Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Five alleged members of a New York crime family were indicted with a decades-long robbery and extortion conspiracy, including a 78-year-old man charged in connection with the 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport recounted in the film “Goodfellas.”
The five men, who prosecutors say are Bonanno crime family members, were engaged in a racketeering conspiracy that dates back to Jan. 1, 1968, and continued as recently as June 30, 2013, according to an indictment unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn, New York. Three of the five defendants pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Go. The magistrate ordered that all five remain in federal custody.
Vincent Asaro, 78, of Howard Beach in the New York borough of Queens, plotted with unnamed organized-crime members to carry out the Dec. 11, 1978, robbery of a Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK, the U.S. said. About $5 million in U.S. currency and $1 million in jewelry was stolen, the U.S. said.
Asaro’s participation in the heist was corroborated by information provided by more than four cooperating witnesses, including those who are associated with three crime families, according to a memorandum prosecutors sent to the judge today. One of the cooperating witnesses, who prosecutors identified as a cousin of Vincent Asaro, participated in the heist with James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, has pleaded guilty and is aiding the U.S. in the hopes of getting leniency, authorities said.
Gerald J. McMahon, a lawyer for Asaro, said after court today that his client will go to trial. “He will walk out of the doors a free man,” McMahon said.
Four other defendants, Jerome Asaro, 55, of Bethpage, New York, a Bonanno captain and Vincent Asaro’s son; Thomas “Tommy D” DiFiore, 70, of Commack, New York, identified by the U.S. as the highest-ranking member of the Bonanno crime family; John “Bazoo” Ragano, 52, of Rockaway, New York; and Jack Bonventre, 45, of Cambell Hall, New York, aren’t charged with involvement in the Lufthansa heist. The indictment alleges a series of crimes that include racketeering conspiracy, extortion, murder and bookmaking. Vincent Asaro faces as long as life in prison if convicted of the murder conspiracy, Lynch’s office said, while the four others face as long as 20 years in prison if convicted.
Vincent Asaro was charged with the murder of Paul Katz, the owner of a Queens warehouse used by Asaro and his associates who disappeared in 1969. The U.S. said Katz was killed to prevent him from becoming a federal informant and later buried in the basement of a Queens home. Asaro ordered his son to dig up Katz’s body in the 1980s and move it after state law enforcement authorities began an investigation, according to prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.
Vincent Asaro and Burke, a Lucchese crime family associate who was portrayed by Robert De Niro in “Goodfellas,” allegedly strangled Katz with a dog chain, the U.S. said.
They buried his body in the basement of a vacant home in Queens, the U.S. said. It remained there until the mid-1980s when, alerted to an investigation, Vincent Asaro ordered his son and another person to dig up Katz’s body and move it, the U.S. said.
In June 2013, the FBI searched the Queens home and found remnants of Katz’s remains buried in the basement, according to the U.S.
“Vincent Asaro devoted his adult life to the Bonanno crime family, with a criminal career that spanned decades,” Lynch said in a statement today. “Far from a code of honor, theirs was a code of violence and brute force.”
The elder Asaro and his son are also charged with solicitation to murder their cousin, identified in the indictment as John Doe #1 because he was thought to be a “rat” for testifying against another family member in a fraud trial, according to Lynch’s statement.
Both are also charged with attempted robberies of armored cars between 1984 and 1986 to steal about $1 million.
Vincent Asaro is also accused of operating an illegal gambling and bookmaking operation from April 1994 to December 2002 that had revenue of at least $2,000 a day, according to the indictment.
All five are charged with conspiracy to extort an extension of credit from a Bonanno family associate, Lynch said. During an April 26, 2013, consensual recording, Ragano asked Vincent Asaro, “When do we stab this guy in the neck? That’s what I want to know.”
“Stab him today,” Asaro replied, adding “I told you to give him a beating. Give him a beating, I told you that.”
Henry Hill, a federal informant whose life in organized crime was portrayed by Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” said convicted Lucchese crime family captain Paul Vario was one of those behind the Lufthansa heist and a beneficiary of the crime’s proceeds, according to Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy.”
According to the book, Hill implicated Burke as the robbery’s mastermind. Burke died in federal prison while serving a 20-year prison term for murdering a drug dealer. He was never charged with the airport robbery.
Vario was convicted by a federal jury in Brooklyn 1986 for running a protection racket at JFK airport in a case brought by the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force. Hill testified against Vario and his co-defendants at trial. Vario died in federal prison in Texas in 1988.
Authorities at the time said the men involved in the Lufthansa heist escaped with millions of dollars in cash, U.S. and foreign currency, unmounted jewels and pure gold.
In a recording of a conversation between Vincent Asaro and an unidentified cooperating witness on Feb. 17, 2011, Asaro discussed the proceeds of the heist, according to today’s indictment. Each member involved was supposed to receive $750,000 but most didn’t receive their share because they were killed first or it wasn’t given to them, according to the memorandum released today.
“We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get, we got f--- all around. Got f---- all around, that f---- Jimmy [Burke] kept everything,” Asaro said on the call, according to the memorandum.
According to the book “The Heist” by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings, the robbery was considered “the greatest cash robbery in American history,” larger than the armed holdup of the Brink’s Armored Car Co. in Boston in 1950, in which $2.7 million was stolen. The authors said it remained the largest U.S. cash robbery until December 1982, when a private armored car company in New York was robbed of almost $11 million.
Edward McDonald, who won the cooperation of Hill when he was a prosecutor on the Justice Department’s strike force, said in a phone interview today that the U.S. convicted only one person tied to the JFK heist, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent. Werner, arrested a few months after the robbery, was convicted of being the insider who provided information to the robbers to help them carry out the heist, said McDonald, who is now a partner at Dechert LLP.
The case is U.S. v. Asaro, 14-cr-00026, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
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