What We Didn't Know About Lufthansa Heist

Vinny Asaro, last man standing, on trial risking a life sentence at 80.

Vincent Asaro sat in a car with James Burke, about a mile away from the Lufthansa cargo terminal on a December night in 1978, when eight mobbed-up gunmen were stealing a haul expected to be around $2 million, only to discover -- first to their joy, then to their horror -- that the crime had netted them three times that amount.

This story has been told before of course, initially in the iconic book Wiseguy, followed by an equally iconic cinematic adaptation, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, not to mention the library of articles and additional books about the vaunted robbery. Once the largest heist in American history, it has been eclipsed. The 1990 Boston Museum robbery, valued at $300 million, currently is considered the largest.

Still, there remains information about the Lufthansa Heist that only now is being revealed. That is if you believe Gaspare Valenti who claims he flipped in 2008 because he was broke. Prosecutors say Valenti voluntarily came forward and agreed to testify against Asaro. Valenti, 68, first described how he started committing robberies, arson and other crimes for the 80-year-old defendant in the 1960s as a Bonanno family associate.

Valenti has never been publicly linked as a participant in the heist until this week's trial, when he said he was one of eight Mafia members and associates who, wearing black ski masks and gloves, drove up in a stolen van to the Lufthansa cargo terminal at Kennedy International Airport.

Among the items Valenti revealed about the Lufthansa Heist heretofore unknown to the public:

After forcing an employee to open a vault, Tommy DeSimone walked in first, followed by Valenti. DeSimone took a box down from a shelf, dropped it and stomped, revealing yellow plastic foam hiding two packets of money underneath that contained $125,000 in hundred-dollar bills. “This is it! This is it!” DeSimone told Valenti. “Take all these 50 boxes!” 
The crew of robbers formed a human chain to swiftly pass the cash-filled boxes out of the terminal and into the van. In addition, they nabbed “burlap sacks of gold chains, crates of watches, a big three-by-three metal box with little drawers on it and each drawer had diamonds in it and emeralds and all different stones,” Valenti said.


Valenti said he spent weeks using bleach-dipped cotton swabs to remove ink markings on the bills in order to make them untraceable. So much for the cash already being "totally, totally untraceable."
Asaro arranged for Valenti to sell Christmas trees from out of his house as a means to mask the odor of the burning cardboard boxes and wooden crates in which the valuables had been packaged.

Asaro and others began moving the money around to their friends, who were supposed to hold it for them, providing small payouts to Valenti and the rest of the crew. Many were later murdered, as depicted famously in Goodfellas.
The plan called for Valenti and another robber, Burke's son, to take a stolen black van to the airport terminal and use bolt cutters to break into a side entrance. Once inside the terminal, they teamed up with other armed and masked bandits who were holding several workers hostage in a lunch room, he said.

When the heist van was found, law enforcement traced it to Stacks Edwards, a known affiliate of Burke's. Law enforcement had initially believed John Gotti was responsible.

Valenti revealed despite the "sophisticated" planning that had gone into the heist, no escape plan had been included. "No. It's amazing — a robbery that big and nothing was discussed about where to go afterward. Vinny yelled out, ‘Bring it to my cousin’s house!’ And that’s where we went, to my house.”

Despite Burke's warning that accompanied the initial payouts -- Don't spend any of the money lavishly -- Asaro nevertheless used it to buy a second home, a boat and a Bill Blass designer edition of a Lincoln Continental. Asaro allegedly gambled most of of his $750,000 cut at the racetrack.

View the original Lufthansa indictment.

Supposedly that is Vinny Asaro shaking John Gotti's hand in an undated surveillance photo from the NY Times.

Heist History
James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), an Irish-American gangster with ties to the Luchese family through his association with Luchese capo Paul Vario, has historically been credited for masterminding the Lufthansa Heist caper.

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 as well as a host of others, including a Gambino associate to oversee that family's interests..

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. The Gambinos were expecting around $250,000 in proceeds from the "$2 million" crime. The Gambinos even worked it out so that Paolo LiCastri would be gunman in on the actual heist, to look after the crime family's interests. It would be his doom.

The book The Lufthansa Heist: Behind the Six-Million-Dollar Cash Haul That Shook the Word, notes that LiCastri was under Gotti, who'd been named capo in 1978, the year of the heist.

From the book Wiseguy on which Goodfellas was based, Edward McDonald, who headed an organized crime taskforce for the Eastern District, offered some details about the murders, including LiCastri's fate:

MCDONALD: Henry Hill’s arrest was the first real break we’d had in the Lufthansa case in over a year. Ever since Lou Werner’s conviction the case had stagnated. Most of the witnesses and participants had either been murdered or disappeared. For instance, on the same night we convicted Lou Werner, Joe Manri and Frenchy McMahon were murdered. A month later Paolo LiCastri’s body turned up on top of a smoldering garbage heap in a lot off Flatlands Avenue, Brooklyn. Then Louis Cafora and his new wife, Joanna, disappeared. They were last seen happily driving away from some relative’s house in Queens in a new Cadillac Fat Louis had bought his bride. Henry was one of the crew’s only survivors, and he was finally caught in a position where he might be persuaded to talk. He was facing twenty-five years to life on the Nassau County narcotics conspiracy. His girlfriend and even his wife could also be tied into the drug conspiracy, and life could be made very unpleasant for them.

Burke was seeking to protect himself and Luchese capo Paul Vario (and probably other Mafia higher-ups) from prosecution and also enlarge their portion of the enormous treasure, which was never recovered. 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 actual robbers themselves received the smallest share, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.

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. While still in jail, he was convicted of the murder of drug dealer Richard Eaton, for which Burke was sentenced to a further 20 years.

Burke was suspected of several other killings in his lifetime, and gained a reputation for burying his victims in familiar locations, including Robert’s Lounge, the saloon he owned located near his Queens home.

Henry Hill described the saloon as Burke’s private cemetery.

“Jimmy buried over a dozen bodies… under the bocce courts,” Hill wrote in his memoir, A Goodfella’s Guide to New York.

Burke died of cancer in a Buffalo hospital in April 1996.

The Mafia's greatest heist took place at an airport that historically is believed to have been shared by the Luchese and Gambino families, which together "controlled" the airport due to the marriage between Carlo Gambino's son and Thomas Lucchese's daughter.

Yet Hill named both the Bonanno crime family and specifically identified Vincent Asaro as the capo who oversaw the family's interests at the airport:

“By early December everything was ready and we were just waiting for the word from Werner that the money had arrived. Jimmy told Paulie about what we had coming, and Paulie assigned his son Peter to pick up his end. Jimmy also had to give up a share to Vinnie Asaro, who was then the Bonanno family’s crew chief out at the airport. The Bonannos ran half the airport in those days, and Jimmy had to show respect to them to maintain the peace.

Hill doesn't directly implicate anyone in the book; he mentions a lot of names of people who could have been associated with the crime. He claims that because he was involved in his own business -- drug dealing and a college basketball-betting scheme involving Boston College -- he had "lost track" of the "guys in on the [Lufthansa] deal."

He notes:
"I heard for instance, that... LiCastri wasn't on the job. Frenchy McMahon, another stickup guy... was also hanging around all the time, but I wasn't sure where he was going to fit in. Frenchy was a good guy and he was very tight with Joe Buddha, so wherever you saw Joe Buddha you saw Frenchy. When you've got something like Lufthansa coming up, you don't ask questions and you don't talk about it. You don't want to know. Knowing what's not necessary is only trouble."

Asaro is named a few times in the book. He drove "Spider" to the neighborhood doctor after Tommy Two-Guns shot him in the foot for not dancing fast enough for him. (Next time he shot Spider in the chest, murdering him.)

Another glimpse of Asaro in Wiseguy is related to the killing of Krugman, the bookmaker.

“Right after New Year’s the Lufthansa heat got to be too much at Robert’s, so everyone moved to a new place Vinnie Asaro opened on Rockaway Boulevard. Vinnie was spending a fortune fixing up the place, which was right next door to his fence company.
I remember when I got back from Florida, Marty was all over me.

He was hanging around Vinnie’s new joint now, and he wanted to know about Tommy. He wanted to know about Stacks. What was going on? He knew Tommy had had trouble with the Gotti crew and that Stacks was probably hit over a business deal that went bad, but he was nervous. I think he sensed something was wrong. He used to hang around Vinnie’s bar waiting for war news. “And that’s where they whacked him out. At the bar. On January 6. Fran called at seven o’clock the next morning and said Marty hadn’t come home that night. I knew right away. I couldn’t get back to sleep. She called back at nine. I told her that I’d go out and look for him later that morning. “I drove over to Vinnie’s fence company, and I saw Jimmy’s car parked outside. I walked in and said that Fran had just called me.

Jimmy was sitting there. Vinnie was sitting next to him. Jimmy said, ‘He’s gone.’ 
Just like that. I looked at him. I shook my head. He said, ‘Go pick up your wife and go over there. Tell her that he’s probably with a girlfriend. Give her a story.’"

Burke's son, Frank James Burke, DeSimone, Hill and Angelo 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 Luchese 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 (Hill mentions several times that Tommy was in trouble with the "Johnny Gotti crew," yet also wrote that the body would never be found, so Gotti would never know for sure what had happened to member Billy Batts).

Obvious questions arise. At time of the heist, the Bonanno family was running "half" the airport, according to Hill's account in Wiseguy. Idlewild Airport, renamed JFK International in 1963, was a huge moneymaker for the Gambino and Luchese families. It's difficult to understand how the Bonannos could've had such a large position.

That year the crime family was basically in receivership. The ever-imprisoned wife-killing Rusty Rastelli had been named boss in 1973. The next year would see the killing of Carmine Galante followed later by the three-capo whackings.

Special agent Joe Pistone (aka Donnie Brasco) was in the process of infiltrating the Colombos, then transitioned over to the Bonanno family, who seemed generally more inviting.

It would seem Lufthansa may have been more of a local alliance among friendly capos who lived in Queens, in the airport's backyard. Jimmy Burke-Paul Vario (Luchese family), John Gotti (Gambino) and Vinny Asaro-Joe Massino (Bonanno) versus, say, a deal worked out at the Commission level.

Massino in 1978 was years away from being boss and still had lots of killing to do to keep Rastelli in place. Massino's ticket may well have been punched in the following years, only he managed to come out ahead. Betting on him in 1978 to become boss was a longshot, yet according to Sal Vitale's testimony, he had received the bulk of the Bonanno family's payment.

Another issue worth pondering: if LiCastri was slain by Burke for his role in Lufthansa, it's difficult to believe that John Gotti wouldn't have sought retaliation. He certainly didn't hesitate to take out DeSimone, according to sources.

But DeSimone was killed officially, in a sanctioned hit, "real greaseball shit."

LiCastri's murder, along with the others, were never known to have been sanctioned. In other words, those killed in the Lufthansa fallout were not killed, in the strictest sense, due to "Mafia business."

So Lufthansa was not "purely" a mob heist. It was one put together primarily by a powerful associate supported by incentivized capos from three crime families, all of whom lived in Queens, New York.