7 Of History’s Most Unbelievable Heists, From D.B. Cooper To The Lufthansa Robbery

Published November 13, 2020
Updated February 8, 2021

The $6 Million Lufthansa Robbery That Was One Of The Biggest Heists In History

Real Life Goodfellas Portraits

ATI CompositePortraits of the real-life characters featured in Goodfellas, who were behind the 1978 heist.

In today’s world of omnipresent surveillance, especially at the airports, it’s difficult to imagine that New York was once a land of opportunity for anyone with the nerve to knock over the city’s top-dollar targets. And the largest of these by far was the 1978 Lufthansa heist, which was also perhaps the most valuable crime ever committed in the name of the American Mafia.

The heist was largely orchestrated by Louis Werner, an employee of the german Lufthansa airline with a severe gambling problem. Werner and his co-worker, Peter Gruenwald, had long been planning to steal millions in unmarked banknotes from one of Lufthansa’s regular shipments of cash.

Unfortunately for Gruenwald, Werner told his bookie, Martin Krugman, about the heist which he intended to use in order to pay off his $20,000 gambling debt to him.

Krugman then took the information to his acquaintance, Henry Hill, who worked closely with Krugman’s friend Jimmy “the Gent” Burke, a feared associate of the Lucchese crime family and a proficient robber. Burke offered to organize the heist on behalf of his patrons in return for a sizable cut.

James Burke Arrested

Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesJames “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, also known as “the Big Irishman.” Burke could never become a full member of the Mafia as he wasn’t of full Italian descent, despite pulling off what may have been the biggest single score in the history of the mob.

Burke sent a handpicked crew of associates, including his son Frank and the dangerously violent Tommy DeSimone, and went off to the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the early hours of Dec. 11, 1978.

In just over an hour, the crew took six employees hostage and stole nearly $6 million in untraceable cash and jewelry — with a combined value of roughly $23.4 million today.

The heist had gone off perfectly, but the plot came undone when their getaway driver, Edward “Stacks” Parnell, messed up. Rather than taking the Ford Econoline van they used in the heist to a mob-owned scrapyard in New Jersey, Parnell left it parked in front of his girlfriend’s house in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

Van Used In Lufthansa Heist

Mary DiBiase/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesThe van used during the Lufthansa heist, as seen just after the robbery on Dec. 14, 1978.

The oversight sent Burke into a paranoid frenzy. He ordered the murders of all but five of the 13 participants to cover his tracks. Burke and Hill did eventually go to prison but on charges unrelated to the Lufthansa heist.

In the end, the only person to serve time for the heist was Louis Werner, who spent 15 years behind bars for tipping Burke and his gang off. Only a small portion of the stolen money was ever recovered, and the fate of the rest of the fortune may never be known.

Morgan Dunn
Morgan Dunn is a freelance writer who holds a bachelor’s degree in fine art and art history from Goldsmiths, University of London. His areas of interest include the Soviet Union, China, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism.