5 reputed mobsters to be charged in Lufthansa heist

N.J. Burkett reports from Long Island
January 23, 2014 2:35:49 PM PST
Federal agents have charged a reputed mobster in connection with the infamous Lufthansa Heist at Kennedy International Airport in 1978.

As part of a series of predawn raids around the New York metro area, FBI agents arrested 78-year-old Vincent Asaro, of Howard Beach, Queens. He is said to be a ranking member of the Bonanno organized crime family.

Asaro was named along with his son and three other defendants in wide-ranging indictment alleging murder, robbery, extortion, arson and other crimes from the late 1960s through last year.

With the unsealing of an indictment, Asaro is the first accused mobster to face charges in the Lufthansa Heist, which inspired books and the Martin Scorsese film "Goodfellas." Previously, the only other person who ever had to answer for a role in the notorious robbery was Louis Werner, an airport worker who provided critical inside information to the robbers.

The crime, perpetrated in the middle of the night on December 11, 1978, netted more than $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewels -- the equivalent of more than $20 million today.

At the time, it was the single-biggest heist ever pulled off on US soil. It led to a massive, years-long investigative effort that ultimately proved fruitless as wiseguys and their associates believed involved in the robbery disappeared or died at the hands of nervous crime bosses.

According to court papers, an unidentified cooperating witness told investigators that he participated in the robbery at the direction of Arsaro.

At the time, Arsaro was reputed to be a key Mafia overseer responsible for illicit activities at JFK, long a target favored by the New York crime families because of the huge amount of cargo that moves through New York's biggest airport. Asaro is now said to be an "administrator" of the Bonanno clan.

Also arrested are four other alleged mobsters, including underboss Thomas "Tommy D" DiFiore of Commack, Long Island, the highest-ranking Bonanno family member currently living outside of prison, officials said.

DiFiore, facing conspiracy charges, was elevated to help rebuild a Bonanno family devastated by recent prosecutions and the stunning decision 10 years ago by family boss Joseph Massino to turn state's evidence and testify against other reputed mobsters.

The roundup had been quietly in the works for months and stems from the FBI's surprise decision last June to search for evidence at the home of the late Mafia associate James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke in Queens. Burke, a late Lucchese crime family associate, planned the Lufthansa heist and was known for burying victims of mob hits in familiar places. Acting on new information from a source, agents found human remains after digging in and around the home still owned by Burke's daughter, agents said.

Those remains were identified as Paul Katz, who was murdered in 1969. In addition to the heist, the elder Asaro was charged with that crime.

According to the cooperating witness, Asaro and Burke were close and were business partners in Robert's Lounge, the papers say. The saloon was described by a fellow Lucchese associate of Burke, the late Henry Hill, as Burke's private cemetery. "Jimmy buried over a dozen bodies ... under the bocce courts," Hill wrote in his book, "A Goodfella's Guide to New York."

Katz once owned a warehouse where mobsters stored stolen goods, according to the court papers. After a raid at the warehouse, Asaro and Burke began to suspect Katz was a law enforcement informant.

Asaro told the cooperator that Burke "had killed Katz with a dog chain because they believed he was a 'rat,'" the papers say.

Burke inspired Robert De Niro's character in "Goodfellas," which was based on Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguy" and told the story of Hill's time in the mob and subsequent cooperation with law enforcement.

The papers say the cooperator wore a wire and recorded a conversation he had with Asaro in 2011 in which the pair discussed the Lufthansa heist.

"We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get," Asaro said, according to the court papers. "Jimmy Burke kept everything."