Lufthansa heist: Downfall of Mafia Goodfellas

Agents search  Jimmy 'The Gent' Burke's back yard. Picture: AP
Agents search Jimmy 'The Gent' Burke's back yard. Picture: AP
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For decades it seemed as if no-one would ever stand trial for what was then America’s biggest cash robbery.

One by one, suspected members of the armed gang that stole $6 million from the Lufthansa cargo warehouse in 1978 disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances.

Jimmy 'The Gent' Burke in cuffs in 1979. Picture: AP

Jimmy 'The Gent' Burke in cuffs in 1979. Picture: AP

If that sounds like a mobster movie plot, that is because it is. The story was told in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie Goodfellas, deepening the aura of mystery as police eventually gave up on ever working out what had happened to the ­stolen cash, jewellery and gem stones.

But for the past fortnight an array of colourful characters from New York’s Mafia underbelly has testified against the thin, ageing figure accused of organising the robbery.

Vincent Asaro, 80, denies 13 charges that include racketeering, extortion and murder in a crime career that prosecutors say spanned more than 45 years and saw him rise to become a capo in the powerful Bonanno crime family – one of the five Mafia clans that have milked New York for cash over decades.

Alicyn Cooley summed up the allegations in the prosecution’s closing statement on ­Friday.

She said: “He lived by and personally enforced the Mafia’s code – death before dishonour. He’s the ultimate tough guy.”

Tomorrow, jurors at Brooklyn’s federal courthouse will be asked to decide whether Asaro is guilty.

He has listened to former associates, including relatives who have taken government plea deals, outline the evidence against him.

The stories offer an insight into the New York of yesteryear – the secret dens of gambling, the protection rackets and porn theatres around Times Square, and the bakeries and cafés that were used to launder money.

And it has highlighted how the “goodfellas”, the wise guys with connections, were becoming “oldfellas”, struggling to adapt to a changing world where handovers were conducted in branches of Starbucks and where the next generation wanted to go to college rather than into the family business.

Asaro is accused of working closely with Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, an Irish mobster who died in 1996 and who was the model for Robert De Niro’s character in Goodfellas.

The crucial evidence came from Asaro’s cousin, Gaspar Valenti, a low-level hood who wore a wire for five years, gathering evidence.

He described how Asaro had recruited him for the Lufthansa raid. On the night of the robbery, he used boltcutters to open a locked gate, allowing the rest of the crew and a van to reach the cargo warehouse.

They rounded up staff in a cafeteria before opening the vault, where they found more riches than they ever expected.

“We thought there was going to be $2m in cash and there was over $6m without the gold and without the German ­money,” he said.

Asaro waited nearby in a “crash car”, tasked with intercepting a police chase if necessary.

Asaro added a warning after the loot had been counted in the basement of Valenti’s house – “He said we got to be real careful,” Valenti said.

He also said Asaro warned him not to spend too much money – for fear of alerting the police – and that other crime families might try to rob them of their money.

A similar warning is issued in Goodfellas, and those who flaunt their wealth are bumped off.

Asaro listened intently to his cousin’s testimony. He sat with his “death before dishonour” tattoo hidden beneath a sensible jumper, but his ice-cold glare cut straight across the courtroom.

Prosecutors have also accused Asaro – along with Burke – of using a dog chain to murder a truck driver in 1969 whom they believed was helping police. Paul Katz’s body was buried beneath the basement of Burke’s home – then dug up and moved in the 1980s.

Lawrence Katz, 51, said he only received confirmation of his father’s death in 2013, when FBI agents excavated the floor of the basement and found a handful of bones.

He described how he had said goodbye to his father on 6 December, 1969, soon after he had told the family they would be leaving the city for a new home in the country.

His mother begged him not to leave, after seeing him receive a phone call, then told him to take one of the children or the dog.

“He just grabbed his jacket and said, ‘If I’m not back in a couple of hours call the cops,’” said Katz, adding that the family hid in darkness for the rest of the night.

The rest of his remains were never found.

The testimony also showed a disappearing way of life as bosses were convicted or entered witness protection schemes during the 1990s and their criminal networks were rolled up behind them.

Some 30 years after one of the biggest crimes in American history, Asaro was recorded on a mobile phone allegedly plotting the shake-down of a relative for just $3,000.

If he is found guilty this week, it will be because of the testimony of people he once trusted.

And that has not gone unnoticed by the handful of friends and relatives who stopped by the public gallery during the three-week trial.

“This is the one thing you don’t do in our life,” said one afterwards, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses even indoors. “We have our rules. And you don’t rat.”