Three decades ago, a group of mobsters pulled off one of the greatest heists in U.S. history.
Most of them got away with it — until Thursday, when a suspected mobster was arrested for the notorious airport heist that inspired “Goodfellas.”
Here is the strange story of what happened more than 30 years ago.
In 1978, half a dozen armed robbers in ski masks raided the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and made off with $US5 million in cash and almost $US1 million in jewelry. That’s about $US21 million in today’s dollars.
At the time, it was the largest cash theft that had ever been carried out in the U.S.
The FBI has been trying to crack the case since it happened, but many of those connected to the so-called Lufthansa Heist ended up dead. Investigators believe James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, an associate of the Lucchese crime family, was the mastermind behind the plot. He died in prison in 1996, incarcerated for unrelated crimes.
Henry Hill, another mobster from the Lucchese family who reportedly participated in the crime, started cooperating with police in the mid-1980s and eventually entered the witness protection program.
But authorities have only been able to secure one conviction in the case. Louis Werner was the inside man, an airline cargo agent who was familiar with the Lufthansa vault and reportedly tipped off an associate who fed information to the robbers. In 1979, he was found guilty of helping to plan and carry out the heist.
Another break in the case finally came on Thursday when police arrested Vincent Asaro, a member of the Bonanno crime family of New York, and charged him with the theft. (He was arrested with several other suspected Bonanno mobsters who were accused of other crimes.)
In 1980, the FBI investigators who were working the case told The New York Times that it was “the case that just won’t die.” Here’s how it unfolded.
Months before the robbery, Werner (the cargo agent) tipped off his bookie Marty Krugman to the piles of untraceable cash sitting in the Lufthansa vault. The money was flown in once a month and sometimes stored overnight in the vault before being picked up the next day to be deposited in banks.
Krugman then told Hill, who reportedly passed along the tip to Burke (the alleged mastermind of the crime).
Early in the morning on Dec. 11, a group of gunmen arrived at the cargo hold’s loading platform in a black van. A security guard who went to investigate was smacked in the head with a gun and forced to deactivate a silent alarm on the property, according to Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy.”
Werner had given a sketch of the building’s layout and alarm system to the gunmen, so they were familiar with the building’s confusing corridors and various security measures.
The armed men burst into the cargo building, rounded up the employees working there, taped their mouths shut, and held them hostage.
Robbers first captured a senior cargo agent, who was forced to call the night shift cargo traffic manager, Rudi Eirich, and tell him to come upstairs. Two gunmen were waiting for him. They instructed him to open the vault so they could steal the millions worth of cash and jewelry inside.
The entire heist took little more than an hour.
Eventually, an employee escaped his bindings and called police to alert them of the break-in.
Six people with ties to heist have ended up murdered, according to the Times. Others were placed in the witness protection program in exchange for their cooperation.
Today, only a small portion of the money has been recovered.
Here’s a New York Times article from 1980 that describes investigators’ frustrations in trying to secure convictions in the case:
And the indictment that covers Asaro’s arrest:
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