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Ian Walker: The Lufthansa Heist 40 years on

Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Joseph Bono in Goodfellas. (Image: Getty) - Credit: Archant

At the time, the Mafia looked like it had scored its biggest success with the Lufthansa Heist. Forty years on, the reality looks quite different. IAN WALKER reports.

The black Ford Econoline 150 van pulled up outside Lufthansa’s warehouse at JFK airport just before 3am. None of the half dozen men in the vehicle were used to the site being this peaceful and quiet and it made them nervous. But they waited. They knew exactly what they were doing and exactly what was going to happen next. At 3am they opened the van’s doors.

As the gang got out, a Lufthansa cargo agent was just returning to the warehouse from his nightly round of collecting shipment forms from other airlines. For him, this was a routine job, and he was aiming to get back just in time for the 3am ‘lunch’ break.

He spotted the van and the men – both far from routine – and nervously confronted them. He was pistol-whipped and thrown in the back of the van. His wallet and ID were taken and he was told that the gang now knew where he lived and that his family would be killed if he didn’t cooperate.

Once inside the warehouse, the gang – by now all wearing ski masks – started to round up the night staff, 10 workers in all. The raiders knew precisely where the employees were; they even knew their names. One by one the staff were led to the cafeteria. The threat of violence was enough to get them all to comply.

The Lufthansa staff were all terrified. Supervisor Rudi Eirich, the only man who could disable all the alarms and open the vault, was so scared he wet himself. There was no question that he would do what he was told.

The alarms were silenced, the vault was opened and around 40 parcels of cash – a consignment of currency flown in, once a month, from monetary exchanges for military servicemen and tourists in West Germany – were removed and loaded into the van. Just before the gang drove off, they ordered their hostages not to alert the authorities for 15 minutes, and reminded them they knew where their families were. The thieves needed 15 minutes, because they were aware that the police could seal off the airport within 90 seconds of a distress call.

The entire heist had taken just over an hour and the haul stowed in the back of the black van made it the largest cash robbery on American soil up to that date – December 11, 1978. It has since become one of the most fabled crimes committed in the 20th century, for what came next: not just the demise of the gang who carried it out, but the decline it represented for a strand of the American underworld.

Once outside the airport perimeter, the robbers drove to a warehouse in Brooklyn, where they met Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Burke, the man who had organised the raid.

Burke had supposedly received his nickname for his habit of giving $50 to the drivers of trucks he hijacked earlier in his criminal career, but there was nothing gentlemanly about him. He operated out of Robert’s Lounge, a bar he owned in Queens not far from JFK airport. From here, he ran his loansharking, bookmaking and poker games. He also buried some of the people he murdered in the bar’s basement and grounds.

Burke killed anyone he saw as a threat to his freedom. He was a paranoid psychopath who subscribed to Stalin’s supposed dictum ‘Death solves all problems – no man, no problem’. Anyone who could possibly turn state’s witness against Burke tended to ‘disappear’. It did not matter if the victim was a friend or not, Burke removed the man: he removed the problem.

And the problems began almost immediately after the Lufthansa heist. He had told the gang to disperse, to act normal and lay low, to not draw attention to themselves. Parnell ‘Stacks’ Edwards, a blues musician, a friend of Burke’s and a regular at Robert’s Lounge, was given more specific instructions: to change the number plates on the van and drive it to New Jersey where it was to be destroyed in a compactor.

But Edwards failed to get rid of the van. Instead, he did the exact opposite: He parked it in a place where it couldn’t fail to be spotted.

Edwards drove the van to a girlfriend’s house, parked up in a no-parking zone and then spent two days partying with her. The illegally-parked vehicle soon caught the attention of the police. Initially, they assumed it was stolen, but when they opened the back they soon realised they had found the van used in the robbery.

The gang had left their masks in the van along with some of the wallets from the employees. There were also fingerprints all over the vehicle. Jimmy the Gent was right to be a paranoid man; the people he had used in this job were morons.

The mistakes had started during the raid itself. Thomas DeSimone, one of the gang, had inexplicably taken his mask off during the robbery. Two other members were said to have called each other by their names. These details, along with the van, meant that the police had a pretty good idea that Burke’s crew had carried out the crime. They just had to prove it. And the pieces were quickly falling into the place for them.

The gang had known exactly what to do. The knew where the staff were; how to disable the alarms; that only the supervisor could open the vault. That there was an inside man was obvious. And detectives soon identified – correctly – that he was an airport employee named Louis Werner, a gambler who was heavily indebted to a bookmaker called Martin Krugman. Krugman was the man who set the heist up with Burke.

Along with this increasingly solid trail of evidence leading to him, Burke had another problem. He had expected the heist to net about $2million, but the final figure was closer to $6m. It was a figure like that made everyone scared. It also made everyone greedy.

As the police closed in, Burke began murdering people. DeSimone was instructed to kill his friend Edwards, who was shot and killed a week after the heist.

His death was followed by a veritable spate of killings over the following six months, with another eight people who could implicate Burke murdered, starting with Krugman. Of course, each killing also gave Burke a larger slice of the proceeds.

Not all loose ends were tied up though. Henry Hill was a close friend of Burke’s. It was he who had got him together with Krugman to plan the heist. That was the extent of his involvement, but as the murders went on, he was becoming scared. He knew what Burke was capable of. He knew he could very easily be next.

Neither Burke, who was Irish American, nor Hill, who was half Irish, were members of the Mafia but they were both closely associated with the Lucchese crime family; Lucchese capo Paul Vario conducted a lot of his business in Robert’s Lounge. Burke also included a member of the Gambino family in the heist gang, just to keep that branch of the Mob happy.

Both Hill and Burke were drug dealers and drug users, which was something they kept secret from the Mob. During this whole episode, both had developed serious addictions, and that, along with their trying to hide their business from Vario made them both paranoid.

And then, in April 1980, Hill was caught selling drugs. Now, facing a lengthy prison sentence and knowing that Burke – or Vario – would have no hesitation in killing him because he knew so much (the FBI played Hill surveillance tapes to that effect) he decided to turn state’s evidence.

It was his testimony that sent Burke and Vario to jail for the rest of their lives. Hill went into the witness protection scheme, before co-writing books which glamourised and attempted to justify his tawdry life as a criminal. Burke was never charged for the Lufthansa heist or for the ensuing murders – after all, most of those connecting him to the original offence had been killed. His 20-year prison sentence, handed down in 1982, was for fixing basketball games, a scam he ran with Hill. He would die of cancer in prison in 1996.

There’s a good chance that you may recognise this story. The Lufthansa heist plays a central part in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas. In the movie, a few names are changed (Burke becomes Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Conway, played by Robert de Niro; Hill keeps his name and is depicted by Ray Liotta; Thomas DeSimone becomes Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito) and a few of the characters are composites of real people. Yet the way Scorsese tells the story is not that different from what happened during and after the actual raid. And what the film also portrays accurately is the way organised crime itself was unravelling in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Along with westerns, gangster films are one of the two great American mythologies of the last century. Both genres are fictional re-tellings of narratives of American history; the settling of the West or the rise of organised crime. But they are also fictional interpretations of America and its values and psychoses, at the times the films were made.

The early gangster films, made in the 1930s, were not that different to westerns. The gangster was essentially a dark-souled cowboy armed with a Tommy gun instead of a revolver, forced to face the consequences of his self-interest. He was a man alone in a world not of gulches or saloons, but of dive-bars and skyscrapers. These gangster stories were morality tales about good and evil in a rapidly modernising America.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Mafia became a worthy subject for cinema. The first two Godfather films made in that decade are masterpieces in cinema and in American self-mythology. They are Shakespearian in the scale of their telling of an American tragedy, the hero with the fatal flaw forced to accept that violence is an inherent part of what America is. The two films tell an epic, uniquely American story about immigration, business, bigotry, family and self-interest. As well as being cinematic masterpieces these films also invented much of how we understand the Mafia.

There is a connection between Sicilian crime and early 20th century Lower East Side Italian-American gangs but the American Mafia does not really have that much to do with blood feuds or feudal banditry. Instead, it has more to do with the experience of immigration, which was a fairly brutal process where, if people were to survive and thrive, they had to take what they could. More importantly, these gangs became the basis for organised crime throughout the 20th century not because of tradition, feuds or Sicily, but because of Prohibition.

Ratified in 1920, the policy effectively gave criminals the chance to take over a multi-million dollar business. As they fought for control of the liquor trade, those involved became more violent, more organised and richer.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the most powerful crime families diversified into construction, sanitation, unions and gambling. At times they almost existed on the edge of the law – in that grey area between corruption and commercial drive. As such, they were heavily involved in the creation of Las Vegas as a legal gambling centre. But they also diversified into drugs, and that’s where the difficulties started.

By the 1970s, cocaine was pouring into the USA, and the US government began to fight back. Drug dealers and traffickers began to receive heavier sentences, which meant they were much more likely to become state witnesses after they were caught.

Also, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 made racketeering a crime that carried a mandatory sentence of 20 years. If someone could be proved to be a member of a criminal organisation then they were going away for a long time.

If the Godfather films, albeit in a highly mythologised way, told the story of organised crime up until the 1960s, Goodfellas chronicled its unravelling over the following decade, and the Lufthansa heist is the pivotal moment.

Jimmy Burke was paranoid. Henry Hill was paranoid. The Mafia was paranoid and all this was because drugs and RICO turned everyone into a potential grass.

Omertà, the supposed Mafia code of honour or silence, was soon exposed as the baloney it was. If there was a code of silence in the Mob it was one that was predicated on the fear of being killed rather than honour. This worked as long as people were less scared of going to prison than they were of giving evidence. But once prison sentences became life-long then it all broke down. What did people have to lose?

Faced with this reality – and the ineptitude of his associates – Burke’s purge of his own gang become his logical next move. It was a move of weakness, not of strength.

It showed the decline in importance of the Mob. When Scorsese put the events on screen just over a decade later, it dismantled the myth of the Mafia and organised crime. Both in the film, and in reality, the Mob, and those associated with it, were becoming too useless, too paranoid, too moronic, even to be able to make anything out of a lucrative heist.

Of course, this is not to say that the Mafia vanished, after the Lufthansa heist, just as Goodfellas did not quite mark the end of America’s gangster mythology. In 1999 this mythology moved to television for its last great hurrah with the show The Sopranos. David Chase, the series’ creator, acknowledged how important Goodfellas has been as an influence on his show (27 actors from Goodfellas would appear in The Sopranos).

If Goodfellas was all about the unravelling of Italian American organised crime, then The Sopranos was about what was left. The whole series felt as if it was post-something. Possibly the key line in the series was when Tony Soprano says ‘But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.’ Something has been lost, he feels like a dinosaur.

Fundamentally, like other gangster depictions which have gone before, The Sopranos is a study in violence. There are moments in the show where the story-telling moves very close to the abyss, where what is happening is not unlike the nihilism you may find in a 19th century Russian novel – or in the bloody aftermath of the Lufthansa heist.

Unlike Burke, who killed out of self-interest, you get the feeling that Tony Soprano kills because he likes killing, that real power lies in his control over who lives and who dies.

The Mafia’s influence has undeniably declined, the number of ‘made’ men has fallen and the FBI no longer has a squad dedicated to each family. But it remains a pernicious, malignant force – and so does the Lufthansa heist itself.

The latest arrest associated with the robbery was made in 2014, though the accused, Vincent Asaro, a reputed Bonanno family capo, was subsequently found not guilty. Other unanswered questions remain, perhaps, most notably, what happened to the money, none of which was ever traced.

Other threads have been wound up more conclusively. A handful of those closely involved in the actual robbery escaped Burke’s purge – including his son, Frank James Burke – but all would die violent deaths by the end of the 1980s. The only person ever convicted for the raid was Louis Werner, the inside man who had made the entire scheme possible. Yet none escaped its consequences.

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