Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- For decades, those responsible for a 1978 pre-dawn robbery at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, immortalized in the movie “Goodfellas,” eluded authorities. Only one person, an airline employee, was convicted, suspected organized crime associates were murdered and more than $6 million in cash, gold and jewels was never recovered.
That changed yesterday when authorities arrested Vincent Asaro, 78, alleging he’s a Bonanno crime family captain who participated in the Dec. 11, 1978, heist, the largest U.S. robbery at the time and the biggest in New York City history.
The break in the 35-year-old case came after the Federal Bureau of Investigation recruited new cooperating witnesses, including a cousin of Asaro who prosecutors said had been in on the heist. Authorities used information from at least four cooperating witnesses, DNA evidence and secretly made recordings in building a case that resulted in five arrests of alleged Bonanno crime family members as part of a broader organized crime sweep.
An indictment announced by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in Brooklyn, New York, describes the trade craft of organized crime practiced by Asaro and his four alleged Bonanno cohorts, including extortion, racketeering, gambling, loansharking and threats of violence and murder.
“These ‘Goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted,” George Venizelos, head of the FBI’s New York office, said in a statement. “It may be decades later, but the FBI’s determination to investigate and bring wise guys to justice will never waver.”
The defendants are charged with racketeering, which carries a term of as long as 20 years in prison. Asaro faces as long as life in prison, prosecutors said in a memo to the court. All five defendants have pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Go in federal court in Brooklyn. Four of the five remain in federal custody.
“This is the sequel to ‘Goodfellas,’’ Gerald J. McMahon, a lawyer for Asaro, said after court yesterday.
‘‘Marty needs a screenplay,’’ he said in reference to the movie’s director, Martin Scorsese. Asaro will go to trial, McMahon said. ‘‘He will walk out of the doors a free man,’’ he said.
McMahon denied that Asaro was involved in the Lufthansa heist. ‘‘He doesn’t even know how to spell it,’’ he said.
According to prosecutors, the team walked into the darkened Lufthansa Air Cargo building and left with gold, jewels and 50 boxes of cash, each containing $125,000.
Soon after the heist, federal authorities suspected that at least 10 members of the team were murdered, said Edward McDonald, then the federal prosecutor who oversaw the investigation.
‘‘Many of the people we believed to be participants were executed afterward, some within weeks, to silence them,’’ McDonald, now a partner at Dechert LLP, said yesterday in an interview. ‘‘There was a feeding frenzy in the press, and for months it was the subject of an intense federal investigation.’’
Asaro, the only one of the five defendants yesterday linked with the Lufthansa heist, was rankled that he didn’t get his share of the spoils, which was supposed to be $750,000 each, according to court documents. In a Feb. 17, 2011, recording cited by prosecutors, he alleged that it was kept by his associate James ‘‘Jimmy the Gent’’ Burke, who died in prison in 1996, and in the Hollywood telling was played by Robert De Niro.
‘‘We never got our right money, we were supposed to get, we got f---- all around. Got f---- all around. That f------ Jimmy [Burke] kept everything,’’ Asaro said in the recordings, according to court documents.
‘‘Neither age nor time dimmed Asaro’s ruthless ways as he continued to order violence to carry out mob business in recent months,’’ Lynch said in a statement.
Asaro was also singled out for his role in the murder of Paul Katz, who the U.S. said owned a warehouse in Queens that Asaro and his associates used to store stolen items. After the warehouse was raided in the late 1960s, Asaro and Burke became concerned that Katz would become an informant. In 1969 Katz was taken to a vacant home in Queens where Burke killed him with a dog chain because it was believed ‘‘he was a rat who was cooperating with law enforcement,’’ according to court papers.
They buried his body in the basement of a vacant Queens home where it remained for about 20 years. Alerted that state law enforcement officials were again investigating Katz’s murder, Burke told Asaro and his son to dig up the body and move it to the basement of another Queens home to avoid detection, the U.S. said. In June, after receiving a tip, the FBI excavated the site and found human remains. DNA testing on a human skull, bones and corduroy cloth found at the scene later determined that the body was Katz’s.
After the FBI began excavating the Queens home on Liberty Avenue on June 17, ‘‘Cooperating Witness 1” made a secret recording of his conversation with Asaro, in which Asaro asked, “What happened?” according to court papers.
“The feds are all over Liberty Avenue,” the witness said on the recording.
“For what?” Asaro asked.
“You know,” the cooperator said.
After the witness asks Asaro what he should do, Asaro replied, “Nothing,” adding later, “Don’t call me.”
The U.S. said FBI agents observed Asaro drive past the excavation site that same day.
The defendants, including Asaro, are his son, Jerome Asaro, 55, Thomas “Tommy D” DiFiore, 70, John “Bazoo” Ragano, 52, and Jack Bonventre, 45. Go, the federal magistrate judge, today allowed Bonventre to be released into home detention on a $2 million bond. All five men are scheduled to appear before Judge Allyne Ross on Feb. 19.
“Vincent Asaro devoted his adult life to the Bonanno crime family, with a criminal career that spanned decades,” Lynch said in a statement. “Far from a code of honor, theirs was a code of violence and brute force.”
Challenging the magistrate judge’s decision, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Argentieri argued before Ross that Bonventre had violated bail conditions in the past and was likely engage in illegal sports betting activities if allowed to return to his home.
“He’s the most obvious choice to carry on the affairs of the family,” Argentieri said.
Ross said she would consider proposals for allowing the government to monitor his phone and computer use.
“I’m very hard-pressed to believe that there aren’t ways,” she 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 court papers. One of the cooperating witnesses, who prosecutors identified as a cousin of Vincent Asaro, participated in the heist, has pleaded guilty and is aiding the U.S. in the hopes of getting leniency, authorities said.
The cooperating witness wore a wire to make secret recordings for the U.S. after he became suspicious that Asaro and his son intended to kill him, according to the U.S.
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 and Burke were the two behind the Lufthansa heist, according to Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy.”
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.
Burke had a “close criminal association” with Vincent Asaro and shared an interest in Robert’s Lounge, a Queens bar that was a meeting place for Burke and his crew, according to papers filed by prosecutors.
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.
McDonald, who won the cooperation of Hill when he was a prosecutor, said that the U.S. convicted only one person tied to the JFK heist, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent. Werner, arrested two months after the robbery, was found guilty of accepting $80,000 to provide information to the robbers to help them carry out the heist, McDonald said.
Hill also told federal investigators that Burke and Vario were behind the heist, McDonald said.
McDonald, who played himself in “Goodfellas,” said the U.S. was unable to obtain corroborating evidence to support Hill’s information and the probe also was hindered by the execution of people authorities linked to the robbery.
Eventually the U.S. won convictions against crime family members for extortion of airport shipping companies as well as the union that handled freight at the airport, McDonald said.
Vario was one of the men convicted by a federal jury in Brooklyn 1986 for running a protection racket at JFK airport. Hill testified against Vario and his co-defendants at trial. Vario died in federal prison in Texas in 1988, while Hill died in 2012 in Los Angeles from heart problems tied to smoking.
“This case was larger than life,” McDonald said.
The case is U.S. v. Asaro, 14-cr-00026, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
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