New Book on Mafia's Biggest Robbery, the Lufthansa Heist

Kirkus describes it as "a straightforward update to the notorious 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist. Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Anthony DeStefano understands the difficulty of opening new aspects of a crime immortalized in journalism, memoirs, and the film Goodfellas.

James Burke, aka Jimmy the Gent.

“Of all the Mafia heists, rip-offs, scores, and plunders, none has been more iconic a part of American popular culture than the brazen [Lufthansa] robbery.”

Vincent Asaro, who now faces 20 years in prison on charges related to arson, was charged with (and acquitted of) co-masterminding the infamous $6 million Lufthansa heist with James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke; Asaro also was charged with (and acquitted of) murdering Paul Katz, a suspected mob snitch strangled to death with a dog leash.

DeStefano used transcripts from the 2015 trial to write one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date accounts of the daring predawn raid of the Lufthansa air cargo terminal at New York's JFK airport. The book is called The Big Heist.

Asaro cousin Gaspare Valenti gave up Asaro because of personal financial issues caused by gambling and an alleged desire to depart Cosa Nostra life. So in 2008, he visited the FBI and was asked to wear a wire on Asaro.

As the Kirkus review noted: "The tapes revealed both men scuffling for years as their influence faded within the mob, itself more constricted in today’s New York City, as well as the chilling moment when Asaro realized Valenti’s betrayal. DeStefano leads up to Asaro’s trial with a narrative re-creation of the crime, its murderous aftermath, and the notorious figures involved, including Lucchese family underboss Paul Vario, robbery mastermind Jimmy Burke, and turncoat Henry Hill, the protagonist of Goodfellas."

Vinny Asaro; he's older today

Although Asaro was acquitted, we agree with DeStefano that, nevertheless, the transcripts disclosed at trial likely come as close to telling the true story of the heist as will likely ever be told.

We've written numerous reports about the infamous robbery, including while the trial was unfolding in 2015:

Jimmy The Gent: Mastermind of Lufthansa Heist
Lufthansa Crew Darkened Dog Killer's Door
Heist's Brutal Reality for Lufthansa Staffers
Asaro Slammed With New Charges from Old Evidence

Ex-underboss Salvatore Vitale testified about events surrounding the notorious robbery at JFK airport. (Asaro supposedly was heard muttering "motherfucker" constantly under his breath during testimony, trying all the while to stare Vitale in the eye.)

Asaro personally handed off a briefcase filled with jewelry from the robbery to Joseph Massino, who went on to be head of the Bonanno crime family, Vitale said at the first trial ever held regarding the historic "unsolved" crime.

Some of the most riveting testimony was revealed by a former Lufthansa Airlines worker who described what happened when masked gunmen infiltrated the Lufthansa cargo area at JFK to pull off what was then called the largest robbery in American history.

Early in the a.m. that morning in 1978, Rolf Rebmann was among the staffers grinding out the hours at the Kennedy Airport terminal targeted by mobsters using inside information, including blueprints.

Suddenly, “I heard a noise, someone hollering at the back. I went over to investigate. I opened the other door and there was a van parked there and a guy standing next to the van.”

“I asked if I could help him. He said ‘No’ and stuck a gun in my face and told me to get into the van face-down.”

Others were already inside the van, including Kerry Whalen, actually the first employee to meet gun-wielding robbers Gaspare Valenti and Frank James Burke. The bandits had herded Rebmann along with other Lufthansa employees inside a cargo van, then issued a curt warning: Talk about this, you will die...

Wallets and car keys were handed to the gangsters, who hefted large-sized weapons and wore masks.

“We have your wallets. So we know where you live," said one of them, underlining the threat to murder anyone who dared talk to law enforcement. (An echo of the famous Goodfellas line: “You might know who we are, but we know who you are.”)

In the commotion of the heist, the robbers couldn't account for Rolf, whose name was on the list of staffers' names.

“We got everybody but we can’t find this guy Rolf!” one of the mobsters shouted.

Soon enough, Rebmann was identified, hustled back out into the cold and ordered to open the bay doors to the cargo area's interior.
“They were looking for the key to open the overhead (garage) door,” Rebmann told prosecutor Alicyn Cooley. “They asked for the keys and I gave them the keys.”

Then, after opening the door and backing the van into the warehouse, they marched the captives to the lunchroom.

“I saw three others, only from approximately the waist down, carrying guns,” Rebmann said. “The fellow was leading me around the warehouse with a gun in my back. They put me in the lunchroom and made me lay down on the floor. In the lunchroom, all the guys that were working were tied up on the floor.”

While Tommy DeSimone and Valenti were staring at the cash-filled cardboard boxes, the guys with guns inside the lunchroom repeatedly reminded the employees to stay calm -- or else.

“Do as you’re told,” Rebmann recalled hearing. “We don’t want to hurt anybody.”

They may not have wanted to, but they did hurt somebody who didn't listen to them.
At one point, Lufthansa employee Kerry Whalen tried to sound an alarm.
“One of them stepped over me and hit Kerry," Rolf said in testimony at Asaro's trial.

Whalen, in a self-published book called Inside the Lufthansa Heist: The FBI Lied, described how he felt after Valenti pistol-whipped him.

“I couldn’t see with my left eye, but my right eye saw two bullets staring at me, the size of submarine torpedoes, in the chamber of a pistol,” he wrote.

“I was so sure I would die that my body went completely limp causing me to urinate into my long johns.”

Valenti actually was the one who cracked Whalen's head with the butt of his gun.

The heist team eventually created a human chain. They passed the haul -- every box of it, one after the other -- down and inside the van.

Then the van sped off, hauling inside it the contents of what was then the largest robbery in American history.

The Lufthansa staffers, frightened out of their wits, didn't dare to even stir until “somebody said there is nobody there,” Rebmann recalled. “And that’s when we all got up.”

After Rebmann, a crew of former FBI agents took the stand to testify about the surveillance they slapped on Burke following the heist.

They never slapped anything else onto Burke, heist-related, however.

Jimmy the Gent was finally arrested on other charges, including murder, and died in prison in 1996.

On June 12, 2012, while Valenti was recording Asaro, Henry Hill, who flipped and told writer Nicholas Pileggi his story, died of natural causes.
That same month, Valenti brought Lufthansa up by asking Asaro if he planned on attending Hill's wake.


"That’s one less left of Lufthansa,” Valenti said.

“Yeah,” Asaro responded. “Piece of shit.”

"He made a big thing like he was there with us," said Valenti.

“Fuck him,” Asaro told his wire-wearing turncoat cousin.

Hill was not on the actual job that night but had played a role by introducing the robbers to bookie Marty Krugman, a Queens wig-store owner who tipped them off about the Lufthansa loot.

Why any mobster would attend Hill's wake is another question.