The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5.875 million (equivalent to $23 million in 2019) 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. Jimmy Burke, a Lucchese crime family associate, was reputed to be the mastermind of the robbery, but he was never officially charged in connection with the crime. Burke is also alleged to have either committed or ordered the murders of many of those involved in the months following the robbery to avoid being implicated in the heist. The only person convicted in the robbery was Louis Werner, an airport worker who helped plan the heist. The money and jewelry were never recovered.
In popular culture, it is the main subject of two well-known television films — The 10 Million Dollar Getaway (1991) and The Big Heist (2001) — and is a key plot element in the film Goodfellas (1990). The heist's magnitude made it one of the longest-investigated crimes in the United States; the latest arrest associated with the robbery was made in 2014, which resulted in acquittal.
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 Burke's) Lufthansa flew in currency to its cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The information had originally come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 for gambling debts (equivalent to $84,000 in 2019) and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald. Werner and Gruenwald had previously been successful in stealing $22,000 in foreign currency (equivalent to $99,000 in 2019) from their employer Lufthansa in 1976.
Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Paolo LiCastri and Robert McMahon as the robbers. Burke's son Frank would drive one of the back up vehicles and Parnell "Stacks" Edwards' job was to dispose of the van afterwards. 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.
On December 11, 1978, around 3:00 a.m., the six men in a black Ford Econoline pulled up to the Lufthansa cargo building 261. The padlock on the gate was cut with a pair of bolt cutters. Some of the crew climbed up the stairs of the east tower and entered wearing ski masks and gloves. A late model Buick positioned itself in the terminal parking lot with its lights off.
Inside the terminal John Murray, a senior cargo agent, was the first employee to be taken hostage. He was walked into the lunchroom where five other Lufthansa employees were on their meal break since 3:00 a.m., and ordered to lie flat on the floor with their eyes closed. Murray was asked who else was in the warehouse. He said that Rudi Eirich, the night shift cargo traffic manager, and Kerry Whalen, a cargo transfer agent, were there. Murray was forced to lure Eirich to come upstairs; he joined the rest of the captured employees.
Outside the terminal, Whalen noticed two unmasked men sitting in a black van parked at the Lufthansa cargo building 261 ramp as he drove past. Whalen parked and walked toward the van. One of the men told him to get in the van. Whalen screamed for help as he ran, but was pistol-whipped and thrown into the van. He was brought to join the other hostages in the lunchroom.
Inside the warehouse, employee Rolf Rebmann heard a noise by the loading ramp and went to investigate; he was captured and brought with Whalen to the lunchroom to join the others. Some of the robbers took Eirich at gunpoint to the double-door vault. They removed 72, 15-pound cartons of untraceable money from the vault and placed it in the van.
At 4:21 a.m., the van pulled to the front of the building and the crash car pulled in behind. Two gunmen climbed in the van as the others got into the Buick. The employees were told not to call the Port Authority Police until 4:30 a.m., when the first call to police was recorded.
The robbers drove to meet Burke at an auto repair shop in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The boxes of money were removed from the van and placed in the trunks of the two automobiles. Burke and his son drove off in one car. Four others — Manri, McMahon, DeSimone and Sepe — drove away in the second car.
Parnell "Stacks" Edwards had failed to get rid of the van that had been used in the heist. Edwards was supposed to have driven the vehicle to New Jersey, where it (along with any potential evidence inside) was to be destroyed in a junk yard belonging to John Gotti. Instead, Edwards parked the van in front of a fire hydrant at his girlfriend's apartment, where police discovered it two days after the heist. Paul Vario subsequently ordered DeSimone to kill Edwards. Once he found out where Edwards was hiding, DeSimone and Angelo Sepe visited Edwards and shot him five times in the head. From the van, fingerprints were lifted of several perpetrators of the robbery.
The FBI identified the Burke crew as the likely perpetrators within three days of the robbery, largely owing to the discovery of the van, coupled with Edwards' pre-established connections with the Burke gang at Robert's Lounge. They 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 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 murders of most of the heist associates and planners, 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. Werner was the only man convicted of the robbery, in 1979, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lucchese crime family associate Donald Frankos later expressed frustration with being a close friend of Burke's 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.
Later, when Whalen was interrogated by the authorities, he was shown police archive photos and positively identified one of his assailants as Angelo Sepe. Eirich later reported that the robbers were well-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.
Vincent Asaro, a high-ranking member of the Bonanno crime family, was arrested on January 23, 2014, in conjunction with an indictment charging him with involvement in the Lufthansa heist; his cousin Gaspare Valenti was testifying against him. 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 co-authored the book The Lufthansa Heist, in collaboration with Henry Hill, reported to the New York Post's Page Six that Hill told him that Asaro had "no involvement" in the robbery. On November 12, 2015, Asaro was acquitted of all charges connected to the Lufthansa robbery by a jury in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
The stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.
Murders of heist associates
Burke also realized that Edwards' failure to dispose of the van had allowed the police to catch on to his crew, and Burke resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist. The first to be murdered, just seven days after the heist, was 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||December 18, 1978||Blues musician, credit card theft expert, and getaway van driver. Shot by DeSimone and Sepe for failing to dispose of the van, thus pointing the authorities to the Burke organization, and out of concern that he would inform if captured.|
|Martin Krugman||January 6, 1979||A Russian-Jewish associate of Burke and Hill's, and owner of a wig shop and men's hair salon, 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 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 that he was about to inform the FBI. Henry Hill later claimed that Krugman's remains were buried in the Robert's Lounge club (this was unable to be confirmed), along with those of Jimmy Burke's hijacker friend "Remo" and Michael "Spider" Gianco, who worked there as a waiter. His body was never found, and in 1986, he was declared legally deceased and his wife, Fran, received a $135,000 payout from his life insurance policy.|
|Richard Eaton||January 17, 1979||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, associate of Tom Monteleone's, Burke front man, grifter and con artist. He was uninvolved with the actual heist, but was 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. Eaton's body was discovered hogtied and hanging in a meat freezer truck.
Burke was eventually convicted of Eaton's murder in 1985, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died.
|Theresa Ferrara||February 10, 1979||Occasional mistress of Tommy DeSimone's and associate of both Richard Eaton and Tom Monteleone's. Disappeared February 10, 1979, and on May 18, 1979, her dismembered torso was found floating in Barnegat Inlet, near Toms River, New Jersey.|
|Tom Monteleone||March 1979||Fort Lauderdale, Florida, restaurateur, mobster, and associate of Richard Eaton's. 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 off part of the heist money while laundering it through his club.|
|Louis Cafora||March 1979||Downtown Brooklyn parking lot owner and money launderer. Cafora had been 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's ordering both to be murdered. Within days of the heist and against Burke's orders, Cafora bought his wife a custom pink Cadillac Fleetwood with his share of the heist and brazenly drove it to a meeting just blocks from the JFK Air Cargo Center where the FBI was still investigating. His body was never found.|
|Joanna Cafora||March 1979||Louis Cafora's wife, presumably murdered along with him.|
|Joe "Buddha" Manri||May 15, 1979||Night-shift Air France cargo supervisor. Manri was a long-time Burke gang associate, and his inside information helped plan the heist. Manri was repeatedly offered the opportunity to turn state's evidence and enter the Witness Protection Program, as well as fellow Air France/JFK Airport inside man Robert McMahon, an offer which both refused. Manri 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||May 16, 1979||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.|
|Paolo LiCastri||June 13, 1979||Illegal immigrant, Sicilian-born Pizza Connection drug trafficker, and Gambino crime family associate. He was not involved in the actual heist but was a liaison from the Gambino family whose job was to oversee the plans and ensure that 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 who were killed, but not on Burke's orders in 1979.
|Thomas "Tommy" DeSimone||January 14, 1979||Was involved in the similar Air France Robbery of 1967 with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. DeSimone disappeared on 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||July 18, 1984||Lucchese crime family member, and a particularly close, loyal, and trustworthy friend of DeSimone, Tony Rodriguez, and Burke's. 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||July 18, 1984||Angelo Sepe's girlfriend. Died of a gunshot to the head.|
|Frank James Burke||May 18, 1987||Son of Jimmy Burke and believed to be involved in the heist; he was murdered by his drug dealer over a botched heroin deal.|
- Janet Barbieri, Louis Werner's girlfriend and future wife, who testified against Werner before a Grand Jury.
- William "Bill" Fischetti, a taxi dispatch company owner and a mob relative who was involved in selling stolen bearer bonds.
- Peter Gruenwald, a Lufthansa heist organizer, who testified against his friend and fellow co-worker Louis Werner.
- Frank Menna, a numbers-runner who had been worked over by Angelo Sepe and Daniel Rizzo because of his boss Martin Krugman's incompetence.
- Louis Werner, a Manhattan accountant who doubled as a money launderer.
In April 1980, Henry Hill was arrested on unrelated narcotics charges. He became convinced that his former associates planned to have him killed: Vario, for dealing drugs; and Burke, to prevent Hill from implicating him in the heist. With a long sentence hanging over him, Hill agreed to become an informant and entered the Witness Protection Program with his family. He was not able to help the government obtain convictions against Vario or Burke for the Lufthansa heist, although both were convicted of other crimes as a result of his testimony.
On April 7, 2015, author Robert Sberna released the book The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist with collaborator Dominick Cicale, a former member of the Bonanno crime family. According to Cicale, between $2 million and $4 million of the Lufthansa loot was stashed in a safe deposit box by Jimmy Burke. The keys were given to his daughters, Cathy and Robin. Cicale reported that Cathy Burke's husband Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, a Bonanno capo, gained access to the box with Vincent Basciano, also a Bonanno capo. Cicale said that Basciano spent $250,000 of the money on a movie that was never produced. The remainder was lost at casinos by Basciano. In 2014, airport employee Kerry Whalen self-published a book about the heist called Inside the Lufthansa HEI$T: The FBI Lied. In July 2015, Rowman and Littlefield published a book titled The Lufthansa Heist, co-authored by Daniel Simone and mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill. In July 2017, The Big Heist: The Real Story Of The Lufthansa Heist, The Mafia, And Murder by Anthony DeStefano was released.
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Based on all my research, Asaro was not involved. Hill was not aware that there was anyone left alive that was involved with the heist. The only possibility is that Asaro might have had a crime stake at the airport and may have demanded a tribute [a cut of the deal] from Jimmy Burke.
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