Man on trial for ‘Goodfellas’ heist 37 years ago

Former Bonanno crime family underboss Salvatore Vitale testifies. Picture: APFormer Bonanno crime family underboss Salvatore Vitale testifies. Picture: AP
Former Bonanno crime family underboss Salvatore Vitale testifies. Picture: AP
AN AGEING gangster has gone on trial charged with taking part in the multi-million dollar airport hold-up dramatised in the film “Goodfellas.”

The brazen armed robbery of cash and jewellery in the dead of night at a Lufthansa cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport in 1978 was “the score of all scores” for Vincent Asaro and other mobsters of his generation, Assistant US Attorney Lindsay Gerdes said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.

Asaro, 80, teamed up with heist mastermind, the late James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke – played by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film – “because he knew Burke was someone he could make money with,” Ms Gerdes said. “Jimmy Burke and Vincent Asaro were true partners in crime.”

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The prosecutor told jurors – who had been asked on questionnaires if they had seen “Goodfellas” – that Asaro became a real-life member of the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. She also said he has the mob slogan “death without dishonour” tattooed on forearm.

“For him, the Mafia was literally the family business,” she said. “The defendant is a gangster through and through.”

Defence attorney Diane Ferrone accused the government of relying on the testimony of untrustworthy turncoat mobsters, including Asaro’s cousin, Gaspare Valenti. She labelled the cousin a con artist who became a paid informant in the late 2000s and agreed to wear a wire to record conversations.

“You shouldn’t believe him because his latest con victim is the United States government,” Ms Ferrone said.

On Valenti and other government witnesses, she said: “When necessary, they lie to each other and they lie to save themselves ... Once a liar, always a liar.”

Unlike Burke, Asaro was an obscure member of the Bonannos with low-level mob-related convictions before his arrest last year. He became the latest mobster to fall prey to a breach in the Mafia’s once-sacred code of silence that has decimated the ranks of New York’s five Italian crime families.

The first witness, former Bonanno underboss Salvatore Vitale, gave the jury the rules of La Cosa Nostra including an important one he had broken.

He said: “If you meet with law enforcement, we have the right to kill you.”

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Vitale testified how he was involved in 11 payback killings, and how he grew disillusioned after he was ordered to “rub out” a friend for being disrespectful to a mafia boss.

“I was just tired of the life,” he said. “I was tired of the killing.”

Vitale testified that after the Lufthansa robbery, he saw Asaro deliver an attache case to Asaro’s then-captain Joseph Massino. He said Massino opened the case to find it full of gold chains, telling Vitale: “This is from the Lufthansa score.”