (Sal has an ear for such, after all.)

Stories about Spinnato in The Sun in this column, on NBC-TV's "Unsolved Mysteries," and on the witness stand all were full of fictions, your honor. Lynn Hogg's testimony that his ordeal lasted two hours? Fiction. Threats to Hogg's children? "Never ever," Spinnato said. A threat to kill Hogg and ship his body to New York? Fiction. Repeated zaps from the stun gun? Exaggerated, your honor. "A lot of it is hype," he said, then folded his last attempt at a con and slipped it back into his pants.

It didn't work, didn't even come close. As a Spinnato performance, it was pretty lame. Maybe he's lost his touch. Maybe he's just lost it.

"Sal Spinnato wouldn't know the truth if it hit him," prosecutor Mickey Norman told Howe, though she apparently didn't need the reminder.

She gave Spinnato 35 years.

He'll be eligible for Social Security before he's eligible for parole. No buts about it.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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