Written: January 6, 2016 — Scroll to the bottom for a story update
On November 12, in a stunning upset for the U.S Attorney’s Office in New York, a jury found 80-year-old Mafia member Vincent Asaro not guilty of charges connected to the notorious $6 million robbery of Lufthansa Airlines’ cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1978.
Asaro applauded the jury, hugged his lawyers, thanked the judge and left the courtroom in Brooklyn smiling broadly to meet reporters outside. In contrast, federal prosecutors exited the room, rendered speechless by a verdict that rejected their claims that Asaro took part in the cargo heist, a 1969 Mob hit and other crimes on behalf of New York’s Bonanno crime family.
Prosecutors had built much of their case against Asaro, a one-time Bonanno capo, on the testimony of former Mafia members, specifically their star witness, Gaspare Valenti, Asaro’s cousin.
At the request of the FBI, Valenti wore a wire from 2010 to 2013 to record conversations in which prosecutors claimed Asaro implicated himself in the Lufthansa robbery that led to the filing of federal charges of racketeering and extortion.
But the jury, in its two days of deliberations, apparently sided with the defense team, which painted Valenti as a liar who concocted the story of Asaro’s involvement in the Lufthansa caper and the 1969 murder and burial of Paul Katz with James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, a Lucchese family associate who masterminded the robbery.
Valenti’s failure as a convincing witness came as no surprise to Daniel Simone, who co-wrote the 2015 book The Lufthansa Heist with the late Henry Hill. Simone spoke at The Mob Museum to discuss the book during an Author Talk on January 12.
Hill, a close friend of the late Jimmy Burke, took part in the planning (but not the execution) of the robbery with Lucchese and Bonanno members and associates. His recollections about the Lufthansa robbery and his life as working with the Lucchese family served as the basis for the popular 1990 movie Goodfellas.
Simone researched the Lufthansa robbery for five years before collaborating on the book with Hill, who died in 2012. He videotaped hours of conversations with Hill as well as the federal prosecutor in the heist case, two FBI agents who oversaw the investigation, some New York police detectives, the New York Port Authority’s former chief of police and various Mafia associates. He also reviewed interoffice memos circulated by the FBI on potential suspects in the heist.
Simone’s verdict is that neither Valenti nor Asaro helped plan or commit the armed robbery at the airport. Their names, Simone insists, do not even appear in FBI interoffice memos written while agents investigated the robbery.
From his research, Simone names those he believes were in on the heist: Jimmy Burke, Joe “Joe Buddah” Manri, Robert “Frenchy” McMahon, Anthony “Snake” Rodriguez, Tommy “Two Gun Tommy” DeSimone, Paolo LiCastri, Angelo Sepe and Louis “Roast Beef” Cafora.
Other conspirators who assisted on the outside, according to Simone, included Hill, Louis Werner, Peter Gruenwald, Marty Krugman, Frank Menna and Bill Fischetti. In
addition, Frank Burke (Jimmy’s son) was assigned to drive the “crash” car – to block police, if needed, from pursuing the escaping robbers – and Parnell “Stacks” Edwards to drive the van used in the heist to a wrecking yard for destruction (Edwards instead parked it beside a fire hydrant outside his girlfriend’s home, where police found it).
The spectacular loss for federal prosecutors during Asaro’s trial in November came after they spent years developing a case based in large part on what Valenti told the FBI in 2008, when the one-time Bonanno member was broke and reportedly tired of the underground life.
Prosecutors looked forward to the chance of convicting at least one of the suspected Mob-tied perpetrators of the storied Lufthansa heist. They entered in as evidence recordings from the wire on Valenti to bolster their case of Asaro’s alleged complicity. In one conversation, Asaro is heard complaining that Jimmy Burke had held on to “everything” from the robbery and that Asaro did not get his rightful share.
The prosecution filed a laundry list of felony charges, including those unrelated to Lufthansa, as part of a broad case alleging Asaro, as a “made man” in the Bonanno family, engaged in racketeering for the family from 1968 to 2013 while participating in arson, loansharking, solicitation of murder and a pair of million-dollar thefts.
Worst still, they alleged Asaro – based on Valenti’s testimony – assisted Burke in slaying Paul Katz, whom Burke believed was an informant, in 1969 and burying the body beneath the cellar of a home. Asaro then allegedly helped Burke remove Katz’s remains from the cellar in the 1980s. Investigators matched Katz’s DNA to some bones and clothing that remained behind after Valenti took them to the burial site.
During the trial, Valenti declared that Asaro recruited him in 1978 to become part of the planned robbery of a then-estimated $2 million in cash, flown in from Germany, at the Lufthansa cargo terminal. He said he recalled being present at two planning meetings and then on the evening of December 17, 1978, drove the van — to be used to carry to the stolen money — to the airport.
Valenti claimed to remember that he was in the company of Frank Burke, who pointed a gun at cargo terminal employees. Valenti said he helped Burke subdue a security guard. He said he and the other thieves then entered the terminal’s vault where the roughly $6 million in cash, gold and jewelry were removed and loaded into the van.
Simone disputes all of Valenti’s statements about what took place following the robbery.
Valenti testified that Asaro told him to take about $5 million in cash and jewelry from the heist and store it at Valenti’s residence.
But Valenti was a well-known “degenerate gambler and his financial situation was desperate,” Simone stated in an email. So “pigs would fly before (Jimmy) Burke or anyone else associated with him would allow Valenti to stash $5 million in his home. If such an amount of cash were placed in Valenti’s trust, he would’ve undoubtedly absconded.”
What really happened right after the robbery, Simone said, was that Burke and his fellow thieves met at a warehouse in the Maspeth neighborhood in Queens where the cash and jewels were unloaded from the van into Burke’s car. Then Burke buried the booty in a hole inside the garage of his home in the Howard Beach section of Queens.
Simone also quarrels with Valenti’s claim that Burke gave him $750,000 for participating in the robbery.
“Burke refused to give anybody more than $25,000 to $30,000 each, except for (Mob bosses) John Gotti and Paul Vario,” Simone stated. “The former received $200,000 and the latter $450,000. And Burke killed anybody else who demanded money.”
Valenti maintained that he was one of the gunman during the cargo robbery, along with a person he identified as “Danny Rizzo,” but that isn’t credible either, according to Simone.
“If that were true, Burke would’ve murdered him, as he did the others,” he stated. “The Danny Rizzo who was supposed to be on the robbers’ roster also would’ve been killed. Burke had two reasons for eliminating his band of thieves: Firstly, he didn’t want to pay them their due share. Secondly, because the investigators were homing in on the perpetrators, (and) he was not about risk that they might testify against him.”
The evidence further contradicts Valenti’s insistence that he spent time the night of the robbery at Burke’s home, when Burke had been serving time at a halfway house in Manhattan, from which he and DeSimone quietly escaped in the early morning to perform the robbery. Also, Valenti said it was he who hit a cargo terminal employee with the butt of a gun when the employee positively identified Angelo Sepe as the assailant, according to Simone.
Finally, if Asaro and Valenti had been involved in the Lufthansa heist, Henry Hill would have been happy to have named them to get a better deal with the federal government when Hill was looking to avoid prison in the 1980s, Simone said.
“When Henry Hill became an informant and agreed to assist in identifying the Lufthansa perpetrators, to the dismay of the two lead FBI agents, Stephen Carbone and Edmund Guevara, everyone whom Hill named, except Louis Werner, had already been killed by (Jimmy) Burke,” he said.
“Consequently, upon realizing that the expectations from Hill fell short, the U.S. attorney, Ed McDonald, became reluctant to immunize him for his pending drug charges and sponsor him into the federal Witness Protection Program.
“Thus, at that point Hill was frantic to avoid a lengthy prison sentence – and/or getting murdered. Consequently, if Asaro and Valenti had partaken in the robbery, Hill would’ve readily and gladly brought them to the investigators’ attention, if for no other reason but to save himself.”
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at email@example.com.
UPDATE: Despite his acquittal on charges related to the Lufthansa heist, the case came back to haunt Asaro this year, based on a criminal case against him related to a road rage incident. On December 28, 2017, Asaro was sentenced in federal court to eight years in prison based on his conviction for ordering his henchmen – including John J. Gotti, grandson of the late Gambino boss John “Teflon Don” Gotti — to burn the car of a driver who cut him off in traffic in Queens, New York, in 2012. Asaro had written down the driver’s license plate number and then obtained the person’s address.
The judge who handed down the conviction, Allyne Ross of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, was the same one who presided over Asaro’s 2015 trial after which a jury acquitted him of a 1969 murder and charges related to the 1978 Lufthansa heist.
Despite the jury verdict, Ross had expressed her opinion that Asaro, a member of the Bonnano crime family going back to the 1960s, helped plan the Lufthansa caper and that federal prosecutors had proven their case against him in 2015. Brushing aside claims by Asaro’s defense attorney that the defendant suffered from poor health, Ross justified the prison sentence, saying the road rage case showed that the 82-year-old Asaro retained an “explosive temper” coupled with the “desire to carry out revenge.”