When they pulled off the Lufthansa heist, it was the largest robbery in U.S. history. Four decades later, the few who survived the bloodbath have still evaded justice.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Dec. 11, 1978, a stolen black Ford Econoline lingered outside New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Inside, several men waited for a signal, their faces covered in black ski masks.
Finally, at 3:12 a.m., the signal came and the van backed up to the deliveries entrance of the Lufthansa Airlines terminal. The masked men got out, each of them armed with a loaded weapon, and entered the terminal.
Sixty-four minutes later they quietly slipped out, loaded the van with $5 million in untraceable cash and another $1 million in jewels, and got away with what was, at the time, the largest sum ever stolen on U.S. soil – and the subject of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic Goodfellas.
To this day — nearly three decades after the Lufthansa heist was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas — only one man has ever been imprisoned for the crime.
Jimmy Burke Plots The Perfect Crime
The Lufthansa heist, or really any crime quite like it, surely could not be pulled off in the same way today. But in 1970s New York, a lot of things happened that could not be pulled off today – thanks to the Mafia.
The 1970s and early ’80s marked an apex of crime in modern New York City history, and a lot of that had to do with the Five Families of the New York Mafia. The Bonnano, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families had the run of their shares of the city, with at least one of them behind almost every major crime committed during their heyday.
Jimmy Burke (played by Robert De Niro as “Jimmy Conway” in Goodfellas) was an uncharacteristic sort of Mafia man in that he was Irish-American, not Italian-American. His heritage was both a blessing as a curse. Not being Italian meant he couldn’t be a made man, but it also meant he could act as a free agent of sorts. While other associates found themselves hopelessly bound to a family, Jimmy Burke was free to make his own allegiances.
And make allegiances he did. As a young man, Burke became an associate of the Lucchese family and began working the streets for them. Ultimately, it was Burke who led the Lufthansa heist.
The plan took shape at Robert’s Lounge, the tavern in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens that was owned by Burke and served as a hub for criminals and a spot where dirty deals were made. On one particular evening at Robert’s Lounge, Burke’s associate Henry Hill (portrayed by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) met with a bookmaker associate of his named Martin Krugman. Krugman provided him with the information that spawned the heist – information concerning $6 million in untraceable cash and jewelry, all of it relatively easily accessible and easy to steal.
According to Krugman – who’d gotten his information from a JFK airport worker who owed him money named Louis Werner – there was a vault in the Lufthansa Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport that was used monthly for the transport and storage of currency.
Once a month, millions of dollars in untraceable American currency would be flown into JFK, the result of monetary exchanges made for servicemen and tourists in West Germany. Burke knew it was easy to steal because it had been done before. Several years prior, $22,000 in cash was stolen from a Lufthansa vault by Werner himself.
In exchange for a hefty sum, Burke agreed to orchestrate the Lufthansa heist for the Lucchese family. Over the course of several months, he plotted alongside Werner, Krugman, and other associates who knew the inner workings of the airport and how security worked. Werner even supplied Burke with information on where to park, what time to enter, and how long they should stay inside.
Meanwhile, Burke began assembling his team. Tommy DeSimone (played by Joe Pesci as “Tommy DeVito” in Goodfellas), Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Civitello Sr., Tony Rodriguez, Joseph M. Costa, Joe Manri, and Robert McMahon were chosen from the Lucchese family, along with Paolo LiCastri, a representative of the Gambino family. In addition, Burke selected his own son, Frank, and an associate of his named Parnell “Stacks” Edwards to serve as drivers.
DeSimone, Sepe, Cafora, Civitello, Rodriguez, Costa, Manri, McMahon, and LiCastri were to pull off the heist themselves, in a stolen Ford Econoline van driven by Edwards. Frank Burke would wait outside the airport in a “crash car,” a vehicle literally intended to crash into police cars, should any approach the airport while the men were still inside.
Other associates were also looped in for outside jobs. Paul Vario, underboss of the Lucchese family (played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas) sent his son Paul to ensure that his end of the loot was procured. Vincent Asaro, crime crew chief of the Bonnano family was also looped in, and assured payment, as the crime would be committed by Lucchese men on Bonnano territory.
And, of course, Jimmy Burke would orchestrate from afar, and be responsible for tying up any loose ends.
The Lufthansa Heist
The stolen van sat outside the Lufthansa terminal in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, just as planned. At 3:12 a.m., a cargo agent named Kerry Whalen noticed the car and went to investigate. Immediately, he was pistol-whipped and dragged inside the van. His wallet was taken and his family was threatened; faced with no choice, Whalen agreed to cooperate. The Lufthansa heist had begun.
As Whalen was being held, another agent heard the commotion and went to investigate as well. As he entered the loading dock, six armed men in ski masks ambushed him. With a key that had been provided by Werner, the men entered the building and rounded up the remaining employees, sequestering them all in a break room, using the bloodied and beaten Whalen as proof that they were not there to play games.
After rounding up all the employees, one of the Lucchese members ordered the senior cargo agent to call Rudi Elrich. Elrich, Werner had told them, was the only man with the codes to get through the vault’s two-door system.
After Elrich was summoned via a ruse about a technical problem with the cargo, he was forced to activate the doors, which he was surprised the masked men had such extensive knowledge of. However, Werner had fully briefed Burke’s men beforehand. He had explained that the double-door system was extremely important, as any misstep could result in the security system being activated – if that happened, there was no chance of escape; the Port Authority Police could have the entire airport locked down in less than 90 seconds.
The first door had to be unlocked, opened, then closed and re-locked before the second door was opened. Upon exit, the second door had to close and lock before the first could be opened again. As a precaution, Burke’s men had Elrich open the first door, then wait with them in the chamber between the two doors while they evaluated the cargo.
Burke’s men forced Elrich at gunpoint to lie on the ground while they sifted through cargo manifests, deciding which parcels to steal when the moment was right. Once the 40 or so parcels were selected, Elrich was made to unlock the second door. The cargo was then loaded into the chamber and the second door was re-locked.
After the outer door was unlocked, one man returned Elrich, at gunpoint, to the break room where the rest of the employees were being held under guard. By 4:16, all cargo had been loaded into the Econoline outside. The Lufthansa employees were then instructed not to make any phone calls until 4:30, giving Burke’s men a roughly 15-minute buffer to escape.
At 4:21, the Econoline pulled out of the loading dock, and true to their word (and under threat of death) the Lufthansa employees waited 14 minutes to alert the authorities.
By the time they arrived, there wasn’t a sign of Burke’s men in sight.
In just 64 minutes, the Lufthansa heist was over. Burke’s men had pulled off the country’s greatest heist, leaving with $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry (a roughly $2 million haul when adjusted for inflation).
And, they had gotten away with it. For the time being.
The Weakest Link Ruins The Perfect Crime
The Lufthansa heist could have been the perfect crime, had it not been for one man’s selfish misstep.
On Dec. 13, two days after the heist, police received a call from a patrol officer reporting a large van parked in a no-parking zone in Canarsie, Brooklyn. From the looks of it, the patrol officer said, it matched the description of the van given by the Lufthansa employees.
Police investigators and fingerprint experts immediately rushed to the scene and impounded the car, believing it to be the same Ford Econoline seen at JFK. Upon further investigation, the fingerprints belonged to one Parnell Edwards.
Of course, Edwards was never questioned by police, as he’d been “taken care of” by Jimmy the Gent for his misstep. But the tale of his grave mistake soon came to light.
Edwards had been tasked with disposing of the Ford Econoline after the money had been moved. Immediately following the heist, he had been told to take the van to a car compactor in New Jersey and get rid of it. Unfortunately, Edwards wasn’t quite as adept at following the rules as he was robbing the airport.
Instead of heading right for New Jersey, Edwards took a detour to his girlfriend’s house in Canarsie. On the way, he indulged in a joint (or two) and ended up parking his stolen, very much being-searched-for van in a no-parking zone. After indulging yet again, this time in alcohol and cocaine, Edwards proceeded to pass out and forget about the van.
Upon hearing about Edwards’ mistake, Jimmy Burke decided it was time to take matters into his own hands in order to keep his associates — almost all of them — from making other mistakes or talking to the cops.
Jimmy The Gent Becomes Less-Than-Gentlemanly
So how did Jimmy Burke guarantee everyone’s silence? By not being fussy about who he had to kill in order to get it. After all, dead men tell no tales.
According to Henry Hill (who later became an invaluable witness for the government and helped put Burke, among others, in jail), Edwards’ mistake sent Burke into a state of high anxiety. According to the FBI, it had only taken them three days after finding the van to pinpiont Burke as the mastermind and his crew as the perpetrators — and Burke was feeling the heat.
Burke thus vowed, Hill claimed, that he would kill anyone who might be able to implicate him in the Lufthansa heist. And before long, that’s precisely what Burke did.
Edwards, fittingly, was the first victim, killed at his apartment by Tommy DeSimone and Angelo Sepe. Next was Krugman. After that came several of the gunmen Burke had enlisted, along with a few of their immediate family members. Within six months, almost everyone involved in the heist was dead or missing (even including Frank Burke, Jimmy’s son), either by Burke’s own hand or thanks to an associate of his.
The End, A Long Time Coming
With Jimmy Burke having killed off virtually all of the Lufthansa heist perpetrators, there was almost no one left to go to prison — if they’d actually been caught. Even now, 40 years after the Lufthansa heist, only one man has ever served time for direct involvement with the crime.
Louis Werner was arrested four months after the heist for providing the robbers with information regarding the terminal layout. He was convicted in May of 1979, and served 15 years in prison.
In 1980, Henry Hill was arrested for narcotics trafficking. Fearing Burke would have him killed as a way to prevent him from cooperating with authorities, Hill did just that and volunteered to be an informant for the FBI in exchange for protection. After providing the authorities with decades’ worth of information on Burke, Vario, and others, Hill entered the Witness Protection Program and disappeared.
Both Vario and Burke did go to prison following Hill’s cooperation, but neither case had anything to do with the Lufthansa heist. Vario was arrested on racketeering, gambling, and loan sharking charges, while Burke was arrested for his part in a basketball point-shaving scheme. Both of them died in prison, Vario in 1988 and Burke in 1996.
Finally, in 2014 — 36 years after the Lufthansa heist — it seemed there might finally be another arrest involving a direct player. Vincent Asaro, the crime chief of the Bonnano family, was arrested in connection with the heist at the age of 78. He went to trial, and ultimately denied he had anything to do with the heist, a claim also backed up by Henry Hill before his death in 2012.
Asaro was aquitted of all charges and made a free man again. However, it soon seemed the fate of Burke and Vario would befall Asaro too. In 2017, he was arrested in a road rage incident and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Whatever Asaro may or may not know about the Lufthansa heist could very well die with behind bars, like it was with Burke. As Burke’s fictional counterpart told a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas, “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
It would seem as though Burke’s real-life associates mostly held true to that credo — or were killed before they had a chance to break it. Either way, to this day, the Lufthansa heist remains one of the longest — not to mention bloodiest and most storied — open cases in American history.