Click the sections below for a little preview of Walter T. Shaw’s famous book, “A License to Steal”
Redemption: To carry out; make good, fulfill
We redeem a promise by doing what we said we would do. This is what A License to Steal is all about. Full of love, fear, violence, hate and the quest for redemption, this book is an unbelievable journey through life.
Walter T. Shaw has been and is still on a journey that would fill ten men’s lifetimes. From his early years as a boy growing up in a life full of turmoil, he watched his father, Walter L. Shaw, a true electronics genius, taken advantage of by the powers that be. Shaw Jr. was indelibly stamped with resentment and rage against them. This hatred turned the youngster into a man driven by vengeance to right the wrong that the world was doing to his father.
Though he worked tirelessly and legitimately to create his next breakthrough invention, Walter Sr. had the responsibility of a family to feed. He did whatever it took to keep them from going hungry, sometimes crossing over to the illegitimate side in desperation. In rebellion, Shaw Jr. decided to live his life on the wrong side after meeting some of the people who had hurt is father.
Most people are a little fearful of Walter Shaw because of his criminal background. Way down deep, though, he is a real, sincere person. Unfortunately, his honesty and sincerity are questioned because of his past, and he doesn’t let too many people in. I met him around 1998 or 1999, through a mutual friend, and we talked about the movie he was producing based on this story. Walter asked me to play Anthony, a main character in the book, and I agreed because the script was so well written. A few years later, he invited me to come to Florida to pay tribute to his dad. Shaw Sr.’s thirty-nine patents were finally recognized, and Yaacov Heller’s bust of him unveiled that day. That’s when I really became a friend of Walter’s, realizing this journey he’d been on to redeem his relationship with his father.
This book will take you on the ride of your life. You will cry, you will laugh, and you will feel the love a family can have for one another, regardless of their circumstances. On a personal level, I can’t wait to make the movie, A License to Steal. It’s been a long time coming.
“If I can draw it, I can make it.”- Walter L. Shaw
My father had a favorite saying: “If I can draw it, I can make it.” He always drew little sketches of his inventions first. “Thiel,” he used to tell me, “if it works on paper, it’ll work when I build it.” And most of the time, it did. Even more amazing was the fact that he could think of it. As early as the 1940s, 1950s, and the 1960s, who was thinking of speakerphones, conference calls or call forwarding? My dad was ahead of the world by decades; his mind was going all the time.
It still hurts me to admin this, but as a kid I had no interest in what my father was doing. There was nothing in me that was curious about any of it. You know, “Show me what those two wires do,” nothing. That stuff bored me. I was proud of his inventions, and I thought it was great that his mind could come up with those things, but “Show me how that works,” never.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table when he was building his models and making plastic cases. He put his inventions in plastic cases to demonstrate how they worked, and just like his drawings, those cases were everywhere. They were glued together with model airplane glue, and the smell of that in the house was horrible. I can still see my dad sitting over there in his spaghetti strap T-shirts, just making those things. He sat there for hours and did that by himself. All hunched over with his hair flopping on his face, he would add the final touch and say, “Now it’s ready to be demonstrated.”
I did a cruel thing to my dad one time. It is fair to say that I did a lot of hurtful things to my father, but this one stands out. I always regretted it, still do, and I wish I’d told him that at the end. My first wife, our new baby and I were staying with my mother and him in Findlay, Ohio, where Buckeye Communications was his newest backer. We were living in a tri-level house, and I heard my dad running downstairs in the middle of the night. He must have had a dream about what he was making at the time. The thing was built, but one piece was missing, and it came to him in his sleep. He’s saying, “I got it! I got it! I got it!”
The next morning, he wakes me up all excited and says, “Thiel, I’ve got a demonstration for you!”
“Go ahead, Dad,” I told him.
He called the weather, and he called the time. You used to be able to call a number for both of those, and he did it all on one line. He put one on hold while he dialed the other, and then he patched them in. That was his demonstration.
My father was so proud when he demonstrated the first conference call for me. Did you get that? My dad demonstrated the “first” conference call for me in 1967. I was there for that, but it was one of the few times I ever cussed around him. I said, “What? Are you kidding me? You woke me up for this? What the hell is that? Who cares about the weather and the time on one line?”
He said, “This is just a demonstration, Thiel, but if I can do it with the weather and the time, I can do it with other calls. More than two people can talk on one line with this little device.”
“What’s the big deal about that?” I asked him.
“You’ll see,” he told me, “this is going to be big.”
That was it for me. I remember telling him, “Dad, I’m going home to Miami. It’s twenty degrees outside, it’s snowing up to your waist, and I hate this place. I’m packing up my wife and kid, and I’m going home.”
“I’ll follow you,” he tells me, and we left at Christmastime.
Recognizing the commercial potential of his newest invention, the conference call, my dad broke with Buckeye Communications to join two entrepreneurs. He would get screwed on that invention, too. The first was the speakerphone, which he invented in 1946, two years before my birth.
Chasing dollars. My dad was always chasing dollars that should have been his, and I was always running away with jewels that weren’t mind. I had a favorite saying, too: “I live to steal, and I steal to live.” That started for me in a big way when I made it back to Miami in 1967. After stealing tens of millions of dollars in jewelry with the “Dinnertime Burglars,” it ended for me twenty-three years later.
“They have a license to steal, but we don’t need one.”- Carlo Gambino, Mafia Boss
A License to Steal, Walter T. Shaw’s memoirs. Big deal. Who wants to read Walter T. Shaw’s memoirs? Memoirs are all about remembering, and I don’t like to go back. Why go through it again? I created a nightmare of a life for myself by doing some terrible things to people, and I justified my actions every time.
I still say it all started when I was a kid. It makes for a good story to tell about my week at the age of thirteen in the Old Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. My dad was being questioned at the McClellan Subcommittee Hearings in August 1961, and I saw there looking at his back. The television cameras were turning, and they were asking him all kinds of questions about what he was doing with one of his inventions. I will never forget listening to all of that.
Named for Senator L. McClellan because he chaired it, the McClellan Subcommittee opened Senate hearings on February 26, 1957, to investigate illegal activities in America’s labor unions. When my dad was being questioned, though, the committee was looking into gambling and organized crime.
I will also never forget being out in the hall by myself one time, and the wise guys were all sitting in the atrium room waiting for their turn to testify. Carlo Gambino, Joseph Bonanno, and Archie Gianunzio were there. Known for being low-key, quiet and secretive, Gambino had recently become the boss of the Gambino crime family, and he was expanding his empire in the rackets in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Gambling was one of Gambino’s most profitable money-making operations. He wasn’t there to testify, but he was concerned about the hearings.
In his thick Italian accent, Carlo stops me and says, “You remember one thing about these politicians, these judges, these big corporations. They have a license to steal, but we don’t need one. You remember that. Your dad’s not the bad guy, kid, they are. They’re the bad guys.”
Carlo Gambino was trying to cushion the blow for me; he saw me crying and upset about my father being beaten up like that. They were saying horrible things to him. I hated what the law represented. Of course, I also thought my dad was innocent, that he was just keeping his mouth shut because he hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know he was protecting them. More on this later, but I didn’t realize that Archie Gianunzio, a big-time bookmaker and my boyhood hero, had given him up. That wouldn’t come out until years later, on what Archie called “truth day.”
Before I chose my profession in the organization, jewel thieving, my criminal activities were multifaceted. I was trying on a lot of things in the rackets. I’d extort, write bad checks, make counterfeit money, forge, rob – I could do it all. That was my goal. There was never going to be a Christmas in my house without a tree and lots of gifts. I just wasn’t going to live my life that way.
The fact that my father and I were estranged almost from the time we came home from Findlay, Ohio, in 1968, until 1995 should tell you something. It isn’t that I didn’t see him from time to time. I did. But it was killing him to see what I was doing with my life. He hadn’t been willing to cross the line; my dad wouldn’t go any further than the boxes. I was willing to do anything. He was a good guy, and I wanted to be a wise guy. He knew that.
So I didn’t come around my parents’ house very often. My mom’s knowing that I had been accused of being connected with certain guys disappearing and other atrocities – I couldn’t deal with the hurt in her eyes. How could any mother stand that? She cried every time she saw me, asking, “Thiel, are those things true that we’re hearing and reading about you?”
And I always said, “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.” I’m not going to tell her a lie just to make her feel better. When I was most involved with the “Dinnertime Burglars,” the infrequency of my visits with my parents didn’t change. I avoided both of them until I got to prison. The choice was no longer mine while I was locked up.
When I first went in, my mother wasn’t going to stop coming, but my father came just one time. That’s when he delivered my boss’s message that I should die a soldier’s death. It disturbed him so much to see me locked up that he never returned. My mother says to me, “Dad can’t do this as well as I can, Thiel, but you’re my son. I don’t care if they put you on death row, you’re still my son.” As it turned out, they did put me on death row, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
It is accurate to say that my father was like a shadowy presence during the years we were estranged. Turns out we were both in prison for part of that time. Out of desperation, my dad made some more bad choices, but true to his nature, he never went past the black boxes. Despite his own mistakes, he tried hard to keep me straight, but that was never going to happen. He knew that early on, probably from the day I started wearing my little black trench coat with Uncle Archie.
The first time I got a look at something different in life was meeting Archie, and the first time I was set apart was at Oakland Military Academy. When that headline came out saying that my dad was a criminal, I was suddenly separated from the other boys. Even though I’m thinking he’s innocent, I went from being just a kid to being labeled as a gangster’s kid, and that was the beginning of something bad.
My mother always said that was the turning point in my life. She had noticed a total personality change in me when I got off the Greyhound bus in Miami. She says, “You turned. You twisted, Thiel.”
I’m sure my father felt responsible for turning me. That must have been his private hell, his secret prison to know that all the things he was reading about and hearing about me were true. My mother kept asking, but he knew they were true. Short of death or going to prison, though, nothing was going to change my direction. My parents might have remembered me as a little kid with big brown eyes, but they lost control early on.
Society could write what they wanted to write about Walter L. Shaw. He was called a gangster because he was associated with “known” thugs, but he was never a wise guy. They threw him in the pot with them, regardless. I hated that.
By that action of this society we live in, I put a bat in my hand. I realized I had to go through life defending myself for being the son of a gangster. I had to live up to that label, good or bad. And all those years, my father was still trying to make it with his inventions, always working on something to make the next demonstration.
My father was paid for something he made. He was looking to get made. He was giving, and I was taking. Either way, the story is tragic.
“How do you know they’re gonna rob me, Thiel?”- Walter L. Shaw
So that’s how it happened that my dad came back into my life, and I will always remember what he told me when I saw him again for the first time. He says, “I want to tell you something, Thiel.”
I ask him, “What’s that?”
“I’ve got about eighteen months to live, and I don’t want us to end this way,” he tells me. True to his word, after being estranged for twenty-five years I had eighteen months with my father before he died. We had seen each other once in a while, but there’s no denying that we were estranged. I was never mad at him for that; I was mad at me. I wanted to axe myself, cut myself up at the end. I chose to lose those years with him. My dad didn’t want us to be estranged, but he had no control over what I was doing with my life. The saddest part of our story is our drifting apart. I had a father, but my father had no son. I know that.
Even at the end, though, that poor old man was trying to be an entrepreneur. The Pakistani government was trying to update their archaic phone system, and two British men were involved in that. They owned property in Miami Beach, and some woman put them in touch with my dad. Even knowing how sick he was, they wanted him to design a vital link for them in the construction of earth stations for Pakistan’s communications network. I think they had some connection with the government over there.
When my dad was getting involved with them, his attorney, Nathan Barone, calls me and says, “Your dad’s negotiating a deal in my office right now, Walt.”
I tell him, “I’ll be there in half an hour.” So I drove down there, and I’ll never forget those two British guys. I stormed into Nathan’s office and interrupted them saying, “You’re looking to go into business with my father?”
“Yes, we are,” says one of them. “Your dad’s brilliant. He’s got some wonderful ideas for our stations, and we’re prepared to put up a quarter million dollars for research and development.”
I didn’t care about any of that. “Let me just tell you something. I am his son, and if you rob this old man, I will kill both of you. I won’t have you arrested; I won’t take you to jail; I won’t sue you; I will shoot both of you in the head in front of God, your wife, your kids and anybody else I can find if you rob this old man.” Even then, I’m still passing out threats like a wise guy.
They looked at me, they looked at my dad, and they said, “We have no intention of robbing your father. We’re trying to do a legitimate business deal here.” I’d heard it all before.
My dad is shaking his head, and I call him out in the hallway. I says to him, “Dad, what is this about?”
And he answers, “You just won’t change.”
“You won’t either,” I tell him.
Then he asks, “How do you know they’re gonna rob me, Thiel?”
“I don’t trust anyone, Dad. I’m not trying to get anything from this. I hope they give you zillions, but I’m not going to let anybody rob you again, not at the end.”
Like he tells me on his deathbed, he still had that “Will Rogers mentality.” He never met a man he didn’t like and all that, but he just seemed to pick a lifetime of people who would rob him of his ideas and run away with the money. My dad’s ideas were his, but once he made a prototype, big business thought they had a license to steal. In 2000, a major U.S. corporation stole his last major invention, the prototype for a voice print recognition system, when the patent expired. He applied for that patent in May 1984. Why were people allowed to do what they did to my father?
Hours and hours he’d spend in his spaghetti strap T-shirts. “Now it’s ready to be demonstrated,” he’d say. They thought they could do whatever they wanted to that poor man. He never had the money to be diligent in his legal work to protect himself, which left him chasing dollars, always chasing dollars that should have been his.
As the story goes, those two Brits turned out to be legitimate guys, and they put up the money. Unfortunately, my dad ends up in a wheelchair a few months later.
“I never met a man I didn’t like.”- Will Rogers
My whole life I wanted to know what my father thought about me. I know he hated what I was doing with my life, but I always wondered how he felt about us. When he was confined to bed at the end, I would sneak up by his room and stand there looking at him, a distance off on the stairs. One day he motioned for me. All those years, and by that action, he was going to give me what I waited for all my life.
I walked over to his bed, and before he could speak, I said, “Dad, let me tell you something. I was going down this road long before Archie, long before meeting any of them. It had nothing to do with you. I was born going down this road. At the fork, you went right and I went left. I chose my own direction. So if you think you gotta tell me whatever you think you gotta tell me, rest assured, I went that way on my own. You had nothing to do with it.”
I knew he was about to apologize for ever letting me meet those people. My mother always told him that my meeting those “vile” people was the turning point for me. Uncle Archie, in particular, was blamed. But I didn’t want my father taking into eternity even the remotest feeling that I went the way I did because of him. I had this gun in my hand way before meeting anybody. He smiled at me and says, “All right, if that’s how you feel, Thiel.”
I said, “That’s how I feel, Dad.” Maybe that was my only real gift to him, telling him that he never pulled the trigger for me, that I did that myself.
I went on to say, “We never talked about this, but I have to ask you. Why do you think you never made it like other people who invent great things? I mean, you’re right there with Edison.”
He says, “Thank you, Thiel.” He always said thank you like I just gave him the Nobel Peace Prize or something. He was very humble, my dad, and he goes on saying, “I’d be inhuman if I didn’t ponder that. But you know what? I never questioned it. There is a scripture in the Bible, Isaiah 45:9, it says something like: ‘Does the clay talk back to the potter?’ How does the clay question its maker, Thiel? So I never made it with any of my inventions. I might ask Him why not when I get there, but I just never questioned Him. We don’t know why I never reached the pot at the end of the rainbow, but I always felt that God had a purpose for my life.”
My dad never expressed anger about any of it. He refused to give in to all the injustices. When he lost his appeals, or when they put an injunction on him, he just went right back to the laboratory and kept working. That was his way of dealing with it: I’ll make something else.
I’ve had professionals tell me, “You’re imbalanced because you’re willing to sacrifice your whole life to get even if somebody hurts your loved ones.”
I always answered them, “I’m not willing to wait for what society calls justice.”
My father and I had totally opposing viewpoints in terms of revenge or avenging anything. I wanted vengeance, and to the end he tells me to let it go. “Thiel, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter anymore,” he says. “I hope you let all this go.” He could never think of hurting somebody to get even. I was mad at the world and doing something about it. Like Oprah said to me on her show, “So you were just mad and you started robbing people?”
But my father wasn’t mad. He didn’t go out kicking and screaming. My dad never had any ill will toward men. People were basically good in his view. Just like Will Rogers, he never met a man he didn’t like.
Putting the money issue aside, though, I went on to ask him, “But why doesn’t it matter to you that you didn’t get recognition and gratitude for what you did?”
He says, “Thiel, I’m gonna die, but my inventions will live on. They won’t die. The speakerphone will live on, the conference call will live on, and call forwarding will live on. A piece of me will always be around. That’s all I need to know.” My dad never looked for applause. He didn’t need to tell his story.
“Are you ever gonna try and do anything with any of my other inventions?” he asks me.
“No,” I answered him. “I’m burying them with you. All they ever brought us was heartache and pain. They never gave us anything but that.” My father was looking for honesty from me, but I know that wasn’t true for him. Every time he solved a problem with one of his inventions, each time he found a missing piece, he found joy in telling us, “Now it’s ready to be demonstrated!”
Pastor Cohron preached at my dad’s funeral. Fifteen years earlier, I had given a bag to the pastor to keep in a safety deposit box for me. When he came for the service he said, “You probably forget that you gave this to me, Walt.” Still ready to be demonstrated, there it was – the black box.
Forty-six years ago, I sat in that courtroom in the Old Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., watching my dad getting grilled by Senator McClellan. I was so impressed by the wise guys, wearing their fancy colognes, and my dad’s up there in his favorite aftershave, Old Spice. All I’ve got left of his is a black box and a bottle of Old Spice, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for all the jewelry in the world. I said at the beginning of this book that I always felt like my dad’s opposite. He was all the things I was never going to be. My father was a good guy, and I was a wise guy. Telling our story is my shot at redemption.