James Burke a.k.a. “Jimmy The Gent”
James Burke, played by Robert De Niro as “Jimmy Conway” in the film, was the principal architect of the Lufthansa heist.
Soon after he was born — in 1931, to an Irish immigrant single mother in New York — Burke was placed into foster care and shifted from orphanages to foster homes and back throughout his childhood. He suffered sexual and physical abuse from these caretakers, with one of his foster fathers even dying in a car crash because he was reaching back to hit Burke. The man’s widow blamed Burke for the accident and beat him for it until the child was moved on to his next stop.
Like Henry Hill, Burke’s Irish-American heritage made it impossible for him to become a “made man,” but by the 1950s, he had become a major player in the South Ozone Park and East New York criminal underworld with Paul Vario’s crew, earning his nickname “Jimmy The Gent” for his practice of tipping the drivers of the trucks that he stole.
Despite his nickname, Burke was known for his extreme violence. In 1962, for example, his fiancee told him that she was being harassed by an ex-boyfriend. On the wedding day, the police found the remains of the man cut up in a dozen pieces in his own car.
Burke is also thought to be the one who ordered, and possibly carried out, the murders of most of the men involved in the Lufthansa heist.
Soon after, following Henry Hill’s testimony in 1982, Burke was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal. While in prison, Burke was convicted of a previous murder he had committed and received another life sentence. He died in prison due to lung cancer in 1996.