James Burke (gangster)
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Jimmy Burke's mugshot in 1979.
July 5, 1931|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||April 13, 1996
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
James Burke, also known as Jimmy the Gent, and The Irishman (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), was an American gangster and Lucchese crime family associate who is believed to have organized the Lufthansa heist in 1978 and also believed to have orchestrated the murder of (or murdered) many of those involved in the months following. He is the father of small-time mobster and Lufthansa heist suspect, Frankie Burke, as well as of Jesse James Burke, Catherine Burke (who married Bonanno crime family member Anthony Indelicato in 1992), and another unidentified daughter.
Jimmy Burke was born in New York. His mother, Jane Conway, was from Dublin, Ireland. James' father has never been identified. At age two, his mother placed him in a foster home; he spent most of his early years in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns, and never saw his parents again. He was shuttled around various homes and orphanages, where he suffered abuse, sexual and otherwise, at the hands of various foster fathers and foster brothers. In the summer of 1944, when Burke was age 13, his foster father died in a car crash; he lost control of the car when he turned around to hit Burke, who was riding in the back seat. The deceased man's widow, who was in the car as well but survived, blamed Burke for the accident and beat him regularly until he was taken back into foster care.
He was finally adopted by the Burke family, whose name he took. Jimmy lived with them in a large wooden boarding house located on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Ocean Promenade in Rockaway, Queens. His time spent there during the beginning of his adolescence was a time of peace and calm. He remained close to the Burke family and visited his adoptive parents each Mother's Day and Christmas and on their birthdays. On a monthly basis, he would send them several thousand dollars in an unmarked envelope as appreciation for their attempt at raising him. It is rumored that he buried a portion of the loot from the 1978 Lufthansa heist, which he orchestrated and helped carry out, on the site of his foster home. It is also believed that only a quarter of the estimated millions in gold, silver, and currency taken in the heist has been recovered.
As he approached his teens, Burke began to get in trouble with the law and spent considerable time in jail. In 1949, at age eighteen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for bank forgery; he had passed counterfeit checks for Dominick Cersani. Burke did not act as an informant for the authorities, which helped him gain favor amongst his Mafia contemporaries. Behind bars, he mixed with a number of Mafiosi and other criminals of all nations in the New York area.
Burke was an immense presence: burly, tall, and with a temper to match. He had large, tattooed, muscular arms as result of earlier work as a bricklayer for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. His job as a union bricklayer during the New York City construction boom was short-lived, and he gave it up to pursue a life of crime. He was known to be very polite and charming, but was a stone-cold killer. Said Henry Hill, "He was a big guy and knew how to handle himself. He looked like a fighter. He had a broken nose and he had a lot of hands. If there was just the littlest amount of trouble, he'd be all over you in a second. He'd grab a guy's tie and slam his chin into the table before the guy knew he was in a war. ... Jimmy had a reputation for being wild. He'd whack you."
In 1962, when Burke and his future wife, Mickey, decided to get married, Burke discovered that Mickey was being bothered by an old boyfriend, who was calling her on the phone, yelling at her on the street, and circling her house for hours in his car. On Burke and Mickey's wedding day, the police found the ex-boyfriend's remains. He had been carefully cut into over a dozen pieces and tossed all over the inside of his car.
"Jimmy the Gent"
During the 1950s, Burke was involved in various illegal activities, such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor. He fathered two daughters, one named Catherine Burke, and two sons: Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke (named after the famous outlaw brothers of the Old West). Jesse James stuttered and was largely ignored by Jimmy, who left him to play in their home's basement filled with stolen toys.
Burke was a mentor of Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill and Angelo Sepe, who were all young men in the 1960s. They carried out jobs for Burke, such as selling stolen merchandise. They eventually became part of Jimmy's crew and worked out of South Ozone Park, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn. The pair helped Burke with the hijacking of delivery trucks. According to Hill, Burke would take the drivers' licenses and would usually give fifty dollars to the drivers of the trucks they stole, as if he were tipping them for the inconvenience, which led to his nickname "Jimmy the Gent".
Corrupt law enforcement officers, bribed by Burke, would tell him about any potential witnesses or informants. As many as 12 or 13 dead bodies a year would be found tied, strangled, and shot in the trunks of stolen vehicles abandoned in the parking lots surrounding JFK Airport. Burke told Henry Hill, bribing cops was like feeding elephants at the zoo. "All you need is peanuts." Said Hill about Burke: "Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn’t matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert."
Burke owned a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens called Robert's Lounge. It was a favorite hang-out of Burke and his crew, and many other mobsters, bookmakers, loan sharks, and other assorted criminals. Henry Hill claimed the bar was also Burke's private cemetery, and over a dozen people were buried in and out of Robert's Lounge. Burke ran a loan sharking and bookmaking operation that was based at the bar, and high stakes poker games in the basement, of which he would receive a cut. Burke also owned a dress factory in South Ozone Park, Queens, called Moo Moo Vedda's, which kept him awash in laundered money.
In 1972, Burke and Henry Hill were arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida; Ciaccio allegedly owed a large gambling debt to their friend, union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Burke was paroled after six years, then went straight back to crime, as did Hill, who was released around the same time. Afterwards, Burke once again partnered with Hill, and introduced him to Greg Bucceroni, whom Burke mentored. Hill shortly began trafficking in drugs; Burke was soon involved in this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family — with whom they were associated — did not authorize any of its members to deal in drugs. This Lucchese ban was made because the prison sentences imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking were so lengthy that the accused would often become informants in exchange for a lighter sentence. This is exactly what Henry Hill would eventually do. After selling drugs for a number of years Henry Hill became an informant against Burke.
He also ordered the murder of his best friend, Dominick "Remo" Cersani, who became an informant and was going to set Burke up in a cigarette hijack for Burke to get arrested. Burke got suspicious about Cersani and later found out from one of his friends in a Queens, New York D.A.'s office that Cersani was talking to the New York City Police Department and that they were going to arrest Burke on a truck hijacking charge. Remo was killed within a week. At Robert's Lounge Burke told Remo, "Let's take a ride." Tommy DeSimone strangled Remo with a piano wire. Henry Hill said "Remo put up some fight. He kicked and swung and shit all over himself before he died." Burke had Remo buried next to the bocce court behind Robert's Lounge. It was said that whenever Burke and Tommy DeSimone played bocce there with friends, they would jokingly say "Hi Remo, how ya doing?"
Burke frequently liked to lock his victims, notably the young children of his victims, in refrigerators. When Burke had a problem collecting money he was owed, and the unfortunate debtor had children, he would pick the child up in his huge arm, open the refrigerator with the other, and say, "If you don't do whatcha supposed to, I'm gonna lock your kid inside the fuckin' refrigerator".
The Lufthansa Heist
Burke became famous as a result of the Lufthansa Heist, which involved the theft of approximately $6 million in cash and jewels from Building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Based on inside information from Lufthansa Cargo Supervisor Louis Werner, who owed a large gambling debt to Burke-controlled bookmaker Martin Krugman, Burke planned and recruited a crew of criminal acquaintances that included Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Robert McMahon, and Paolo LiCastri. Burke's son, Frank James Burke, drove a "crash car" whose function was to ram all police cars in pursuit of the escape vehicle. Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards did not directly participate in the robbery but was ordered to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a junkyard compactor in New Jersey.
The robbery took place during the early hours of December 11, 1978. Because J.F.K. Airport was divided between the Gambino crime family and the Lucchese Family, permission was asked and granted by the Gambino capo who controlled the airport, John Gotti. John Gotti's crew expected $250,000 from the proceeds of the robbery and Paolo LiCastri, a soldier under John Gotti in the Gambino Family, became the sixth gunman to ensure the Gambinos' interests were looked after.
A van containing the robbers and a "crash car" arrived at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at 3:00 A.M. The crash car, driven by Frank Burke, remained in the parking lot. Three men got out of the van and entered the front door of the cargo terminus. The two men left in the van drove to the rear of the building, cut the lock on the security fence and replaced it with one of their own. The robbers, all armed, wore dark clothing and ski masks. Three men entered the building and rounded up all 10 employees at gunpoint. Since 3:00 A.M. was "lunch hour" for the shift, most personnel were already in the cafeteria. Kerry Whalen, the Lufthansa transfer agent who was returning from American Airlines rampside, saw two of the robbers sitting in a van, without mask or gloves. As Whalen entered the building he was pistol-whipped. One of the robbers led the cargo agent inside the building, where he was forced to the floor.
Since the robbers had inside information, all the employees were accounted for, handcuffed, and forced down on the floor. At gunpoint, the shift supervisor was forced to deactivate the general alarm system as well as all additional silent alarms within the vault and escort the robbers inside the vault. The supervisor was forced to open the cargo bay door. The robbers drove the van into the loading bay and packed it with every bag of currency (from overseas military monetary exchanges) and jewelry they found in the vault.
After the van was loaded, the supervisor was taken back to the lunchroom, handcuffed, and forced to the floor next to the other employees. The robbers ordered the employees not to make a move for at least fifteen minutes. To ensure compliance, the robbers confiscated the wallets of every employee and threatened their families' lives if instructions were not followed. This fifteen-minute buffer was crucial because Werner's inside information made the robbers aware that the Port Authority Police could seal the entire airport within 90 seconds, preventing any vehicles or persons entrance or exit.
At 4:21 A.M., the van containing the robbers and stolen cash pulled out of the cargo terminus and left J.F.K., followed by the crash car, and 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 Jimmy 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 to drive it to a wrecking 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 safe house to be counted. This is when James Burke realized the true scope of the robbery. Over the course of time, shares were distributed to the robbers and to others who played a supporting part in the heist. Burke's take of the robbery money was believed to have been a little over $2–4,000,000. A further $1–2,000,000 went to capo Paul Vario. The remainder was disbursed among people who supported the robbery, and to the six robbers themselves, who received the smallest share, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on their roles in the robbery. Besides Paul Vario and James Burke, few participants in the robbery received more than $50,000 and few lived more than six months.
Murders that followed the Lufthansa Heist
Burke never expected the robbery to bring in more than two million dollars and was shocked by the six million haul and became paranoid about all the publicity. He was aware that a robbery of this magnitude would attract the intense attention of local, state and federal authorities, causing a lot of problems for all involved as well as organized crime in New York in general. There were a number of murders and disappearances following the Lufthansa robbery, as Burke became increasingly concerned that there were too many witnesses who knew his involvement who became greedy once learning the true amount of money stolen in the heist. Burke was being pressed for more money by the participants of the Lufthansa robbery, so he decided to murder everyone connected to it.
Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards was found shot to death in his apartment in South Ozone Park, Queens on December 18, 1978, only one week after the robbery. Henry Hill, who was not involved in the robbery, recounts that "Stacks" forgot to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a New Jersey compactor, instead getting high and passing out at a girlfriend's house, leaving the truck in a no parking zone. The next day the van was discovered by police with his fingerprints all over it, ski masks, a leather jacket, and a footprint from a Puma sneaker.
Louis Cafora, known as Fat Louie, and his newly wed wife Joanna were reported missing in March 1979 by her parents. They were never seen again. It was alleged that Cafora agreed to become a police informant and either Burke or Angelo Sepe murdered them and disposed of the bodies.
Robert McMahon and his close friend Joe Manri were found shot dead in a Buick Electra parked on a Brooklyn street on May 16, 1979.
Paolo LiCastri was found shot to death, his half-naked body smoldering in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn on June 13, 1979.
A cosmetologist and part-time cocaine dealer named Theresa Ferrara, who often frequented Robert's Lounge and who was an occasional mistress of Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, was murdered on February 10, 1979, when it was discovered that she was an informant. She had met with the F.B.I., and was informed that members of the Vario Crew wanted her murdered. She listened patiently, then asked them politely if she could leave. Several months later, on May 18, 1979, her dismembered torso was found floating in the waters off Barnegat Inlet near Toms River, New Jersey.
Thomas Monteleone, a mobster from Canada, used $250,000 of Lufthansa Heist money to become involved in a drug deal with Burke and Richard Eaton (a noted hustler and con-man). The drug deal didn't work out as planned. Monteleone was found dead in Connecticut in March 1979. Not directly related to the Lufthansa Heist, Monteleone's murder appears to have been collateral damage.
Martin Krugman, the book-maker who provided the tip to Henry Hill and Burke's Robert's Lounge crew, vanished on January 6, 1979. Henry Hill stated that Krugman was killed in "Vinnie's fence company" on the orders of Burke, who did not want to pay Krugman his $500,000 share of the stolen money. Said Hill, "It was a matter of half a million bucks. No way Jimmy was going to deny himself half a million dollars because of Marty Krugman. If Jimmy killed Marty, Jimmy would get Marty’s half a mill'.”
The only robbers that survived Burke's murderous rampage following the Lufthansa Heist were Burke's son, Frank James Burke, Thomas DeSimone, and Angelo Sepe (a protégé of Burke). Burke knew that Sepe would never cooperate with the authorities under any circumstances, and he never pressed Burke for a bigger share of the robbery proceeds. Sepe had been brought in for questioning by the police about the Lufthansa Heist, and the only thing he told them was "I don't know whatcha talking about." Sepe was later murdered, in 1984, shot in the head when he answered the door one morning at his Brooklyn apartment. This was in retaliation for having robbed a Mafia-connected drug dealer. Frank James Burke was found shot to death on a Brooklyn street on May 18, 1987, over a drug deal gone bad.
Downfall and death
In 1980, Henry Hill was arrested for drug trafficking. He became an FBI informant to avoid a long prison sentence, and entered the witness protection program. Hill had been drawn into the cocaine business despite Burke's warnings to avoid it. Hill set up a network and soon earned an average of $3,000 per week ($8,350 in 2012 dollars). Also that year, the Lufthansa supervisor Louis Werner, who supplied all of the inside information about how to rob the Lufthansa cargo terminal and the only person to have actually been prosecuted for the Lufthansa Heist, became an informant after serving just one year of a fifteen-year prison sentence, in the hope of getting an early release.
According to Hill, a search warrant for Robert's Lounge was granted by a judge. But by the time the police arrived, Burke had already relocated the bodies he had buried there, such as that of Dominick "Remo" Cersani, an old friend of Burke's who was murdered after trying to sell Burke out.
Partially as a result of the testimony of Hill and Werner, Jimmy Burke was taken into custody on April 1, 1980, on suspicion of a number of crimes. In 1982 he was convicted of fixing Boston College basketball games as part of a point shaving gambling scam in 1978 and was sentenced to two decades in prison. Burke protested "I gave the little bastard (Hill) some bucks to bet on games, that's all!" Authorities believed he had planned and organized the Lufthansa Heist, but they did not have enough evidence to prove it in a court of law.
Although Burke was suspected of committing more than 50 murders, he was only convicted of one: the murder of Richard Eaton, a hustler and confidence man. Burke could have been out of jail before he died if he had disposed of Eaton the same way he disposed of most of his victims. Instead, he beat and strangled Eaton to death and dumped the body, hog-tied and gagged, on the floor of an abandoned tractor trailer in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn. It was winter at the time, and his frozen body wasn't discovered until days later by children playing there. Detectives found a small address book sewn into the lining of Eaton's clothing with the name, address, and telephone number of James Burke listed in the book.
Burke was later charged with the murder of Eaton, based on evidence Henry Hill gave to authorities. At the trial, Hill took the stand and testified against his former friend. Hill testified Eaton had convinced Burke to invest $250,000 in a cocaine deal that promised immense profit. Eaton, however, kept the money for his own use. When, at one point, Hill asked Burke about Eaton's location, observing that he hadn't been around in a while, Hill said Burke replied "Don't worry about him. I whacked the fucking swindler out." Burke also told Hill that this would be a lesson to two other drug purchasers who had not yet paid Burke. Based on the evidence of Burke's name, address, and phone number found in Eaton's coat lining when he was found dead and Hill's testimony, Burke was convicted on February 19, 1985 and was sentenced to life in prison, but protested "the bastard died of hypothermia!" during sentencing. When he was leaving New York on an airplane, he looked down at J.F.K. airport and boasted to an officer, "[Once upon a time] that was all mine."
There was an attempt by Henry Hill and Eastern District of New York Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed McDonald to convict Burke of taking part in the 1970 murder of William 'Billy Batts' DeVino; but Hill was the sole living witness, so the charge was dropped due to a probable inability to convict based on a lack of evidence.
Burke was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed lung cancer. He died from this disease on April 13, 1996 while being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York Had he lived, he would have been eligible for parole in 2004. (Alternately, the FindAGrave site (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6777043) reports that, "In 1996 he died of stomach cancer in a Buffalo hospital after being transferred there from the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York.")
Jimmy and Mickey Burke had four children.
Frank James Burke (1960 - 1987) was one of two sons born to James and Michelle "Mickey" Burke in Brooklyn. Like his father, he was a career criminal and a suspect in the Lufthansa Heist. He was well known in mob circles as a heroin and cocaine addict and was arrested several times for drug possession. He spent time at Robert's Lounge and The Linen Suite Lounge, which was a hangout for hijackers, burglars, thieves and scam artists. One of his father's proteges, Tommy DeSimone, took Frank on his first "hit" (contract killing) when Frank was sixteen or seventeen.
On May 18, 1987, at 2:30 AM, Frank was found by police, shot to death, at 1043 Liberty Avenue in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn. He was 27 years old. There no record of any remorse or grief from Jimmy Burke about his son's death.
A second son, Jesse James Burke, is not involved in organized crime.
Burke has a second, unidentified, daughter.
Jimmy Burke was depicted by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas as "Jimmy Conway". It was claimed that at the time, Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert De Niro play him that he telephoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author and screen-writer Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying De Niro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.
- Hobbs, Dick (29 Apr 1996). "Obituary: Jimmy Burke". The Independent. independent.co.uk. Retrieved 27 Sep 2010.
- Pileggi, Nicholas (1986). Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Simon & Schuster. p. 117. ISBN 0-671-44734-3. Gives Jimmy and Mickey's story.
- "James Burke, Mobster Depicted in Goodfellas". New York Times. April 17, 1996. Retrieved 2009-12-08. "James 'Jimmy the Gent' Burke, 64, a mobster depicted in Goodfellas and the suspected mastermind of the 1978 Lufthansa heist that netted a record $5.8 million in cash, has died. Burke died of cancer Saturday at a Buffalo hospital, said his attorney, Judd Burstein. Burke was serving 20 years to life for murdering a drug dealer when he became ill in February at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. Burke was closely associated with top members of the Lucchese ..."
- Volkman, Ernest; Cummings, John (October 1986). The Heist: How a Gang Stole $8,000,000 at Kennedy Airport and Lived to Regret It. New York: Franklin Watts. ISBN 0-531-15024-0.
- Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi (1990) ISBN 0-671-72322-7
- Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball by David Porter (2000)
- On The Run — A Mafia Childhood by Gregg & Gina Hill (2004)
- Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys . . . and Life on the Run by Henry Hill & Gus Russo (2005)
- Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T. J. English (2005)