The Lufthansa Heist- Henry Hill and Daniel Simone
Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Goodfellas”, the story of the life of Henry Hill (1943-2012) during his time as an associate of the Lucchese crime family, is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made about the American mafia. Scorsese himself has been quoted as saying it was the film he always wanted to make. Featuring an all-star cast, his masterpiece took us into the violent and dysfunctional world of organized crime. As a protegé of Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, Hill moved up the ladder of organized crime reaching his pinnacle when he took part in the planning of the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. The heist took place in December, 1978 and cost Lufthansa five million dollars in cash and almost a million dollars in jewels. A massive investigation was launched by the FBI, Port Authority police and New York City Police Department. Only one person was convicted for the crime and the money has never been recovered. In January, 2014, mobster Vincent Asaro was arrested and charged with being part of the heist. He was acquitted in November, 2015. This book is a collaboration between the late Hill and author Daniel Simone about the robbery and the personal lives of Burke and his crew.
The secrets regarding the location of the stolen cash went to grave with with the deaths of Burke, Paul Vario, Hill and the other associates who took part in the planning or execution of the robbery. Asaro’s acquittal served as another dead end in the government’s quest to prosecute those responsible for the heist. The investigation into the robbery received its first break with the discovery of the fingerprints of Pernell “Stacks” Edwards but was immediately compromised by hidden battles between the three leading investigative agencies. It was not a team effort and the infighting resulted in investigators from each agency running into walls of silence and misinformation. The crime pulled in all three agencies because 1) it involved currency stolen from an international air carrier, 2) the crime occurred on Port Authority property and 3) the crime occurred in Queens County even though it was on airport property.
At the top of the list of investigators was the Federal Bureau of Investigation in liaison with former United States Attorney and Boston College alumni Ed McDonald. McDonald has admitted that Hill never made the best witness and his years of drug abuse had taken its toll on the memory he had left. Others have called Hill a rat, junkie, punk and far worse. In fact, I have yet to hear anyone who did know him on the streets, speak kindly of him. But the reality is that he was there and he was a witness to the events that formed the basis of Scorcese’s classic. And his testimony proved to be beneficial for the U.S. government. Burke and Vario both died in prison as they served out their sentences from convictions based on Hill’s appearances. Still though, this is Henry Hill and some parts of his story are questionable. He alleges that an attempt on his life was made on Tillary Street near the Brooklyn Bridge. There is no credible evidence to back up this claim. So it is up to the reader to take what he does say at face value and cross-reference the facts.
The book reads like a crime novel and Simone’s writing style is engaging. In the film, there is a sequence in which the bodies of those connected to Burke began to surface following the robbery. Their deaths are explained further in the book helping the reader and movie buff to understand why they were eliminated and the reasons behind Burke’s actions. He unleashed a deadly wave of homicides in the wake of the heist and proved to be just a cunning as any mobster we have ever seen. Burke has long been deceased and can offer no response in defense. But even if he were alive, I highly doubt that he would have written any type of book regarding his time in the life. Both he and Vario were considered old-school mafioso who lived by the rules of the game. And had it not been for the movie, millions of people would have never heard their story. Hill died on June 12, 2012 at the age of 69 after years of battling heart disease. The remaining secrets have gone with to his final resting place. But before he died he left behind testimony interviews and this collaboration with Simone. He may not be the most reliable, but he was the final link to a time in New York City that we will never see again.