Jimmy The Gent: Mastermind of Lufthansa Heist

James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), an Irish-American gangster with ties to the Lucchese family through his association with Lucchese capo Paul Vario, is probably better known as “Jimmy Conway.” That was the fictional name he was given in Martin Scorcese’s cinematic masterpiece Goodfellas, in which award-winning thespian Robert DeNiro took on the role of Burke. 

Rumor has it, Burke was so pleased that DeNiro was playing him that he phoned the actor from prison to give him a few pointers. Author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi has denied this, although the scribe did admit that men who had known all of the key mobsters portrayed in the film spent time on the set. 

Luchese capo Paul Vario oversaw Burke's  criminal ventures, from which he profited as Burke's superior
Jimmy Burke gets taken away.
Burke needed much help on the publicity front. Burke was an interesting, colorful personality, a master criminal of a bygone age, when cops and businessmen could easily be bought off. Burke was also a sociopath, and probably a psychopath, who pulled off the biggest caper of his day, the notorious Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. The daring robbery on December 11, 1978, netted the outlaws about $5 million in cash and nearly another million in jewels.

Burke is believed to have murdered or orchestrated the murders of nearly all the people involved in heist, with the murdering beginning as soon as a week after the heist. Speculation would dictate this was done to protect himself from prosecution and also enlarge his portion of the enormous treasure, which was never recovered.
The fictional Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill from Goodfellas.

He is the father of small-time mobster and Lufthansa heist suspect Frankie, as well as Jesse James Burke (yes, it is true that he named his sons after the outlaw James brothers of the American West) He also was father to Catherine Burke and another unidentified daughter. In 1992 Catherine married made Bonanno soldier Anthony Indelicato.

Jimmy Burke was born in New York and spent most of his early years in a Roman-Catholic orphanage. He suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of various foster fathers, one of which was killed when he lost control of the car he was driving after he turned around to slap Burke, riding in the backseat. It is difficult not to believe that Burke’s upbringing led to his sociopathic criminal lifestyle.

He was finally adopted by the Burke family and took the family name. He lived a regular, uneventful life, as far as is known, during his early teens, tucked away with his adopted family in a wooden boarding house in Rockaway, Queens. He remained close to the Burkes throughout his life, occasionally visiting — and eventually sending them monthly unmarked envelopes bulging with thousands of dollars.

Burke, in his early teens, began living the life of a common criminal, passing off counterfeit checks. He did five years for bank forgery, meeting a number of Mafia members, as well as criminals of various ethnicities, also in “college” at the time.

He worked as a brick layer for a short period, probably the only time he tried to go legit. The job added some thick muscles to his already tall, husky frame. This, and a fiery temper he would become famous for, no doubt helped him as he entered the next stage of his life, organizing and committing crimes with the mob. Not Italian, Burke was never made, but like few other men with ties to the mob, his ability to both kill and bring in thick stacks of cash gave him status among made man. 

The next milestone in his life was his marriage in 1962 to Mickey. According to the book Wiseguy by

Nicholas Pileggi, the basis for the Goodfellas film, on the day of the wedding, an old boyfriend of Mickey’s, who’d been harassing her for some time, was found inside his car, chopped up, pieces of his body strewn throughout the bloodied interior of his car.

At the time, Burk was eking out a living doing street crimes, like selling untaxed cigarettes, while he and Mickey started having children. He would go on to father two daughters and two sons, named after the famous outlaw James brothers of the old West.

Burke was allegedly also a hit man for the mob at the time, though this has never been established by law officials and no names of victims or even alleged victims ever began floating around.

It was also in the 1960s that Burke began mentoring Thomas DeSimone and Henry Hill, his partners in crime that made up most of the story of the Goodfellas film. Jimmy’s “crew,” which also included one Angelo Sepe, were all young men who carried out various heists and selling the stolen loads for Burke. The group was based in South Ozone Park, Queens, and East New York, Brooklyn. Hijacking was Burke’s, and by extension the group’s, favorite type of crime. And, as seen on the big screen, Burke would often take the truck driver’s license and casually slip them a $50 bill, maybe to subliminally make the drivers complicit in the crime; or maybe because he considered himself a Robin Hood of the streets. Whatever the reason for this practice, it supposedly earned him his lifelong nickname of Jimmy The Gent.

He had cops on the payroll, who would keep him up to date on which associates of his were currently serving as informants, and he’d also get the names of witnesses to any crimes he may have committed. It has been said that during Burke’s heyday, about a dozen bodies a year would wind up dead, their bodies tucked into the trunks of abandoned cars left all around JFK airport.

Robert's Lounge, a bar he owned in Queens, became a favorite hangout for Burke and his crew, along with many other mobsters and their various associates and assorted other criminals. According to Hill, the place served double duty: it was a lounge as well as a cemetery, as over a dozen bodies were planted in the ground outside the club.

It also served as a sort of office for Burke, who ran a loan shark and book making business out of the bar, and housed a high-stakes mini casino in the basement.

Burke also owned a dress factory in the area, which he used to launder his money.

In 1972, Burke and Hill were arrested for assaulting a man in Tampa, Florida, who owed a large debt to a union boss who was a friend of theirs. The two were charged with extortion, convicted and sentenced to ten years in federal prison, each in a different prison.

Burke was out on parole after serving a little more than half his sentence and plunged right back into his former life of plunder and violence, as did Hill, who was paroled around the same time. Hill had made a key connection while imprisoned and was soon dealing drugs, a venture in which Burke eventually joined him.

Burke was the mastermind of one of the largest heists in
American history.

At the time, the two were on record with the Lucchese family and were not authorized to deal in drugs, and if caught by police, could very well end up themselves in the trunk of an abandoned car in JFK’s long-term parking lot. The Mafia overall banned any drug-related business ventures because, if caught, the person involved would be tempted to turn informant due to the draconian prison sentences imposed on such criminals (which is eventually what would happen to Hill, as everyone who saw Goodfellas knows).

The 1978 Lufthansa Heist, the theft of approximately $6 million in cash and jewels from Building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at JFK is what really put Burke on the map – raising his profile in the underworld and among law enforcement (and, of course, the media, can’t forget them).

The largest robbery in American history at the time, the crime stemmed from inside information from a Lufthansa cargo supervisor who owed a large gambling debt to Burke-controlled bookmaker Martin Krugman.

Burke allegedly planned and recruited a crew of criminal acquaintances that included DeSimone and Sepe, as well as a host of others, including a Gambino mobster under John Gotti. Burke's son, Frank James, was even involved, driving the "crash car," which would ram any police cars that might perchance have the audacity to chase the getaway vehicle. And yes, there was a "Stacks" Edwards involved, although his job was limited to seeing to it that the van used in the robbery was gobbled up by a garbage yard compactor in New Jersey, a simple job that he nevertheless failed to pull off.

The robbery took place during the early morning hours on December 11, 1978.

Since New York is overflowing with mobsters owing to the fact that there are five families in the tri-state area, JFK Airport was split between the Gambino and the Lucchese families, owing largely to an alliance set up between the men who the two families were named after – Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese – once Carlo’s son married Tommy’s daughter. Because of this, permission was sought from and granted by the Gambino capo who controlled the airport, which supposedly was John Gotti at the time. Gotti wasn’t just being friendly – he and his crew’s were salivating over the $250,000 in proceeds they would be given. The Gambinos even worked it out so that one of Gotti’s soldiers, Paolo LiCastri, became a sixth gunman in the heist, to look after the Gambino’s interest. It would be his doom.

It was 3 a.m. when the robbery of the century went into motion. A van and the crash car arrived at the Lufthansa cargo terminal. Three men exited the van and entered the cargo terminal. The robbers, armed and clad in ski masks, rounded up the employees. Guided by their inside information, they were able to account for all the employees who were handcuffed and shuffled out of the way and told to lie down on the floor. The shift supervisor deactivated the general alarm system as well as all additional silent alarms, and led the masked men into the vault.

About 20 minutes after 4 a.m., the van, weighed down by every bag of untraceable currency and jewelry that had been in the vault, pulled out of the cargo terminal and, followed by the crash car, drove to a garage in Brooklyn, where Burke was waiting. The money was dumped inside a third vehicle that was driven away by Burke and his son.

Burke's haul is believed to have ranged between $2 million and 4 million. One million to $2 million ended up in Vario’s pocket, while the rest was doled out to the robbers and others in supporting roles. The six actual robbers themselves received the smallest share, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on their role.

Besides Vario and Burke, few participants in the robbery received more than $50,000 – and very few lived more than six months. It can be assumed that Gotti received his promised share of the loot, and perhaps more, as his soldier who joined the heist would eventually be whacked and Gotti is not known to have retaliated for this would-be affront.

Apparently, Burke never expected the robbery to net more than a million or so, and he was both shocked and then paranoid when he realized the scope of the heist and all the publicity the crime would soon receive, and rightly so.

And of course a crime of such magnitude would attract strong attention from law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels. The heist in fact created problems for the Mafia in New York in general in the form of heat from the police in search of information to quiet their Manhattan and Washington, D.C., based bosses.

The murders and disappearances following the Lufthansa robbery were a result of Burke’s desire to get rid of every witness who could link him to the crime. There are always witnesses to Mafia crimes, as crimes are often committed by teams. But the Lufthansa theft just had way too many people involved, and there were simply too many witnesses who knew of Burke’s involvement, and The Gent had no desire to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Adding fuel to the fire, a lot of participants, especially the man who wore the masks and held the guns during the crime, upon learning how much money was actually stolen, each wanted a larger share of the proceeds from the heist.

So Burke decided to murder everyone connected to it.

This list included Edwards, shot to death in his apartment in Queens one week after the robbery. Hill, who was not involved in the robbery, would later tell how Edwards forgot to dispose of the van, getting high at a girlfriend's house instead. If that wasn’t bad enough, he had left the van sitting in a no-parking zone; it was found the next day by police who were soon merrily lifting fingerprints, carefully bagging ski masks and a jacket, and making a mold of a sneaker footprint.

Not even Gotti’s own LiCastri was safe; he was found shot to death, his set-afire body found still smoldering in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn in mid 1979.

Burke's son, Frank James Burke, DeSimone, Hill and Sepe were the only participants to outlive the crime. Fate, however, did not let these men escape their destiny so easily. Sepe was murdered in the mid 1980s, shot in the head for having robbed a Mafia-connected drug dealer. Frank James Burke was found shot to death on a Brooklyn street in May of 1987, the spoiled fruit of a drug deal gone bad.

DeSimone, nicknamed "Two-Gun Tommy" because he carried a set of pearl-handled pistols, spent his short life looking to get inducted into the Lucchese family. It has been claimed that the Vario faction of the family considered him "hopelessly stupid, demonstrating no ability to generate profit" though he was a fairly competent killer, probably killing a few people too many. In the film he is murdered primarily for killing a made guy (supposedly along with Burke and Hill, although chances are he was done away with due to Vario’s feelings about him).

And of course Hill’s story is so well known there’s little to add to the story. In the 1980s, he was arrested for drug trafficking. He became an FBI informant in order to avoid a long prison sentence and entered the witness protection program.

Partially as a result of the testimony of Hill, Burke was taken into custody on April 1, 1980, on suspicion of a number of crimes. In 1982, he was convicted of fixing Boston College basketball games as part of a point shaving gambling scam in 1978, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Authorities believed he was the mastermind behind the Lufthansa heist, but never procured enough evidence to press charges.

And although Burke was suspected of committing some 50 murders, he was convicted only for one: the murder of Richard Eaton, a street guy. Burke didn’t dispose of Eaton’s body the way he did with his other victims; it is for this reason Burke died in prison.

When he was charged with the murder of Eaton, Hill took the stand and testified against his former friend. Burke had invested $250,000 in a cocaine deal Eaton was handling that was supposed to result in a huge return on investment for Burke. Eaton, however, pocketed the money, Hill related in court.

Hill’s testimony and a phonebook with Burke’s contact info found on Eaton’s body led to Burke’s conviction. On February 19, 1985, he was given a life sentence.

Burke was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed lung cancer. He died from this disease on April 13, 1996, aged 64, while being treated at a facility in Buffalo, New York.

Jesse James Burke is not and has never been involved in organized crime. Burke’s daughter Catherine married Bonanno mobster Anthony Indelicato in 1992. His other daughter is entirely absent from the pages of mob history.

A number of books and one other film aside from Goodfellas were made based on Burke, centering on the Lufthansa heist. On August 19, 2011, it was announced that book ghostwriter and journalist Daniel Simone, in collaboration with Henry Hill, was working on yet another book on Lufthansa. The title, simple enough, is to be The Lufthansa Heist.