It’s the early hours of December 11, 1978. A black van has just pulled up outside a deserted warehouse at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Inside, a group of men nervously watch the minutes tick by. They’re about to attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history – and the aftermath of their shocking crime will be felt for generations to come.
Originating in Sicily, the American Mafia took root when Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 19th century. There, they settled with their families in impoverished neighborhoods in parts of New York City. They also moved to other urban areas such as Chicago and New Orleans.
In New York City, the neighborhoods of East Harlem, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side soon became known for their high concentration of Italian immigrants. And just as the newcomers brought traditional food and customs with them, they also introduced their familiar system of organized crime.
The first mafia-related incident in America to get international attention occurred in New Orleans in 1890. Police officer David Hennessy was brutally executed, allegedly at the hands of Italian immigrants. The courts acquitted the 19 suspects, but a lynch mob later murdered 11 of them.
Around the same time, the notorious Five Points Gang formed in New York City. This criminal organization later spawned some of America’s most famous mobsters, including Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. And the group’s power only continued to grow in the early 20th century, skyrocketing further after alcohol prohibition began in January 1920.
That’s because when alcohol became illegal, the Mafia seized control of much of the lucrative liquor trade. But as profits soared, disputes between different factions grew more violent. This led to the formation of the Five Families. And this loose structure of criminal associates is still active to this day.
But prohibition ended in 1933, and the Mafia had to diversify. Indeed, this led many families to branch out into other fields such as gambling and construction. And by the 1970s the burgeoning popularity of cocaine had presented another way to make money. However, the drug trade came with its own problems, and paranoia soon began to take root.
In 1970 the authorities enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This introduced jail terms of up to 20 years for anyone caught breaking the law on behalf of a criminal gang. The law worked and the next two decades saw the convictions of 1,000 mobsters.
Two years after RICO passed, director Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the first in a trilogy of movies that focuses on the fictional crime family the Corleones. The first instalment is commonly regarded as the best film ever made. Meanwhile, The Godfather Part II, is widely viewed as the best sequel in movie history.
But in the real world, America’s real crime families were falling apart. And by the time that the next great gangster movie, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas arrived in 1990, their fortunes had forever changed.
In Goodfellas Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, a Mafia associate navigating the criminal underworld of 1970s America. But while Coppola’s gangsters were works of fiction, Hill was real. Indeed, the movie is an adaption of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, a book that chronicled the latter’s life. Moreover, some of the scenes depicted in the movie were inspired by real events.
In Goodfellas, “Jimmy the Gent” Conway masterminds a heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The plan is to steal $6 million from a vault belonging to the German airline Lufthansa. The robbery is successful. But it sparks a period of bloody decline for Hill and his criminal associates.
Shockingly, the real-life story of the Lufthansa heist is not dissimilar to its movie counterpart. Apparently, it all began with Louis Werner. The airport worker owed $20,000 in gambling debts to bookmaker Martin Krugman. At the time, Lufthansa transported large amounts of cash to the United States on a monthly basis, and the former knew about it.
The dollars came from tourists and military servicemen who had exchanged currency in West Germany. And crucially, Werner knew that the money would often be kept at the warehouse overnight. He then allegedly shared this information with bookmaker Martin Krugman.
Krugman then turned to his associate Hill for assistance. In turn, the latter introduced him to James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, who had connections to the Lucchese family. This is the real-life mobster who inspired Robert De Niro’s Goodfellas role.
Burke owned Robert’s Lounge, a bar in Queens popular with members of New York’s underworld. And together with some of his patrons, he plotted the robbery there, the authorities believe. Indeed, he and Werner are thought to have provided all the intelligence necessary to make the mission a success.
So the heist men had everything they needed. These included employee schedules and personal details about those likely to be on shift. And as 3:00 a.m. approached on December 11, 1978, a black van arrived at the Lufthansa warehouse. But as the six armed and masked robbers climbed out of the vehicle, something unexpected happened. An airline cargo worker approached the men.
After confronting the robbers, the thieves allegedly pistol-whipped the worker and threw him inside the group’s van. The men then confiscated his identification and threatened to hunt down his family if he didn’t comply. Shortly after, the men descended on the warehouse and began to corral the frightened staff.
Once inside, the robbers knew exactly what they were doing. They identified Rudi Eirich, the one supervisor with the ability to access the vault and disable the alarms. After he did this, the men proceeded to take the loot. And once they had loaded a large amount of cash and valuable jewels into their van, the gang made their escape.
For 15 long minutes, the traumatized staff waited. Apparently, the robbers had told the Lufthansa staff to delay calling the authorities. Again, they had threatened their families’ safety if they did not comply. The police soon got wind of the heist, but the gang and the vehicle had already disappeared to safety.
The newspapers began reporting on what the FBI called, “the largest cash robbery in history.” In fact, nobody seemed able to determine exactly how much the robbers had stolen. Initial estimates of $3 million had been far too low.
Even the bankers involved admitted they didn’t know how much had been taken. “We don’t really know how much money was in the packages. Originally, we were to get $5 million, and we received $2 million last Friday, which would leave $3 million,” Chase Manhattan Bank’s Sharon Weinstein told the New York Times in 1978. “But now we get a later cable that says they shipped $7 million.”
The value of the cash cargo had been declared based on weight rather than monetary worth, according to the newspaper. This meant that the records were inaccurate. Eventually, it was determined that some $5 million in cash had been stolen, along with approximately $875,000 worth of jewelry.
But while the story of the heist kept the nation entertained, things behind the scenes began to unravel. Apparently, the robbers had driven straight from the warehouse to Brooklyn. Here, they parked up in an auto shop and began splitting the loot between smaller vehicles.
Allegedly, Burke had given the driver, blues musician Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, strict instructions on what to do next. But instead of taking it to be destroyed, he parked the vehicle used in the robbery illegally outside his girlfriend’s home. And after sitting there for two days, local police spotted the van.
Inside, the authorities discovered some of the disguises used during the robbery. They also found wallets taken from Lufthansa employees and fingerprints all over the vehicle. This became one of the few solid pieces of evidence that police would recover in the case. Soon, Burke and his associates became the key suspects.
Meanwhile, Burke faced another problem. Apparently, the crime had netted far more than anyone had expected, and the large sum made everybody nervous. Police had also begun closing in on Werner, the man that they had correctly identified as the gang’s inside contact at the airport.
Then Edwards was shot dead, one week after the robbery. And over the next six months, eight men thought to be able to implicate Burke died, including Krugman. And while each murder reduced the number of people who could potentially have implicated Burke, it also conveniently increased his share of the loot.
In a manner befitting a story that would one day become gangster legend, many of the deaths were excessively violent. While Krugman was dismembered and allegedly buried beneath Robert’s Lounge, another associate, Richard Eaton, was found dead in a freezer truck.
With most of the those who could testify against Burke dead, police lacked sufficient evidence to link him to the crime. However, in 1979 police arrested Werner and charged him for his part in planning the robbery. To this day, it is the only conviction for the heist that has ever been made.
For a while, it must have seemed as if those responsible for the heist might escape retribution for good. But in April 1980 police apprehended Hill for dealing drugs. Apparently, he feared that Burke would have him killed. He therefore turned state’s evidence in order to avoid a lengthy prison term.
While Hill entered the witness protection program, the evidence against Burke mounted up. And although he never faced any charges in relation to the heist, his rap sheet eventually earned him 20 years behind bars. And in 1996 after 14 years in prison, the former mobster died of cancer.
In 1985 crime writer Nicholas Pileggi published Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, a biographical account of Hill’s life as a mobster. And it included his role in the Lufthansa heist. The following year it arrived in the hands of Scorsese, who then used it as the basis for the Goodfellas screenplay.
Back in the real world of the Mafia, however, the heist had marked a turning point. Following the RICO Act, America’s crime families had descended into paranoia. Indeed, they had become too ineffective to even enjoy the spoils of a multi-million-dollar robbery without turning on themselves.
Meanwhile, the Mafia still remains a significant force in America’s criminal underworld. But the heist came at a period when the criminal organization’s luck had begun to wane. Today, the incident remains one of America’s most notorious unsolved crimes, and little of the money has been recovered.
As for Hill, he was caught confessing his true identity several times and expelled from the witness protection program. In the subsequent years he made a number of appearances on American television. The former mobster also collaborated on The Lufthansa Heist, a book about the infamous robbery.
On June 12, 2012, Hill died of congestive heart failure. But his name will be forever linked with one of the most memorable gangster movies ever made – and the real-life drama that inspired the tale. However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Because in January 2014 police arrested another individual over the Lufthansa heist.
That year the authorities arrested mobster Vincent Asaro for his alleged involvement in the crime. In fact, The Guardian reported that official court papers stated that an anonymous informant had confessed his role in the robbery to police. He’d also implicated Asaro as the man who had gotten him involved. Indeed, in 2011 the cooperating witness had recorded audio to support his claims.
However, according to The Guardian, Asaro’s lawyer Gerald McMahon claimed that shady figures, including Joseph Massino, had set his client up. The former boss of the Bonanno family, Massino was the most influential member of the Mafia to cooperate with police. According to McMahon, the mob boss was a terrible witness, and in November 2015 Asano walked free from court.
Daniel Simone, who co-wrote The Lufthansa Heist with Hill, has claimed that Asaro was never involved in the robbery. Indeed, he believes that those who testified otherwise were lying. But with most of the key figures now dead, it seems unlikely that the full truth will ever be known.