Lufthansa Heist: Were Goodfellas Really Behind the Audacious $6M Caper?

"At the age of 12, my ambition was to become a gangster. To be a wise guy was better than being President of the United States. To be a wise guy was to own the world," - Henry Hill.


As the clock struck 3 am, a stolen black van lingered outside JFK airport. Six armed men in black ski masks slipped into the Lufthansa cargo terminal and walked off with $6m in untraceable bills and jewels without firing a shot.

It was December 11, 1978. They’d tied up 10 airport staff and injured at least one guard but no one was seriously hurt. The crew had pulled off the largest heist in US history at the time and the FBI were scrambling. It should have been the greatest Christmas present in the world.

It was the perfect crime - until it wasn’t.


Ray Liotta in Goodfellas
Ray Liotta (right) as Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990)


Wise guys

By May 1980, the net was closing in on Henry Hill. The wise guy with the Lucchese crime family had landed in Nassau County jail and the feds wanted to know about the Lufthansa robbery. Meanwhile, the NYPD was looking into 10 murders linked to the fallout after the heist. The Justice Department wanted to unravel the murder of Italian financier and swindler Michele Sindona, and the Organized Crime Strike Force was probing a point-shaving scheme involving Boston College basketball. They all figured Henry was their ticket to solving the crimes.

"Hill had grown up in the mob,” Nicholas Pileggi writes in Wise Guy. “He knew who oiled the machinery. He knew, literally, where the bodies were buried. If he talked, the police knew that Henry Hill could give them the key to dozens of indictments and convictions. And even if he didn't talk, Henry Hill knew that his own friends would kill him.”

Gone were the days when Henry’s only worry was delivering the guns and getting home in time to stir the spaghetti sauce. He suspected Jimmy ‘the gent’ Burke, Henry's closest friend, was planning to murder him so Henry found himself on the precipice of a life sentence pondering two options - stay quiet or cut a deal, confess, and vanish into the FBI witness protection program.

Henry cut a deal, as Goodfella audiences know, but was he telling the truth? As Pileggi writes, “Hill was a hood. He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads. He knew how to bribe and he knew how to con.”


The Lufthansa cargo terminal at JFK where guards were tied up during the heist



The Lufthansa heist

As Henry Hill tells it, he first heard about Lufthansa from his bookie Marty Krugman, a contact who also owned his own wig salon and starred in TV commercials. Marty said there were often millions of dollars in untraceable $50 and $100 bills sitting around the Lufthansa building overnight in the vault - the ultimate score. Krugman’s intel was coming from an insider, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa worker with gambling debts. Werner had even worked out where the crew could park during the heist.

The next man to hear about Lufthansa’s cash flow - at least according to Henry Hill - was Jimmy ‘the gent’ Burke, a gangster and Lucchese crime family associate.

There was bad blood between Jimmy and Marty, but for $6m Jimmy was reportedly willing to put it aside temporarily. Jimmy allegedly hand-picked six crew including Joe 'Buddha' Manri, known for his big belly, and Parnell ‘Stacks’ Edwards (played in the movie Goodfellas by Samuel L. Jackson) whose job was to ditch the getaway vehicles. Vinnie Asaro, the Bonanno family's crew chief at the airport, was also allegedly cut in to maintain the peace. That’s how Henry Hill tells the story anyway.

On Monday December 11, 1978, the crew breached JFK’s six-foot high, barbed wire perimeter fence by using a bolt cutter on the gate's only padlock before they stormed the third floor cargo office wearing ski masks and gloves. They hit one of the guards across the face with a .45 automatic and ordered him to deactivate the silent alarm near the loading gate. The guard’s wallet was stolen and he was told to keep his mouth shut if he wanted his family to live. The rest of the staff were tied up in the cafeteria where they lay on the floor with plastic tape across their mouths.

Hill and Ray Liotta, star of Goodfellas (1990)


Lufthansa Heist: Were Goodfellas Really Behind the Audacious $6M Caper?

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"At the age of 12, my ambition was to become a gangster. To be a wise guy was better than being President of the United States. To be a wise guy was to own the world," - Henry Hill.


As the clock struck 3 am, a stolen black van lingered outside JFK airport. Six armed men in black ski masks slipped into the Lufthansa cargo terminal and walked off with $6m in untraceable bills and jewels without firing a shot.

It was December 11, 1978. They’d tied up 10 airport staff and injured at least one guard but no one was seriously hurt. The crew had pulled off the largest heist in US history at the time and the FBI were scrambling. It should have been the greatest Christmas present in the world.

It was the perfect crime - until it wasn’t.


Ray Liotta in Goodfellas
Ray Liotta (right) as Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990)


Wise guys

By May 1980, the net was closing in on Henry Hill. The wise guy with the Lucchese crime family had landed in Nassau County jail and the feds wanted to know about the Lufthansa robbery. Meanwhile, the NYPD was looking into 10 murders linked to the fallout after the heist. The Justice Department wanted to unravel the murder of Italian financier and swindler Michele Sindona, and the Organized Crime Strike Force was probing a point-shaving scheme involving Boston College basketball. They all figured Henry was their ticket to solving the crimes.

"Hill had grown up in the mob,” Nicholas Pileggi writes in Wise Guy. “He knew who oiled the machinery. He knew, literally, where the bodies were buried. If he talked, the police knew that Henry Hill could give them the key to dozens of indictments and convictions. And even if he didn't talk, Henry Hill knew that his own friends would kill him.”

Gone were the days when Henry’s only worry was delivering the guns and getting home in time to stir the spaghetti sauce. He suspected Jimmy ‘the gent’ Burke, Henry's closest friend, was planning to murder him so Henry found himself on the precipice of a life sentence pondering two options - stay quiet or cut a deal, confess, and vanish into the FBI witness protection program.

Henry cut a deal, as Goodfella audiences know, but was he telling the truth? As Pileggi writes, “Hill was a hood. He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads. He knew how to bribe and he knew how to con.”


The Lufthansa cargo terminal at JFK where guards were tied up during the heist



The Lufthansa heist

As Henry Hill tells it, he first heard about Lufthansa from his bookie Marty Krugman, a contact who also owned his own wig salon and starred in TV commercials. Marty said there were often millions of dollars in untraceable $50 and $100 bills sitting around the Lufthansa building overnight in the vault - the ultimate score. Krugman’s intel was coming from an insider, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa worker with gambling debts. Werner had even worked out where the crew could park during the heist.

The next man to hear about Lufthansa’s cash flow - at least according to Henry Hill - was Jimmy ‘the gent’ Burke, a gangster and Lucchese crime family associate.

There was bad blood between Jimmy and Marty, but for $6m Jimmy was reportedly willing to put it aside temporarily. Jimmy allegedly hand-picked six crew including Joe 'Buddha' Manri, known for his big belly, and Parnell ‘Stacks’ Edwards (played in the movie Goodfellas by Samuel L. Jackson) whose job was to ditch the getaway vehicles. Vinnie Asaro, the Bonanno family's crew chief at the airport, was also allegedly cut in to maintain the peace. That’s how Henry Hill tells the story anyway.

On Monday December 11, 1978, the crew breached JFK’s six-foot high, barbed wire perimeter fence by using a bolt cutter on the gate's only padlock before they stormed the third floor cargo office wearing ski masks and gloves. They hit one of the guards across the face with a .45 automatic and ordered him to deactivate the silent alarm near the loading gate. The guard’s wallet was stolen and he was told to keep his mouth shut if he wanted his family to live. The rest of the staff were tied up in the cafeteria where they lay on the floor with plastic tape across their mouths.

Hill and Ray Liotta, star of Goodfellas (1990)


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Many suspects; only one conviction

Only one man was ever convicted and imprisoned for the Lufthansa heist. Louis Werner, the inside man, the Lufthansa cargo agent who knew that once a month the German airline flew in cash that had been exchanged in Germany by American servicemen and tourists. After the heist, Werner confessed to his local barman (among many others) but Werner was small fry. He’d never met Jimmy ‘the gent’ Burke, so he couldn’t confirm how the heist unfolded or whether Jimmy was the mastermind who’d used Werner’s maps, inside information, and logistical help.

In 2014 there was a new twist. The FBI arrested five mobsters including alleged Bonanno family captain Vincent Asaro, accused of helping to organize the heist. “Asaro, Lucchese crime family associate James ‘Jimmy the Gent’ Burke, and their co-conspirators each expected to receive around $750,000 in cash and large quantities of gold jewelry from the proceeds of the robbery,” the FBI said in a statement at the time. 

Yet, in another blow to the FBI investigation, Asaro was acquitted in 2015 in a Hollywood ending. "Free," the mobster said as he grinned and walked out of a Brooklyn courthouse. Asaro was 80 at the time and, as he jumped into a waiting car followed by journalists, he turned to his lawyers and quipped: "Sam, don't let them see the body in the trunk."

Robert De Niro in Goodfellas
Robert De Nero as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas

Jimmy Burke

What about Jimmy Burke, the alleged mastermind? The FBI’s 24-hour surveillance led to nothing. Either Jimmy was innocent or too canny to get caught.

Jimmy, an Irishman (played by Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas) was not a ‘made man’ nor a fully-fledged member of the Italian Cosa Nostra. He was never charged, let alone convicted, in the heist. It is possible Hill was blaming Burke because he feared his old pal Jimmy was gearing up to murder Henry.

In any event, there was no proof, no ‘smoking gun’ although many of the suspects were ‘whacked’ including Stacks who had not properly ditched the getaway van. The police found it along with fingerprints, ski masks, a leather jacket, and a footprint from a Puma sneaker. “They did it fast. Six in the head,” Henry Hill told author Nicholas Pileggi. Marty Krugman, the bookie and wig maker who’d supposedly brought the heist intel to Jimmy, was another of the 10 bodies. Marty’s sin was demanding his cash immediately, Hill said, and ‘breaking Jimmy’s balls’.

Jimmy supposedly handpicked six men for the job - including his own son - a mix of Lucchese and Gambino family for the 64-minute heist - but nothing stuck. Jimmy was, however, sentenced for fixing Boston College basketball games in the 1970s and prosecuted for the murder of drug dealer Richard Eaton. Jimmy died of lung cancer in 1996.


Goodfellas Joe Pesci as Tommy
Tommy (Joe Pesci ) the fictional counterpart to gangster Tommy DeSimone


Goodfellas' Tommy DeVito: Funny how?

Edward McDonald, the assistant US Attorney who'd grown up in Brooklyn and seen his first gangland killing while still in high school, said there was never any mystery about who robbed Lufthansa. Multiple FBI informants reported Jimmy and his crew. At the same time, Lufthansa cargo workers identified gangster Tommy DeSimone as one of the gunmen who’d removed his ski mask during the heist.

On January 14, 1979, Tommy DeSimone's wife, Cookie, reported her husband missing. Tommy is believed to have been murdered but a body has not been discovered.

Vincent Asaro was freed for the Lufthansa heist but the Bonanno capo was sentenced to eight years in prison for road rage arson in 2017 and released in 2020. “He lived by and personally enforced the Mafia’s code - death before dishonor,” Prosecutor Alicyn Cooley had said. “He’s the ultimate tough guy.”

As for Henry Hill, he was expelled from the witness protection program after being convicted of cocaine trafficking and died in 2012, aged 69, in Los Angeles. In a BBC interview, Hill was unapologetic about his victims: "I don't give a heck what those people think.”

Ray Liotta, who’d met Hill several times, died in 2022 while filming in the Dominican Republic. The actor started his career doing Shakespeare but will be remembered for his edgy role as gangster Henry Hill: "I've only been in one fight in my whole life in the seventh grade,” Liotta once said, “yet everyone thinks I'm a maniac."

The money and jewels have never been recovered.

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