The Lufthansa Heist: the rob­bery that in­spired Good­fel­las... and ru­ined the Mob

The New European - - Agenda - BY IAN WALKER

The black Ford Econo­line 150 van pulled up out­side Lufthansa’s ware­house at JFK air­port just be­fore 3am. None of the half dozen men in the ve­hi­cle were used to the site be­ing this peace­ful and quiet and it made them ner­vous. But they waited. They knew ex­actly what they were do­ing and ex­actly what was go­ing to hap­pen next. At 3am they opened the van’s doors.

As the gang got out, a Lufthansa cargo agent was just re­turn­ing to the ware­house from his nightly round of col­lect­ing ship­ment forms from other air­lines. For him, this was a rou­tine job, and he was aim­ing to get back just in time for the 3am ‘lunch’ break.

He spot­ted the van and the men – both far from rou­tine – and ner­vously con­fronted them. He was pis­tol-whipped and thrown in the back of the van. His wal­let and ID were taken and he was told that the gang now knew where he lived and that his fam­ily would be killed if he didn’t co­op­er­ate.

Once in­side the ware­house, the gang – by now all wear­ing ski masks – started to round up the night staff, 10 work­ers in all. The raiders knew pre­cisely where the em­ploy­ees were; they even knew their names. One by one the staff were led to the cafe­te­ria. The threat of vi­o­lence was enough to get them all to com­ply.

The Lufthansa staff were all ter­ri­fied. Su­per­vi­sor Rudi Eirich, the only man who could dis­able all the alarms and open the vault, was so scared he wet him­self. There was no ques­tion that he would do what he was told.

The alarms were si­lenced, the vault was opened and around 40 parcels of cash

– a con­sign­ment of cur­rency flown in, once a month, from mon­e­tary ex­changes for mil­i­tary ser­vice­men and tourists in West Ger­many – were re­moved and loaded into the van. Just be­fore the gang drove off, they or­dered their hostages not to alert the au­thor­i­ties for 15 min­utes, and re­minded them they knew where their fam­i­lies were. The thieves needed 15 min­utes, be­cause they were aware that the po­lice could seal off the air­port within 90 sec­onds of a dis­tress call.

The en­tire heist had taken just over an hour and the haul stowed in the back of the black van made it the largest cash rob­bery on Amer­i­can soil up to that date – De­cem­ber 11, 1978. It has since be­come one of the most fabled crimes com­mit­ted in the 20th cen­tury, for what came next: not just the demise of the gang who car­ried it out, but the de­cline it rep­re­sented for a strand of the Amer­i­can un­der­world.

Once out­side the air­port perime­ter, the rob­bers drove to a ware­house in Brook­lyn, where they met Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Burke, the man who had or­gan­ised the raid.

Burke had sup­pos­edly re­ceived his nick­name for his habit of giv­ing $50 to the driv­ers of trucks he hi­jacked ear­lier in his crim­i­nal ca­reer, but there was noth­ing gen­tle­manly about him. He oper­ated out of Robert’s Lounge, a bar he owned in Queens not far from JFK air­port. From here, he ran his loan­shark­ing, book­mak­ing and poker games. He also buried some of the peo­ple he mur­dered in the bar’s base­ment and grounds.

Burke killed any­one he saw as a threat to his free­dom. He was a para­noid psy­chopath who sub­scribed to Stalin’s sup­posed dic­tum “Death solves all prob­lems – no man, no prob­lem”. Any­one who could pos­si­bly turn state’s wit­ness against Burke tended to ‘dis­ap­pear’. It did not mat­ter if the vic­tim was a friend or not, Burke re­moved the man: he re­moved the prob­lem.

And the prob­lems be­gan al­most im­me­di­ately after the Lufthansa heist. He had told the gang to dis­perse, to act nor­mal and lay low, to not draw at­ten­tion to them­selves. Par­nell ‘Stacks’ Ed­wards, a blues mu­si­cian, a friend of Burke’s and a reg­u­lar at Robert’s Lounge, was given more spe­cific in­struc­tions: to change the num­ber plates on the van and drive it to New Jersey where it was to be de­stroyed in a com­pactor.

But Ed­wards failed to get rid of the van. In­stead, he did the ex­act op­po­site: He parked it in a place where it couldn’t fail to be spot­ted.

Ed­wards drove the van to a girl­friend’s house, parked up in a no-park­ing zone and then spent two days par­ty­ing with her. The il­le­gally-parked ve­hi­cle soon caught the at­ten­tion of the po­lice. Ini­tially, they as­sumed it was stolen, but when they opened the back they soon re­alised they had found the van used in the rob­bery.

The gang had left their masks in the van along with some of the wal­lets from the em­ploy­ees. There were also fin­ger­prints all over the ve­hi­cle. Jimmy the Gent was right to be a para­noid man; the peo­ple he had used in this job were mo­rons.

The mis­takes had started dur­ing the raid it­self. Thomas Desi­mone, one of the gang, had in­ex­pli­ca­bly taken his mask off dur­ing the rob­bery. Two other mem­bers were said to have called each other by their names. These de­tails, along with the van, meant that the po­lice had a pretty good idea that Burke’s crew had car­ried out the crime. They just had to prove it. And the pieces were quickly fall­ing into the place for them.

The gang had known ex­actly what to do. The knew where the staff were; how to dis­able the alarms; that only the su­per­vi­sor could open the vault. That there was an in­side man was ob­vi­ous. And de­tec­tives soon iden­ti­fied – cor­rectly – that he was an air­port em­ployee named Louis Werner, a gam­bler who was heav­ily in­debted to a book­maker called Mar­tin Krug­man. Krug­man was the man who set the heist up with Burke.

Along with this in­creas­ingly solid trail of ev­i­dence lead­ing to him, Burke had an­other prob­lem. He had ex­pected the heist to net about $2mil­lion, but the fi­nal fig­ure was closer to $6m. It was a fig­ure like that made every­one scared. It also made every­one greedy.

As the po­lice closed in, Burke be­gan mur­der­ing peo­ple. Desi­mone was in­structed to kill his friend Ed­wards, who was shot and killed a week after the heist.

His death was fol­lowed by a ver­i­ta­ble spate of killings over the fol­low­ing six months, with an­other eight peo­ple who could im­pli­cate Burke mur­dered, start­ing with Krug­man. Of course, each killing also gave Burke a larger slice of the pro­ceeds.

Not all loose ends were tied up though. Henry Hill was a close friend of Burke’s. It was he who had got him to­gether with Krug­man to plan the heist. That was the ex­tent of his in­volve­ment, but as the mur­ders went on, he was be­com­ing scared. He knew what Burke was ca­pa­ble of. He knew he could very eas­ily be next.

Nei­ther Burke, who was Ir­ish Amer­i­can, nor Hill, who was half Ir­ish, were mem­bers of the Mafia but they were both closely as­so­ci­ated with the Luc­ch­ese crime fam­ily; Luc­ch­ese capo Paul Vario con­ducted a lot of his busi­ness in

Robert’s Lounge. Burke also in­cluded a mem­ber of the Gam­bino fam­ily in the heist gang, just to keep that branch of the Mob happy.

Both Hill and Burke were drug deal­ers and drug users, which was some­thing they kept se­cret from the Mob. Dur­ing this whole episode, both had de­vel­oped se­ri­ous ad­dic­tions, and that, along with their try­ing to hide their busi­ness from Vario made them both para­noid.

And then, in April 1980, Hill was caught selling drugs. Now, fac­ing a lengthy prison sen­tence and know­ing that Burke – or Vario – would have no hes­i­ta­tion in killing him be­cause he knew so much (the FBI played Hill sur­veil­lance tapes to that ef­fect) he de­cided to turn state’s ev­i­dence.

It was his tes­ti­mony that sent Burke and Vario to jail for the rest of their lives. Hill went into the wit­ness pro­tec­tion scheme, be­fore co-writ­ing books which glam­ourised and at­tempted to jus­tify his tawdry life as a crim­i­nal. Burke was never charged for the Lufthansa heist or for the en­su­ing mur­ders – after all, most of those con­nect­ing him to the orig­i­nal of­fence had been killed. His 20-year

prison sen­tence, handed down in 1982, was for fix­ing bas­ket­ball games, a scam he ran with Hill. He would die of can­cer in prison in 1996.

There’s a good chance that you may recog­nise this story. The Lufthansa heist plays a cen­tral part in Mar­tin Scors­ese’s 1990 film Good­fel­las. In the movie, a few names are changed (Burke be­comes Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Con­way, played by Robert de Niro; Hill keeps his name and is de­picted by Ray Liotta; Thomas Desi­mone be­comes Joe Pesci’s Tommy Devito) and a few of the char­ac­ters are com­pos­ites of real peo­ple. Yet the way Scors­ese tells the story is not that dif­fer­ent from what hap­pened dur­ing and after the ac­tual raid. And what the film also por­trays ac­cu­rately is the way or­gan­ised crime it­self was un­rav­el­ling in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Along with west­erns, gang­ster films are one of the two great Amer­i­can mytholo­gies of the last cen­tury. Both gen­res are fic­tional re-tellings of nar­ra­tives of Amer­i­can his­tory; the set­tling of the West or the rise of or­gan­ised crime. But they are also fic­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Amer­ica and its val­ues and psy­choses, at the times the films were made.

The early gang­ster films, made in the 1930s, were not that dif­fer­ent to west­erns. The gang­ster was es­sen­tially a dark­souled cowboy armed with a Tommy gun in­stead of a re­volver, forced to face the con­se­quences of his self-in­ter­est. He was a man alone in a world not of gulches or sa­loons, but of dive-bars and sky­scrapers. These gang­ster sto­ries were moral­ity tales about good and evil in a rapidly mod­ernising Amer­ica.

It wasn’t un­til the 1970s that the Mafia be­came a wor­thy sub­ject for cinema. The first two God­fa­ther films made in that decade are mas­ter­pieces in cinema and in Amer­i­can self-mythol­ogy. They are Shake­spear­ian in the scale of their telling of an Amer­i­can tragedy, the hero with the fa­tal flaw forced to ac­cept that vi­o­lence is an in­her­ent part of what Amer­ica is. The two films tell an epic, uniquely Amer­i­can story about im­mi­gra­tion, busi­ness, big­otry, fam­ily and self-in­ter­est. As well as be­ing cine­matic mas­ter­pieces these films also in­vented much of how we un­der­stand the Mafia.

There is a con­nec­tion be­tween Si­cil­ian crime and early 20th cen­tury Lower East Side Ital­ian-amer­i­can gangs but the Amer­i­can Mafia does not re­ally have that much to do with blood feuds or feu­dal ban­ditry. In­stead, it has more to do with the ex­pe­ri­ence of im­mi­gra­tion, which was a fairly bru­tal process where, if peo­ple were to sur­vive and thrive, they had to take what they could. More im­por­tantly, these gangs be­came the ba­sis for or­gan­ised crime through­out the 20th cen­tury not be­cause of tra­di­tion, feuds or Sicily, but be­cause of


Rat­i­fied in 1920, the pol­icy ef­fec­tively gave crim­i­nals the chance to take over a multi-mil­lion dol­lar busi­ness. As they fought for con­trol of the liquor trade, those in­volved be­came more vi­o­lent, more or­gan­ised and richer.

When Pro­hi­bi­tion ended in 1933, the most pow­er­ful crime fam­i­lies di­ver­si­fied into con­struc­tion, san­i­ta­tion, unions and gam­bling. At times they al­most ex­isted on the edge of the law – in that grey area be­tween cor­rup­tion and com­mer­cial drive. As such, they were heav­ily in­volved in the cre­ation of Las Ve­gas as a le­gal gam­bling cen­tre. But they also di­ver­si­fied into drugs, and that’s where the dif­fi­cul­ties started.

By the 1970s, co­caine was pour­ing into the USA, and the US gov­ern­ment be­gan to fight back. Drug deal­ers and traf­fick­ers be­gan to re­ceive heav­ier sen­tences, which meant they were much more likely to be­come state wit­nesses after they were caught.

Also, the Rack­e­teer In­flu­enced and Cor­rupt Or­ga­ni­za­tions (RICO) Act of

1970 made rack­e­teer­ing a crime that car­ried a manda­tory sen­tence of 20 years. If some­one could be proved to be a mem­ber of a crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion then they were go­ing away for a long time.

If the God­fa­ther films, al­beit in a highly mythol­o­gised way, told the story of or­gan­ised crime up un­til the 1960s, Good­fel­las chron­i­cled its un­rav­el­ling over the fol­low­ing decade, and the Lufthansa heist is the piv­otal mo­ment.

Jimmy Burke was para­noid. Henry Hill was para­noid. The Mafia was para­noid and all this was be­cause drugs and RICO turned every­one into a po­ten­tial grass.

Omertà, the sup­posed Mafia code of hon­our or si­lence, was soon ex­posed as the baloney it was. If there was a code of si­lence in the Mob it was one that was pred­i­cated on the fear of be­ing killed rather than hon­our. This worked as long as peo­ple were less scared of go­ing to prison than they were of giv­ing ev­i­dence. But once prison sen­tences be­came life­long then it all broke down.

What did peo­ple have to lose?

Faced with this re­al­ity – and the in­ep­ti­tude of his as­so­ciates – Burke’s purge of his own gang be­come his log­i­cal next move. It was a move of weak­ness, not of strength.

It showed the de­cline in im­por­tance of the Mob. When Scors­ese put the events on screen just over a decade later, it dis­man­tled the myth of the Mafia and or­gan­ised crime.

Both in the film, and in re­al­ity, the Mob, and those as­so­ci­ated with it, were be­com­ing too use­less, too para­noid, too mo­ronic, even to be able to make any­thing out of a lu­cra­tive heist.

Of course, this is not to say that the Mafia van­ished, after the Lufthansa heist, just as Good­fel­las did not quite mark the end of Amer­ica’s gang­ster mythol­ogy. In 1999 this mythol­ogy moved to tele­vi­sion for its last great hur­rah with the show The So­pra­nos. David Chase, the se­ries’ cre­ator, ac­knowl­edged how im­por­tant Good­fel­las has been as an in­flu­ence on his show (27 ac­tors from Good­fel­las would ap­pear in The So­pra­nos).

If Good­fel­las was all about the un­rav­el­ling of Ital­ian Amer­i­can or­gan­ised crime, then The So­pra­nos was about what was left. The whole se­ries felt as if it was post-some­thing. Pos­si­bly the key line in the se­ries was when Tony So­prano says “But lately, I’m get­ting the feel­ing that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Some­thing has been lost, he feels like a di­nosaur.

Fun­da­men­tally, like other gang­ster de­pic­tions which have gone be­fore, The So­pra­nos is a study in vi­o­lence. There are mo­ments in the show where the sto­ry­telling moves very close to the abyss, where what is hap­pen­ing is not un­like the ni­hilism you may find in a 19th cen­tury Rus­sian novel – or in the bloody af­ter­math of the Lufthansa heist.

Un­like Burke, who killed out of self­in­ter­est, you get the feel­ing that Tony So­prano kills be­cause he likes killing, that real power lies in his con­trol over who lives and who dies.

The Mafia’s in­flu­ence has un­de­ni­ably de­clined, the num­ber of ‘made’ men has fallen and the FBI no longer has a squad ded­i­cated to each fam­ily. But it re­mains a per­ni­cious, ma­lig­nant force – and so does the Lufthansa heist it­self.

The lat­est ar­rest as­so­ci­ated with the rob­bery was made in 2014, though the ac­cused, Vin­cent Asaro, a re­puted Bo­nanno fam­ily capo, was sub­se­quently found not guilty. Other unan­swered ques­tions re­main, per­haps, most no­tably, what hap­pened to the money, none of which was ever traced.

Other threads have been wound up more con­clu­sively. A hand­ful of those closely in­volved in the ac­tual rob­bery es­caped Burke’s purge – in­clud­ing his son, Frank James Burke – but all would die vi­o­lent deaths by the end of the 1980s. The only per­son ever con­victed for the raid was Louis Werner, the in­side man who had made the en­tire scheme pos­si­ble. Yet none es­caped its con­se­quences.

MOB­STERS: The gang be­hind the $6mil­lion Lufthansa rob­bery.1 Henry Hill2 Par­nell Ed­wards3 Thomas Desi­mone4 Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Burke

Pho­tos: Getty Im­ages

2 BLUN­DER:1 The van used in the raid was quickly dis­cov­ered by po­lice3 A Brink’s se­cu­rity truck parked out­side the Lufthansa cargo ter­mi­nal at JFK air­port


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