Why Jimmy Burke’s Story Was Wilder Than What ‘Goodfellas’ Depicted

Published February 28, 2024
Updated March 28, 2024

Made famous as Jimmy "The Gent" Conway in "Goodfellas," real-life New York gangster Jimmy Burke was even more ruthless than his onscreen counterpart.

Jimmy Burke

Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesAs depicted in “Goodfellas,” Lucchese family associate Jimmy “The Gent” Burke participated in countless robberies and murders starting in the 1950s.

The infamous New York City gangster Jimmy Burke, the inspiration for Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, always had a knack for getting away with things.

As an Irish-American, Burke was never formally inducted into a Mafia family. He wasn’t Italian, so he couldn’t be a made man, but that proved to work in his favor. Despite not being an official member, Jimmy Burke maintained close friendships with the higher-ups in the Lucchese family in Brooklyn and Queens from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and he used those connections to his advantage.

As something of an outsider, Jimmy Burke could float around as a free agent, orchestrating hijackings, heists, and hits — and he got away with almost everything, even murder. A few days before his wedding, for instance, Burke discovered that his soon-to-be wife’s ex-boyfriend was harassing her, and had told a few friends about it. On his wedding day, his blushing bride’s ex-boyfriend was found strewn about the inside of his car in a dozen or so pieces.

And that’s just one of many stories that show how terrifying Jimmy Burke truly was. Though he was later immortalized as “Jimmy Conway,” played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, even that beloved crime classic couldn’t begin to portray everything that this fearsome gangster pulled off.

Jimmy Conway In Goodfellas

Warner Bros.Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway, the character based on Jimmy Burke, in the 1990 film Goodfellas.

From his untold numbers of murders to his orchestration of the infamous $6-million Lufthansa heist in 1978, this is the real story of Jimmy “The Gent” Burke.

How Jimmy Burke’s Troubled Beginnings Shaped Him

James Burke was born on July 5, 1931, in New York City, and from the start it proved to be difficult. Burke never knew his real parents. He was taken into foster care at the age of two, where he faced more than a decade’s worth of violence, sexual abuse, and contrasting kindness by a litany of foster parents.

At the age of 13, Burke and his current foster parents were involved in a car crash that cost his foster father his life. After the accident, Burke’s foster mother grew to resent him, and the young boy’s downward spiral into juvenile delinquency began to rapidly increase.

Just two months after the fatal car crash, Jimmy Burke was arrested for a minor public order offense, though he was cleared of the charges, only for him to continue his criminal ways as he was a frequent burglar who spent much of his time in juvenile detention centers and, eventually, prisons.

In fact, according to Burke’s obituary, he spent just 86 days of his life as a free man between the ages of 16 and 22 — which also earned him the respect of local mobsters. Jimmy Burke earned even more respect when he showed that he was willing to kill for them.

Eventually, Burke fell in with the Lucchese and Colombo crime families, running a number of operations ranging from loan-sharking, smuggling cigarettes, and dealing drugs to hijacking, armed robbery, and murder. In pulling off these crimes and many others, some of his closest associates in the Lucchese family were Henry Hill, Tommy DeSimone, and Paul Vario, as famously depicted in Goodfellas, where Burke’s character was known as Jimmy Conway.

Henry Hill

Wikimedia CommonsAs Goodfellas portrayed, Henry Hill was one of Jimmy Burke’s main criminal associates.

And somehow, Burke always seemed to get away with it. Fitting, then, that Jimmy Burke’s biggest contribution to the Mafia was another crime he never answered for: his orchestration of the Lufthansa heist.

Jimmy Burke And His Crew Pull Off The Lufthansa Heist

In 1978, a group of unknown individuals pulled off the largest robbery committed on American soil, resulting in one of the longest-investigated crimes that the United States has ever seen. And though the authorities would never prove it, this heist was organized by none other than Jimmy Burke.

Lufthansa Heist

Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesThe front page of the New York Daily News after the Lufthansa heist, organized by Jimmy Burke in 1978.

Jimmy Burke first began formulating the Lufthansa heist several months before putting it into action. Over dinner with a bookkeeper, his associate Henry Hill learned of a shocking arrangement that was taking place at New York’s JFK airport.

Once a month, millions of dollars in untraceable American currency would be flown into the airport, the result of monetary exchanges made for servicemen and tourists in West Germany.

Once it arrived, via Lufthansa airplanes, it would be stored in a vault at JFK. A few years prior, several airport employees had stolen $22,000 in foreign currency from Lufthansa. In exchange for payment, they agreed to help orchestrate the crime.

Jimmy “The Gent” Burke handpicked six men from the Lucchese family, his own son, and one member of the Gambino family to do the job. They performed the entire thing in 64 minutes and ended up bringing Burke nearly $6 million (just over $22 million by today’s standards).

While dozens were arrested, several were tried, and a few were cleared, the mastermind behind the crime was never even charged.

The Criminal Exploits Of The Real Jimmy Conway And His Goodfellas

When he wasn’t pulling off multi-million dollar heists, Jimmy Burke was organizing low-level crimes throughout Ozone Park, Queens.

Jimmy Burke Outside Robert's Lounge

Nick Sorrentino/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesJimmy Burke outside his tavern during an FBI search for bodies.

He owned a dress factory called Moo Moo Vedda’s that he used to launder money, and a tavern called Robert’s Lounge, which served as a sort of hub for Burke and his crew.

Day to day, Burke and his crew made their living by reselling stolen merchandise, and untaxed liquor and cigarettes. Burke’s favorite move was to hijack delivery trucks on their way through Ozone Park. He would have his boys stop the trucks and take the drivers’ licenses, then he would hand each of the drivers a fifty and tell them to forget about it.

This strange sort of tipping earned him the nickname “Jimmy the Gent” among his crew and later the crime families.

Jimmy Burke also knew his way around law enforcement and had several corrupt cops working for him over the years. He would bribe them to name their informants, who would then mysteriously go missing. Even when it came to close personal friends, like Remo Cersani, he personally ordered and saw to their executions.

When he heard Cersani was going to set him up, he took him for a ride in his car, had Tommy DeSimone murder him, and buried him next to his bocce ball court.

Tommy DeSimone

PhotobucketTommy DeSimone, the unhinged mobster who often perpetrated crimes with Jimmy Burke, as depicted in Goodfellas.

According to Henry Hill, whenever Burke and DeSimone played bocce, they’d start the game with “Hi Remo, how ya doing?”

Despite his polite nickname and reputation as a gentleman, Jimmy Burke was as tough as they came, just as Jimmy Conway was in Goodfellas.

He’d often lock the young children of his victims inside refrigerators, strangle his enemies with piano wire, and retaliate violently against those who made him look bad.

Hill claimed that Jimmy Burke was directly responsible for at least 60–70 murders, though there easily could have been more he wasn’t aware of.

The Dramatic Downfall Of Jimmy “The Gent” Burke

James Burke

Public DomainJimmy Burke’s mugshot from 1979, the year after the Lufthansa heist.

Around 1982, Hill had become an informant for the FBI, as accurately depicted in Goodfellas, and admitted that there were more than a dozen people buried in and around Robert’s over the years. In addition to that, he snitched on Jimmy Burke for rigging college basketball games.

Burke was ultimately sentenced to 20 years, though the DA tried to get more. During the trial, he set out to prove that Burke was involved in the Lufthansa heist and several murders, though, by some miracle for Burke, his involvement in these incidents was never proven.

While serving his sentence, however, Burke was diagnosed with lung cancer, which he succumbed to the disease in 1996 at age 64. He would have been eligible for parole in 2011.

Jimmy The Gent Burke

Bureau of Prisons/Getty ImagesJimmy Burke was never charged with any crimes in relation to the Lufthansa heist.

Even today, his crimes are still being unveiled. In fact, as recently as 2013, Jimmy Burke made his way back into the news, when an investigation unearthed human remains at his home, proving that the story of this infamous criminal mastermind, the real-life Jimmy Conway, may live on for years to come.

After this look at Jimmy Burke, learn the story of Henry Hill’s wife, Karen Friedman Hill. Then, read about Burke’s participation in the infamous murder of Billy Batts.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Serena, Katie. "Why Jimmy Burke’s Story Was Wilder Than What ‘Goodfellas’ Depicted." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 28, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/jimmy-burke. Accessed May 26, 2024.