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The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5.875 million ($22.6 million today) was stolen, with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, making it the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time. In popular culture, it is the main subject of two well-known television films—The 10 Million Dollar Getaway (1991) and The Big Heist (2001)—and is a key plot element in the film Goodfellas (1990). The heist's magnitude made it one of the longest-investigated crimes in the United States; the latest arrest associated with the robbery was made in 2014. Jimmy Burke was reputed to be the mastermind of the robbery, but he was never officially charged in connection with the crime.
The heist was planned by Jimmy Burke, an associate of the Lucchese crime family, and carried out by several associates. The plot began when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Henry Hill (an associate of Jimmy Burke's) about millions of dollars in untraceable money: American currency flown in once a month from monetary exchanges for military servicemen and tourists in West Germany. The currency would arrive via Lufthansa and was then stored in a vault at Kennedy Airport. The information had originally come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 for gambling debts ($83,000 adjusted for inflation) and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald. Werner and Gruenwald had previously been successful in stealing $22,000 in foreign currency ($97,000 adjusted for inflation) from their employer Lufthansa in 1976.
Louis Werner helped Krugman throughout the planning, even telling him where the robbers should park. A Ford Econoline 150 van would be used to transport the cash and a "crash car" would accompany the van to run vehicular interference should the plot be interrupted and a police chase ensue. Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Joe Civitello Sr., Louis Cafora, Angelo Sepe, Tony Rodriguez, Joseph M. Costa, and Burke's son Frank James Burke as inside gunmen. Paolo LiCastri, a Sicilian shooter, was later included as a representative of the Gambino crime family, which had been promised a tribute payment to sanction the crime. Parnell "Stacks" Edwards was a black associate of Burke's gang who served as a "gofer" and chauffeur, and he was also included to dispose of the van used in the heist.
Once everyone was together, Jimmy told Lucchese family underboss Paul Vario, who sent his son Peter to collect his "end" of the loot. Vincent Asaro, the Bonanno family's crew chief at the airport, would also be owed money because Burke, a Lucchese associate, was performing the robbery on territory belonging to the Bonanno family.
On December 11, 1978 at 3:12 a.m., when cargo agent Kerry Whalen returned from making a transfer at American Airlines, he spotted a black Ford Econoline van backed into the ramp door. Whalen walked toward the van to investigate, and two men without masks or gloves struck him over the head with pistols. Whalen had his hat pulled down to his chin and was thrown into the van, where a third robber was waiting. Another person took his wallet and said that they knew where his family was and they had others ready to visit them. Whalen nodded to indicate that he would cooperate with the robbers. Later, when Whalen was interrogated by the authorities, he was shown police archive photos and positively identified one of his assailants as Angelo Sepe.
Senior agent Rolf Rebmann heard a noise by the loading ramp and went to investigate. Six armed, masked robbers forced their way in and handcuffed him. They then used a key provided by Werner and walked through a maze of corridors to round up the two other employees. That accomplished, two gunmen ventured downstairs to look for unexpected visitors. The other robbers marched the employees to a lunch room, where the other employees were on a break.
The gunmen burst into the lunch room brandishing their firearms. They showed a bloodied Whalen as an indication of their intentions if anyone got out of line. They knew each employee by name and forced them onto the ground. They made John Murray, the terminal's senior cargo agent, call Rudi Eirich on the intercom. The robbers knew that Eirich was the only guard that night who knew the combination to the double-door vault. Murray was made to pretend to Eirich that there was a problem with a load from Frankfurt, and he told Eirich to meet him in the cafeteria. As Eirich approached the cafeteria, he was met by four men with shotguns and saw the other employees bound and gagged on the cafeteria floor. One gunman kept watch over the ten employees, and the other three took Eirich at gunpoint down two flights of stairs to the double-door vault.
Eirich later reported that the robbers were informed and knew all about the safety systems in the vault, including the double-door system, whereby one door must be shut in order for the other one to be opened without activating the alarm. The robbers ordered Eirich to open up the first door to a 10-by-20-foot room. They knew that if he opened the second door, he would activate an alarm to the Port Authority Police unit at the airport. Once inside, they ordered Eirich to lie on the ground and began sifting through invoices and freight manifests to determine which parcels they wanted from among the many similarly wrapped ones.
Finally, they began hurling parcels of cash through the door. Around 40 parcels were removed. Eirich was then made to lock the inner door before unlocking the outer door. Two of the gunmen were assigned to load the parcels into the van while the others tied up Eirich. The employees were told not to call the Port Authority until 4:30 a.m. When the robbers left, it was 4:16 a.m. According to the cafeteria clock, no calls were made until 4:30, when a report of the theft was made. This 15-minute buffer was crucial because Werner's inside information made the robbers aware that the Port Authority Police could seal off the entire airport within 90 seconds.
At 4:21 a.m., the van containing the robbers and the stolen cash pulled out of the cargo terminal and left JFK, followed by the crash car. The robbery took only 64 minutes and was the largest theft of currency ever committed on American soil at the time.
The robbers drove to a garage in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where Jimmy Burke was waiting. There, the money was switched to a third vehicle that was driven away by Burke and his son Frank. The rest of the robbers left and drove home, except Paolo LiCastri, who insisted on taking the subway home. Parnell "Stacks" Edwards put stolen license plates on the van and was supposed to drive it to an auto junk yard in New Jersey, where it would be compacted to scrap metal.
Burke and his son Frank drove the third car with all the stolen money to a safehouse to be counted. This is when Burke realized the true scope of the robbery: he had expected to bring in no more than $2 million, and was shocked by the near $6 million haul.
Parnell "Stacks" Edwards was supposed to take the van used in the robbery to a car compactor in New Jersey to have it destroyed; instead, jubilant from the gang's heist, he smoked some marijuana while en route to the junkyard. He then drove the van to his girlfriend's apartment, conspicuously parked it in a no-parking zone, and spent the evening getting drunk and snorting cocaine, apparently intending to deliver the van to the junkyard the next day. The next morning, while Edwards was still asleep in his girlfriend's apartment, the police discovered the van, impounded it, and quickly identified it as the vehicle used in the burglary. Edwards himself successfully fled the complex without being apprehended. His fingerprints were later found on the steering wheel, and a muddy shoeprint found at the airport was matched to a pair of Puma AG athletic shoes that Edwards owned.
The FBI had two immediate suspicions of who had the connections and organizational skill to lead such an audacious heist in the New York area, the first being the John Gotti crew, and the second being the Jimmy Burke crew. The FBI identified the Burke crew as the likely perpetrators within three days of the robbery, largely owing to the discovery of the truck, coupled with Edwards' pre-established connections with the Burke gang at Robert's Lounge. They set up heavy surveillance, following the gang in helicopters and bugging their vehicles, the phones at Robert's Lounge, and even the payphones nearest to the bar. The FBI managed to record a few bits of tantalizing chatter despite the background sounds of rock and disco music, such as Angelo Sepe telling an unidentified man about "a brown case and a bag from Lufthansa" and his telling his girlfriend Hope Barron, "...I want to see...look where the money's at...dig a hole in the cellar [inaudible] rear lawn..." But this was not enough to definitively connect Burke's crew to the heist, and no search warrants were issued.
According to Henry Hill, Jimmy Burke became paranoid and agitated once he realized how much attention Edwards' failure had drawn, and resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist, starting with Edwards himself. With the violent deaths of most of the heist associates and planners, little evidence and few witnesses remained connecting Burke or his crew to the heist. However, the authorities were eventually able to gather enough evidence to prosecute inside man Louis Werner for helping to plan the heist. Lucchese crime family associate Donald Frankos later expressed frustration with being a close friend of Burke's and regular habitué at Robert's Lounge but not involved in the actual heist, in his biography Contract Killer: The Explosive Story of the Mafia's Most Notorious Hit Man Donald "The Greek" Frankos.
According to a self-published book he is selling online, Kerry Whalen, the Lufthansa employee who was pistol-whipped, kept notes on his meetings with law enforcement, and was so disgusted with the behavior of the FBI and of the U.S. Attorney's office that he complained to federal judges. The stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.
Vincent Asaro, a reputed high-ranking member of the Bonanno crime family, was 78 years old when arrested on January 23, 2014, in conjunction with an indictment charging him with involvement in the Lufthansa heist. The case against Asaro was based on an informant who was referred to by Asaro's attorney as "one of the worst witnesses I've ever seen." Daniel Simone, who co-authored the book The Lufthansa Heist, in collaboration with Henry Hill, reported to the New York Post's Page Six that Hill told him that Asaro had "no involvement" in the robbery. On November 12, 2015, Asaro was acquitted of all charges connected to the Lufthansa robbery by a jury in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
Burke realized that the robbery had netted $6 million, three times the amount that he expected, and he knew that a robbery of this magnitude would attract the intense attention of the police at every level (local, state, and federal), causing a lot of problems for everyone involved, as well as for organized crime in New York in general. Burke became increasingly concerned that there were too many witnesses who knew of his involvement, and too many who became greedy once learning the true amount of money stolen in the heist.
Burke also realized that Edwards' failure to "properly" dispose of the van had allowed the police to catch on to his crew, and Burke resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist. The first to be murdered, just seven days after the heist, was Edwards—shot and killed in his apartment on December 18, 1978, by Tommy DeSimone and Angelo Sepe. This was the first in a series of criminals and their acquaintances who were murdered after the heist at Burke's orders:
|Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards||1978 Dec 18||Blues musician, credit card theft expert, and getaway truck driver. Shot by DeSimone and Sepe for failing to dispose of the truck, thus pointing the authorities to the Burke organization, and out of concern that he would inform if captured.|
|Martin Krugman||1979 Jan 6||A Russian-Jewish associate of Burke and Hill's, and owner of a wig shop and men's hair salon, both named "For Men Only", in Queens. Krugman was the first to tip off Burke (via Hill) about the potential for a major heist at the Lufthansa terminal. He was eventually murdered and dismembered by Burke and Sepe in Bonanno crime family capo Vincent Asaro's fence factory, after his increasingly nervous and angry demands for his $500,000 cut from the robbery convinced Burke that he was about to inform the FBI. Henry Hill later claimed that Krugman's remains were buried in the Robert's Lounge club (this was unable to be confirmed), along with those of Jimmy Burke's hijacker friend "Remo" and Michael "Spider" Gianco, who worked there as a waiter. His body was never found, and in 1986, he was declared legally deceased and his wife, Fran, received a $135,000 payout from his life insurance policy.|
|Richard Eaton||1979 Jan 17||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an associate of Tom Monteleone's, a Burke front man, and consummate grifter and con artist. He was uninvolved with the actual heist, but was tortured and murdered by Burke after absconding with $250,000 of Burke's money in a fake cocaine scam, and skimming some of the money from the heist while it was laundered through various legitimate establishments, including Monteleone's club. Eaton's body was discovered hogtied and hanging in a meat freezer truck.
Burke was eventually convicted of Eaton's murder and sentenced to prison, where he died.
|Tom Monteleone||1979 March||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, restaurateur, mobster, and associate of Richard Eaton's. Monteleone owned The Players Club, a local bar frequented by Burke gang members, and was accused by Burke of conspiring with Eaton and Ferrara on a fake cocaine deal and skimming of part of the heist money while laundering it through his club.|
|Louis Cafora||1979 March||Downtown Brooklyn parking lot owner and money launderer. Cafora had been Burke's cellmate during his time in prison and was contracted by Burke to launder some of the money from the heist through his collection of legitimate lots. Cafora's indiscreet, gaudy lifestyle and insistence on informing his wife Joanna about gang business, including the heist, eventually led to Burke's ordering both to be murdered. Within days of the heist and against Burke's orders, Cafora bought his wife a custom pink Cadillac Fleetwood with his share of the heist and brazenly drove it to a meeting just blocks from the JFK Air Cargo Center where the FBI was still investigating. His body was never found.|
|Joanna Cafora||1979 March||Louis Cafora's wife, presumably murdered along with him.|
|Joe "Buddha" Manri||1979 May 16||Night-shift Air France cargo supervisor. Manri was a long-time Burke gang associate, and his inside information helped plan the heist. Manri was repeatedly offered the opportunity to turn state's evidence and enter the Witness Protection Program, as well as fellow Air France/JFK Airport inside man Robert McMahon, an offer which both refused. Manri was found dead in a parked car alongside McMahon, five months after the heist, shot execution-style in the back of the head.|
|Robert McMahon||1979 May 16||Air France night shift supervisor at John F. Kennedy International Airport involved in the similar Air France Robbery (1967) with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. Suspected of helping Joe Manri plan the Lufthansa heist. He was found dead in a parked car alongside Manri five months after the heist, shot execution-style in the back of the head.|
|Paolo LiCastri||1979 June 13||Illegal immigrant, Sicilian-born Pizza Connection drug trafficker, and Gambino crime family associate. He was not involved in the actual heist but was a liaison from the Gambino family whose job was to oversee the plans and ensure that the Gambinos received their $200,000 cut. His naked and bullet-riddled corpse was discovered on a burning trash heap six months after the heist.|
Others involved in the planning, execution, or followup of the heist were not killed in Burke's witness elimination program of 1978–79 but did suffer violent ends.
|Thomas "Tommy" DeSimone||1978 Dec to 1979 Jan||Was involved in the similar Air France Robbery of 1967 with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. DeSimone, a particularly close, loyal, and trustworthy friend of Burke's, who was not involved in the Lufthansa heist until Edwards' death, was murdered after the execution of Edwards and no later than January 14, 1979, for having carried out the unrelated murders of two made Gambino crime family members and Gotti associates: William "Billy Batts" DeVino and Ronald "Foxy" Jerothe.|
|Theresa Ferrara||1979 Feb 10||Occasional mistress of Tommy DeSimone's and associate of both Richard Eaton and Tom Monteleone's. Disappeared February 10, 1979, and on May 18, 1979, her dismembered torso was found floating in Barnegat Inlet, near Toms River, New Jersey.|
|Angelo Sepe||1984 July 18||Lucchese crime family member, and a particularly close, loyal, and trustworthy friend of DeSimone, Tony Rodriguez, and Burke's. Sepe was responsible for most of the murders for Burke's witness elimination program of 1978–79. Sepe and his girlfriend were murdered by unknown members of a Lucchese hit squad, reportedly a week after robbing a Lucchese-affiliated drug trafficker of thousands of dollars in cocaine and cash earmarked for the organization.|
|Joanna Lombardo||1984 July 18||Angelo Sepe's girlfriend. Died of a gunshot to the head.|
|Frank James Burke||1987 May 18||Son of Jimmy Burke and believed to be involved in the heist; he was murdered by his drug dealer over a botched heroin deal.|
Fourteen months after the heist, Henry Hill was arrested on other charges. He soon learned that Burke and Sepe had been planning to kill him, and that his arrest made the others believe he was a threat to reveal details of the heist. A month later, Hill entered the Witness Protection Program. He was not able to help the government obtain convictions against Vario or Burke for the Lufthansa robbery specifically, although both were convicted of murder because of his testimony.
On April 7, 2015, author Robert Sberna released the book The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist with collaborator Dominick Cicale, a former member of the Bonanno crime family. According to Cicale, between $2 million and $4 million of the Lufthansa loot was stashed in a safe deposit box by Jimmy Burke. The keys were given to his daughters, Cathy and Robin. Cicale reported that Cathy Burke's husband Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, a Bonanno capo, gained access to the box with Vincent Basciano, also a Bonanno capo. Cicale said that Basciano spent $250,000 of the money on a movie that was never produced. The remainder was lost at casinos by Basciano. In July 2015, Rowman and Littlefield published a book titled The Lufthansa Heist, co-authored by Daniel Simone and mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill. In July 2017, Kensington Publishing Corp. released The Big Heist: The Real Story Of The Lufthansa Heist, The Mafia, And Murder by Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony M. Destefano, which is the only history of the Lufthansa robbery based on the firsthand account of the heist’s sole survivor, the Mafia don Vincent Asaro.
Based on all my research, Asaro was not involved. Hill was not aware that there was anyone left alive that was involved with the heist. The only possibility is that Asaro might have had a crime stake at the airport and may have demanded a tribute [a cut of the deal] from Jimmy Burke.