The Big Heist: The Real Story of the Lufthansa Heist, the Mafia, and Murder – Anthony M. DeStefano

LufthansaDuring a recent discussion with a friend, he confessed to being unaware that the airport robbery referenced in the 1990 Warner Bros. film ‘Goodfellas‘, was about the infamous heist at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. The thieves made off with an estimated $5.875 million dollars in currency and jewelry. To this day, the stolen goods have never been recovered.  The heist and the loot were tightly controlled by Lucchese Family associate James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke (1931-1996), portrayed on screen by Robert DeNiro. The character in the film is cold and calculating but pales in comparison to the real-life mobster whose penchant for murder scared even the most hardened gangsters. Burke died in prison in 1996 while serving time for unrelated crimes and was never convicted for his role in the heist. However, a surviving mobster from the crew at Robert’s Lounge, Vincent Asaro, was tried and acquitted in 2015 for his alleged role in the crime.  In 2017 he was tried and convicted in a separate case which involved a vehicle being set on fire. However, he is currently a free man, having been released due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and deteriorating health. The other major participants in the crime are all deceased leaving Asaro as the last man standing. But, if he did take part in the crime, why is he never mentioned in the film? And what exactly happened that night at JFK when Burke’s crew pulled off the infamous heist?

Anthony DeStefano takes another look at the Lufthansa Heist and the failed attempt to convict Asaro, to break down the series of events that led up to the heist, and the real-life stories of the people in the mafia underworld.  I did see some reviews on Amazon which pointed out that the book is average. And while I can say that there are no “smoking guns”, where the book does excel is helping the reader and fans of the film to understand the gangsters who were part of Burke’s crew and the world, they operated in.  This book fills in some gaps in the story known because of the film. Most significant is the murder of Paul Katz on December 6, 1969. This crime is not mentioned in the film, and I previously was not aware of the full story. Further, the criminal histories of both Burke and Lucchese Family mobster Paul Vario (1914-1988), who is known as Paul Cicero in the film. The late Paul Sorvino (1939-2022) was excellent as Vario, but the real-life gangster could be far deadlier than the on-screen version. His story, as told here, might shock readers. And even Hill benefited from the charisma of Ray Liotta (1954-2022) who presents a deeply flawed character that is also likeable in the film. The real-life Hill was nowhere near as smooth as the man we see on screen. But the movie was right in showing that Hill did not take part in the robbery. However, he was entrenched in the planning and execution. And for reasons that may be lost to history, he survived a killing spree in which Burke removed connections that could landed him behind bars for the Lufthansa Heist.

While watching the film, it is easy to like some of the characters. But make no mistake, the real mobsters at Robert’s Lounge, who also spent time at Hill’s bar, The Suite, were hard core criminals with drug habits, gambling addictions, violent streaks, and limited formal education. The streets are where they plied their trade, and Kennedy Airport was their playground. In fact, the film only captures a small part of the hijacking aspect. And for the first time here, I learned more of Thomas DeSimone’s (1950-1979) criminal history.  He is named Thomas DeVito in the film and played by the iconic Joe Pesci. Hill said that the portrayal was about 95% accurate, but again, the real-life Tommy was far more ruthless than what is shown in the film. But what is constant both here and, in the film, is that Tommy was a loose cannon. And the section in the book regarding his demise reveals yet another fact left out of the film. There is far more to Tommy’s story than is covered here, and there are dozens of videos online that address the real story behind Goodfellas. However, DeStefano provides intriguing information.

Admittedly, the story does move around a little between Asaro, Burke and Robert’s Lounge’s crew. But towards the end, DeStefano ties it all together as the trial comes into focus and a forty-year-old crime comes back to life. I cannot say I was surprised by the acquittal, but I do think the trial revealed crucial facts about the Lucchese Family’s inner workings that will cause moviegoers to re-think how they see the film. To be fair, Martin Scorsese made an incredible film, and it is extremely accurate. However, there are noticeable changes with the script that omit key events that would have explained some of the scenes in the film. Nevertheless, the movie is considered a masterpiece, and rightfully so.  It remains a favorite in my collection. But when we take a closer look at the ‘Goodfellas’ story, the glamour comes off, revealing a murky world full of deceit, greed, and violence.  If you liked the movie and are interested in the back story of Henry Hill and his co-conspirators, this is an informative read.

““When I met Jimmy Burke in 1964, he practically owned New York’s Kennedy Airport. If you ask me, they named the place after the wrong Irishman.” – Henry Hill (1943-2012)


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