By Jeff Burbank
Henry Hill, the late Mob associate turned government witness, claimed in his book The Lufthansa Heist, co-authored by Daniel Simone and released this year, that all the participants in the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist in New York were killed decades ago, complicating the federal investigation into the robbery of more than $6 million in cash and jewelry.
But Hill may have left out at least two of the co-conspirators, one a made man named Vincent Asaro, who allegedly not only helped plan and take part in the robbery but received a large sum of cash with the blessing of the heist’s organizer, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, the late Lucchese associate famously portrayed by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie.
Asaro, now 80 years old, is very much alive and now, almost twenty-five years since the release of Goodfellas, a real-life organized crime character on trial on charges related to the armed robbery of cash and jewelry from Lufthansa Airline’s cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport by Lucchese and Bonanno crime family members and associates.
In the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, prosecutors last week began questioning witnesses in their case against Asaro, an alleged capo for the Bonanno crime family also charged with murder, racketeering, arson and extortion unrelated to the Lufthansa heist.
Federal prosecutor Lindsay Gerdes, in her opening statement, said Asaro’s father and grandfather were members of the Bonanno crime family and that Asaro himself had been “made” by the family in the 1970s. “For him, the Mafia was literally the family business,” Gerdes told the jury. “The defendant is a gangster through and through.”
Asaro is charged with assisting in racketeering activities with the Bonanno group from 1968 to 2013, including – along with his son Jerome — the arson of a building in New York between 1980 and 1981, the theft of $1.25 million in gold in 1984, robbery of $1 million from an armored truck between 1984 and 1986 and the solicitation of the murder of an unidentified man from 1983 to 1985. The latest charge alleges he took part in loansharking in 2013.
Prosecutors contend that Asaro along with Burke (who died in prison in 1996) strangled suspected informant Paul Katz to death in 1969. Asaro and Jerome are also charged as accessories after the fact in Katz’s murder after Asaro instructed Valenti and Jerome to remove Katz’s remains from beneath the cement floor of a house in the 1980s. However, investigators matched Katz’s DNA to some bones and clothing left behind at the original burial site after Valenti led them to it.
Valenti said on the stand that Asaro told him that Asaro “did most of the digging” to bury Katz’s body because Burke had injured his hand while the two “strangled (Katz) with a dog chain.”
Asaro has pleaded innocent to the charges, but the case against his four co-defendants, including Jerome, Jack Bonventre, Thomas “Tommy D” Di Fiore and John “Bazoo” Ragano, is over. Last year, those men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 21 to 90 months (Jerome got seven and a half years).
Vincent Asaro faces life in prison if he is convicted. He is so far the only person charged in the Lufthansa heist to be brought to trial.
Asaro’s case has attracted wide news coverage, in large part because of new details revealed about the record-setting Lufthansa cash and jewel robbery depicted in Goodfellas – based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 book on Hill’s life, Wiseguys – but also a renewed attention to the inner workings of traditional Italian crime groups in the 1970s.
Prosecutors played taped conversations Asaro allegedly had with his 68-year-old cousin, Gaspare Valenti, an informant for the FBI since 2008 who wore a wire as late as 2013 to capture Asaro’s recollections of the Lufthansa caper. Valenti also claimed to have been in on the planning and execution of the robbery (neither Valenti nor Asaro is mentioned by Hill in The Lufthansa Heist).
In the tapes, Asaro is heard complaining that Burke “kept everything” from the robbery that included more than $6 million in cash, gold and jewelry.
“We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get,” Asaro said in one conversation held inside a car and picked up by Valenti’s hidden wire. “We got f***ed all around. Got f***ed all around. That f***head Jimmy, he kept everything.”
At one point, in a 2012 conversation, the two expressed their dislike for Hill himself, after Hill died that year. They believed Hill overstated his role in the Lufthansa robbery.
Valenti, in his testimony last week, admitted it was Hill who, tipped off by a friend, Martin Krugman, was the one who informed Burke that the money would arrive at the airport in the first place. But Hill “wasn’t there with us,” Valenti said in court. “He made a big thing that he was on the score and he wasn’t.”
Valenti described how Asaro recruited him in 1978 to join the team of robbers to steal what was thought to be $2 million in cash delivered from Germany by Lufthansa to the cargo terminal.
Valenti said he was present at two meetings to plan the robbery and that twelve people were eventually involved. On the evening of December 17, 1978, he said he entered a stolen black van to drive to the airport.
He stayed outside with Jimmy’s son Frankie as the other armed men went into the cargo terminal and held the employees at gunpoint. At one point, Valenti said he assisted Frankie, who pistol-whipped and subdued a security guard.
Valenti said he was among those who entered a vault inside the terminal. It was Tommie DeSimone (the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas), who located crates of U.S. and German currency and burlap sacks of gold, diamonds and other gems inside the vault, according to Valenti. DeSimone then exclaimed, “This is it, this is it!” Valenti recalled in court.
The loot was loaded into the black van. Meanwhile, Jimmy Burke and Asaro, who were not present during the actual robbery, were parked outside in a “crash car” to be used to block police vehicles if any arrived, but none did.
Valenti testified that he and Asaro were “happy, euphoric” after getting away with the booty. Asaro, he said, suggested they take the money to Valenti’s house, where they counted the cash.
It totaled $6.25 million, not including the German currency and jewelry, he said. According to Valenti, he and Asaro received cuts of $750,000 each. Asaro cautioned him not to discuss the money or spend much of it to avoid arousing suspicion.
Asaro would use his cut to purchase a second home, a new Lincoln luxury car and a boat before blowing the remainder betting on horse races, prosecutors said.
But the money did not last for Valenti, either. He, too, lost big due to gambling. He explained in court that by the late 2000s he was out of funds, could no longer produce as a mobster, regretted his past life and approached the FBI with his story, in part for money to support his family.
Valenti is also hoping his testimony will win him a lenient sentence after pleading guilty himself to racketeering and robbery charges that could land him in prison for twenty years.
Asaro’s defense lawyer Diane Ferrone has sought to paint Valenti as a con artist on the government’s list of paid informants. “When necessary, they lie to each other and they lie to save themselves,” Ferrone told the jurors. “Once a liar, always a liar.”
According to Daniel Simone, co-author with Hill of The Lufthansa Heist, Valenti’s testimony is a lie. Neither Valenti nor Asaro, he says, was involved in the robbery, nor were they among those mentioned in any of the FBI’s memos about the heist.
Simone contends that “Jimmy the Gent” Burke never would have permitted Valenti to place $5 million in cash from the haul at Valenti’s home. And, Simone says, the Lufthansa culprits actually met Burke at a warehouse in Queens where the cash was transferred from the van to Burke’s car so Burke could stash it in his garage.
Burke, Simone says, only gave out proceeds from the robbery to two top New York mobsters – $200,000 to John Gotti and $450,000 to Paul Vario – and kept the rest, killing the other robbers to avoid giving up any more money and eliminate anyone who might turn against him in a criminal case.
Furthermore, despite Valenti’s testimony, the Lufthansa shipping clerk Kerry Whalen, present during the heist, identified another robbery participant, Angelo Sepe, as the one who hit him with a gun, not Valenti, Simone maintains.
Valenti has been dubbed a “rat” or “turncoat” by some in the news media and rebuked by his own son, Anthony “Fat Sammy” Valenti, for violating the Italian Mafia’s “omerta” code of secrecy.
The New York Daily News quoted Anthony Valenti, who attended the trial last week, as saying that he had showed up to lend support for Asaro and that he “could care less about” his father.
Jeff Burbank is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Simone, co-author of The Lufthansa Heist, will be available to sign copies of the book from 1-5 p.m. Thursday, November 11, in The Mob Museum’s retail store. Simone will return to the Museum at 1 p.m. Tuesday, January 12, for an Author Talk and signing.