The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5 million in cash ($18.1 million today) and $875,000 in jewelry ($3.2 million today) were stolen, making it at the time the largest cash robbery committed on American soil. The robbery was the subject of two television films, The 10 Million Dollar Getaway and The Big Heist, and is a key plot element in the 1990 film Goodfellas.
Planning and execution
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. After arriving via Lufthansa, the currency was then stored in a vault at Kennedy Airport. The information had come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 for gambling debts ($78,000 adjusted for inflation) and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald. Werner and Gruenwald had previously been successful in stealing $22,000 in foreign currency ($91,000 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, 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, a black associate of Burke's gang who served as a "gofer"/chauffeur, 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. Vinne Asaro, the Gambino 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 Gambino family.
On December 11, at 3:12 a.m., cargo agent Kerry Whalen, returning from making a transfer at American Airlines, spotted a black Ford Econoline van backed into the ramp door. When Whalen walked toward the van to investigate, two men, without masks or gloves, brutally struck him over the head with pistols. Whalen had his navy 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 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.
Senior agent Rolf Rebmann heard a noise by the loading ramp and when he went to investigate, six armed, masked robbers forced their way in and handcuffed him. They then used a one-of-a-kind 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 3 a.m. 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 right combination to open the double-door vault. Murray was made to pretend to Eirich that there was a problem with a load from Frankfurt and told Eirich to meet him in the cafeteria. As Eirich approached the cafe, he was met by two 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 money heist 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 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 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 expected to bring in no more than $2 million and was shocked by the $6 million haul.
Parnell "Stacks" Edwards was supposed to take the van used in the burglary to a car compactor in New Jersey to have it destroyed; instead, jubilant from the gang's easy heist, he got high on 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 day, 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 Edwards owned.
The FBI had two immediate suspicions of who could have had the connections and organizational skill to lead such an audacious heist in the New York area, with the first being the John Gotti crew and the second being the Jimmy Burke crew. Within three days of the robbery, largely due to the discovery of the truck (coupled with Edwards' pre-established connections with the Burke gang at Robert's Lounge), the FBI correctly identified the Burke crew as the likely perpetrators and 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's 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 (see Murders that followed the Lufthansa Heist), 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.
Kerry Whalen, the Lufthansa employee who was pistol whipped, was so disgusted with the behavior of the FBI and the Federal District Attorney's office that he complained to federal judges. Whalen kept notes on his meetings with law enforcement.
The stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.
On January 23, 2014, Vincent Asaro, now 78 years old and a reputed high-ranking member of the Bonanno crime family, was arrested 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 in collaboration with Henry Hill, co-authored their upcoming book, The Lufthansa Heist, reported to the New York Post Page Six that Hill told him "Asaro had no involvement in the famous robbery."
Violent deaths of heist associates
When Jimmy Burke realized that the robbery had netted $6 million, three times the amount that he expected, 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 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.
When Jimmy Burke realized that Edwards' failure to properly dispose of the van had allowed the police to catch on to his crew, he resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist. The first to be murdered, just 7 days after the heist, would be 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, 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. He owned a wig shop and men's hair saloon 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 Angelo 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 he was about to inform to the FBI. Krugman was later discovered buried in the Robert's Lounge club along with Jimmy Burke's hijacker friend "Remo" and Michael "Spider" Gianco who worked there as a waiter.|
|Richard Eaton||1979 Jan. 17||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, associate of Tom Monteleone, Burke front man, consummate grifter and con-artist. Uninvolved with the actual heist, he was personally 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. His body was discovered hogtied and hanging in a meat freezer truck.|
|Ferrara, TheresaTheresa Ferrara||1979 Feb. 10||Occasional mistress of Tommy DeSimone and associate of both Richard Eaton and Tom Monteleone, murdered because of her knowledge of the heist and suspicion she conspired with Eaton and Monteleone to skim part of the money taken during the Lufthansa heist.|
|Tom Monteleone||1979 March||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Restaurateur and mobster. Associate of Richard Eaton, 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 Jimmy 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 ordering both to be murdered. Within days of the heist and against Jimmy Burke's orders, Cafora bought his wife a custom pink Cadillac Fleetwood with his share of the heist and brazenly drove it to a gang 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. A long-time Burke gang associate, Manri's inside information helped plan the heist. Like fellow Air France/JFK Airport inside man Robert McMahon, Manri was repeatedly offered the opportunity to turn state's evidence and enter the Witness Protection Program, an offer which both refused. He 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.|
|LiCastri, PaoloPaolo LiCastri||1979 June 13||Illegal immigrant, Sicilian-born Pizza Connection drug trafficker, and Gambino crime family associate. Uninvolved in the actual heist, he was a liaison from the Gambino family whose job was to oversee the plans and ensure 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 other violent ends.
|DeSimone, Thomas "Tommy"Thomas "Tommy" DeSimone||1978 Dec to 1979 Jan||Was involved in the similar Air France Robbery of 1967 with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. A particularly close, loyal and trustworthy friend of Burke, not involved in the Lufthansa heist until Edwards' murder. 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.|
|Angelo Sepe||1984 July 18||Lucchese crime family member, a particularly close, loyal and trustworthy friend of DeSimone, Tony Rodriguez and Burke. 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.|
|Burke, Frank JamesFrank James Burke||1987 May 18||Son of Jimmy Burke and believed to be involved in the heist, was murdered by his drug dealer over a botched heroin deal.|
- Peter Gruenwald, a Lufthansa heist organizer, who testified against his friend and fellow co-worker Louis Werner.
- Louis Werner, a Manhattan accountant who doubled as a money launderer.
- William "Bill" Fischetti – was a taxi dispatch company owner, he was a mob relative who was involved in selling stolen bearer bonds. Fischetti had an affair with Beverly Werner.
- Frank Menna, a numbers-runner who had been worked-over by Angelo John Sepe and Daniel Rizzo because of his boss Martin Krugman's incompetence.
- Janet Barbieri, Louis Werner's girlfriend and future wife, testified against Werner before a Grand Jury.
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, although both were convicted of murder because of his testimony.
- Jimmy Burke was convicted of murdering Richard Eaton. Burke died of lung cancer at age 64 in a Buffalo hospital after being transferred there from the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, April 13, 1996.
- Paul Vario died in Fort Worth Federal Prison (FCI Fort Worth) of respiratory illness May 3, 1988 at age 73.
- Henry Hill entered the Witness Protection Program. Hill died in a Los Angeles hospital on June 12, 2012, the day after his 69th birthday, after a long battle with an undisclosed illness.
- Mike Amato Months after Hill's death, new information was leaked about the Original JFK airport job was arranged by a 20 year old street hood and his Queens New York associates.
- Tony Rodriguez was found dead at age 30 in his Plainview, Long Island, home on September 20, 1987. He had been bitten by one of the many exotic and venomous snakes he kept.
- Martin Krugman's body was never found. In 1986, he was declared legally deceased and his wife, Fran, received a $135,000 payout from his life insurance policy.
- Mark Santangeli, after suing Burke for his share of the Lufthansa profits, was murdered in New Jersey by Mafia associates. He played no part in the actual heist.
- Theresa Ferrara's dismembered body was found near Toms River, New Jersey, in 1979. No one has been charged with her murder.
- Paolo LiCastri, Joe Manriquez (a.k.a. Joe Manri), Robert McMahon, and Angelo Sepe's murders haven't been solved.
- Louis Cafora and his wife Joanna's bodies have never been found.
- Tommy DeSimone's body was never found.
- Peter Gruenwald rekindled the relationship with his estranged wife and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
- Bill Fischetti divorced his wife and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
- Frank Menna disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
- Louis Werner convicted on May 16, 1979; married Janet Barbieri following his release from prison.
Grievances with Burke over Lufthansa
Lucchese crime family associate Donald Frankos later expressed frustration in being a close friend of Jimmy Burke 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.
- Maitland, Leslie (December 14, 1978). "Airport Cash Loot Was $5 Million; Bandits' Van Is Found in Canarsie". The New York Times (New York). p. A1. Retrieved 26 August 2009.
- * Pileggi, Nicholas (1986). Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-44734-3.
- May, Allan. "The Lufthansa Heist Revisited". trutv.com. Retrieved 2008-09-20.
- newspaper=New York Post|date=2014-01-25|author=Emily Smith
- May, Allan. "All about the Lufthansa Heist". CrimeLibrary.com. Retrieved 2007-10-29.
- Jones, Thomas L. "Lucchese Crime Family Epic: Descent into Darkness Part II". CrimeLibrary.com. Archived from the original on 2007-10-01. Retrieved 2007-10-29.
- "Martin Krugman.". LaCosaNostra. Retrieved 2014-01-23.
- Nicholas Pileggi. Wiseguy: life in a Mafia family (pg.228-229)
- Allan May The Lufthansa Heist Revisited: The Investigation is On (pg.13)
- Hobbs, Dick (29 Apr 1996). "Obituary: Jimmy Burke". The Independent. independent.co.uk. Retrieved 27 Sep 2010.
- Obituary in New York Times: Paul Vario, 73; Called a Leader Of Crime Group
- Editorial, "The Region: Police Seek Identity of Body in Ocean," The New York Times June 5, 1979, Pp. B2.
- Allan May. The Lufthansa Heist Revisited: Cast of Characters. TruTv.com (pg. 20)
- 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.
- Hill, Henry; Gus Russo (2004). Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run. M. Evans and Company, Inc. ISBN 1-56731-757-X.