James Burke (gangster)

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James Burke
Burke's 1979 mugshot
Born(1931-07-05)July 5, 1931
DiedApril 13, 1996(1996-04-13) (aged 64)
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
Resting placeSaint Charles Cemetery, East Farmingdale, New York
Other names"Jimmy the Gent," "The Big Irishman"
Known forLufthansa heist
Mickey Burke
(m. 1957)
RelativesAnthony Indelicato (son-in-law)
AllegianceLucchese crime family
Conviction(s)Extortion (1972)
Conspiracy (1982)
Second degree murder (1985)
Criminal penalty10 years' imprisonment
12 years' imprisonment
20 years' imprisonment

James Burke (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), also known as "Jimmy the Gent," was an American gangster and Lucchese crime family associate who is believed to have organized the 1978 Lufthansa heist, the largest cash robbery in American history at the time. He was believed to be responsible for the deaths of those involved in the months after the robbery.[1]

Following the testimony of Henry Hill, Burke was convicted in 1982, of conspiracy charges related to his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. While in prison, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to another 20 years. He died of cancer at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, eight years before he would have been eligible for parole.

Burke inspired the character Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, one of the main characters of the 1990 film Goodfellas, played by Robert De Niro.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

At the age of two, Burke was placed in a foster home and was exposed to violence and sexual abuse while in the care of dozens of foster parents. At the age of 13, an altercation with his foster parents while riding in a car resulted in a crash and the death of his foster father.[4]

In 1962, Burke married his girlfriend Mickey but discovered that she was being bothered by an ex-boyfriend. On their wedding day, police found the ex-boyfriend's remains, in over a dozen pieces, strewn around the inside of his car.[5] He is the father of Lufthansa heist aide Frank James Burke (who was murdered by drug dealer Tito Ortiz in 1987),[6] Jesse James Burke, and Catherine Burke (who married Bonanno crime family member Anthony Indelicato).[7][8]

Criminal activities[edit]

As Burke was of Irish descent, he was ineligible to become a "made man" in the American mafia, so he was relegated to associate, under capo Paul Vario. During the 1950s, Burke was involved with various illegal activities, such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor. Burke became a mentor to Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and Angelo Sepe, during the 1960s. Burke owned the South Ozone Park, Queens tavern Robert's Lounge.

In November 1972, Burke and Hill were arrested for beating 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 the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg.[9][10] Burke was paroled after six years and resumed his criminal career, as did Hill, who was released two years prior. Both Hill and Burke began trafficking illegal narcotics, despite a ban by the Lucchese family, who feared their associates becoming informants in exchange for a lesser sentence, which is exactly what Hill did in 1980.[11]

Murder of William "Billy Batts" Bentvena[edit]

In the book Wiseguy, Henry Hill said that after William "Billy Batts" Bentvena was released from prison in 1970, they threw a "welcome home" party for Bentvena at Robert's Lounge, which was owned by Burke. Hill stated that Bentvena saw Tommy DeSimone and jokingly asked him if he still shined shoes and DeSimone perceived it as an insult. DeSimone leaned over to Hill and Burke and said "I'm gonna kill that fuck."[5] Two weeks later, on June 11, 1970, Bentvena was at The Suite, a nightclub owned by Hill in Jamaica, Queens. Late in the night, with the bar club nearly empty, DeSimone pistol-whipped Bentvena. Hill said that before DeSimone started to beat Bentvena, DeSimone yelled, "Shine these fucking shoes!"[5]

After Bentvena was beaten and presumed killed, DeSimone, Burke, and Hill placed his body in the trunk of Hill's car for transport. They stopped at DeSimone's mother's house to get a shovel and lime. They started to hear sounds from the trunk, and when they realized that Bentvena was still alive, DeSimone and Burke stopped the car and beat him to death with the shovel and a tire iron. Burke had a friend who owned a dog kennel in Upstate New York, and Bentvena was buried there.[5]

About three months after Bentvena's murder, Burke's friend sold the dog kennel to housing developers, and Burke ordered Hill and DeSimone to exhume Bentvena's corpse and dispose of it elsewhere.[5] In Wiseguy, Hill said the body was eventually crushed in a mechanical compactor at a New Jersey junkyard, which was owned by Clyde Brooks. However, on the commentary for the film Goodfellas, he states that Bentvena's body was buried in the basement of Robert's Lounge, a bar and restaurant owned by Burke, and only later was put into the car crusher.

Lufthansa heist[edit]

The Lufthansa heist was planned by Burke and carried out by several associates. The plot began when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Burke's associate Henry Hill that Lufthansa flew in currency to its cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.[12] The information had originally come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 for gambling debts (equivalent to $89,000 in 2021) and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald.[5]

Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Paolo LiCastri and Robert McMahon as the robbers.[13] Burke's son Frank would drive one of the backup vehicles and Parnell "Stacks" Edwards's job was to dispose of the van afterwards.[13] Depending on their role in the robbery, each participant was to receive $10,000 to $50,000. However, those amounts were based on the estimated haul, which was only $2 million compared to the actual take of $5.875 million. Werner was to receive a flat 10% of the take.[13]

On December 11, 1978, an estimated $5.875 million (equivalent to $24.4 million in 2021) was stolen, with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, making it the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time.[14]

Burke is also alleged to have either committed or ordered the murders of many of the robbers to avoid being implicated in the heist. The first was Edwards, on December 18, after he failed to get rid of the robbery van. Burke was never implicated or charged in the robbery,[15] and the stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.[16]

Boston College point shaving scandal[edit]

In 1980, Burke was arrested for a parole violation.[17] In 1982, Burke was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 12 years in prison[18] for his involvement with the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal, based primarily on the testimony of former mob associate Henry Hill. Hill's testimony in federal court resulted in a total of fifty convictions in this and other cases, including those of Burke and their boss, capo Paul Vario. While Burke was serving that sentence, he was charged with the 1979 murder of drug dealer Richard Eaton. He was convicted at a trial in which Hill testified and was sentenced in 1985 to a further 20 years in prison.[19][20]


Burke was serving his sentence in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed cancer. He died on April 13, 1996, while being treated at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York.[17] Had he lived, he would have been eligible for parole on March 11, 2004.[21] Burke was buried[22] at Saint Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale, New York.[20]


James Burke was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, renamed Jimmy Conway.

Burke was played by John Mahoney in the 1991 television film The 10 Million Dollar Getaway, which details the events of the Lufthansa Heist. Donald Sutherland also portrayed Burke for the 2001 television film The Big Heist.

In 2013, possible human remains were unearthed by the FBI and NYPD organized crime investigators at his former home.[23]

In October 2014, Burke's involvement in the Boston College Point Shaving Scandal was discussed in the ESPN 30 for 30 episode "Playing for the Mob." Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas, is the narrator of the documentary.


  1. ^ Maresca, Rachel; Caulfield, Philip (23 April 2015). "'Goodfellas' at 25: Here are 25 things you never knew about Martin Scorsese's mobster flick". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on 26 February 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  2. ^ Adams, Guy (14 June 2012). "Good night to a goodfella: the death of Henry Hill is the end of a Mafia story". The Independent. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  3. ^ Corson, Pete. "The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary's Hollywood connections Famous inmates at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and the movie characters they inspired". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  4. ^ Hobbs, Dick (29 April 1996). "Obituary: Jimmy Burke". The Independent. Archived from the original on 7 June 2009. Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Pileggi, Nicholas (1986). Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Simon & Schuster. pp. 117. ISBN 978-0-671-44734-2. Gives Jimmy and Mickey's story.
  6. ^ "The drug dealer son of imprisoned mobster James 'Jimmy..." United Press International. 19 May 1987. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  7. ^ Marzulli, John (10 April 2015). "Chunk of $6M from Lufthansa heist was spent on animated film project about ferrets, mob rat claims in book". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on 23 April 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  8. ^ Rashbaum, William K. (17 February 2006). "Mob Figure Is Charged in Plot to Kill a Rival Gangster". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 15 February 2021. Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  9. ^ "5 In Tampa Guilty In Extortion Case". The New York Times. 4 November 1972. Archived from the original on 30 December 2019. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  10. ^ "Henry Hill Obituary". The Guardian. 13 June 2012. Archived from the original on 2 November 2019. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  11. ^ Dickson, Mike (29 January 2014). "Goodfella, Henry Hill". Archived from the original on 27 September 2020. Retrieved 8 October 2020.
  12. ^ Algar, Selim (24 October 2015). "Pals so mad at 'Goodfellas' turncoat they skipped his wake". New York Post. Archived from the original on 25 October 2015. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
  13. ^ a b c May, Allan. "The Lufthansa Heist Revisited". TruTV. Archived from the original on 12 November 2008. Retrieved 20 September 2008.
  14. ^ Maitland, Leslie (14 December 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.
  15. ^ "Detectives searched for clues Thursday in the slaying of..." United Press International. 19 July 1984. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  16. ^ Hill, Henry (2007). Gangsters and Goodfellas. ISBN 9781590771297.
  17. ^ a b "James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke, Gangster, 64, of 'Wiseguy' Fame". The New York Times. The New York Times. 17 April 1996. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  18. ^ Barnes, Bart (6 February 1982). "Kuhn Gets 10-Year Sentence In BC Point-Shaving Case". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 25 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  19. ^ "FBI finds possible human remains at former home of late gangster James". The Independent. 20 June 2013. Archived from the original on 25 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  20. ^ a b DeStefano, Anthony (2017). The Big Heist: The Real Story of the Lufthansa Heist, the Mafia, and Murder. Citadel. ISBN 9780786040834. Archived from the original on 15 February 2021. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  21. ^ "NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision". nysdoccslookup.doccs.ny.gov. Archived from the original on 16 October 2014. Retrieved 12 January 2018.
  22. ^ Grave of James Burke
  23. ^ "Possible Human Remains Unearthed at Former Home of "Goodfellas" Mobster". NBC New York. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T. J. English (2005)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Lufthansa Heist by Daniel Simone and Henry Hill (2013)
  • 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 978-0-531-15024-5.