Just over 35 years ago, in a heist that lasted a mere 64 minutes, masked crooks lifted some $5 million in cash and about $875,000 in jewels from a vault at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The crime is still among the largest cash robberies in the US – in modern dollars, the lost sum and goods are valued at more than $20 million, ABC News reports. It has also gained notoriety from the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” and became immortalized as the Lufthansa heist, after the airline that delivered the valuables to the airport.
But for more than three decades, most of the caper’s alleged participants had gone uncharged, eluding authorities in a cat-and-mouse game throughout New York that had racked up a body count and rankled the FBI.
That game appeared to come nearer to a conclusion Thursday, when federal agents took five alleged New York mobsters into custody on charges of involvement in a slew of unsolved crimes over the past 40-plus years, including the Dec. 11, 1978, theft. The defendants – known in mob parlance as “goodfellas” or “wiseguys” – were arraigned Thursday in federal district court in Brooklyn.
“These ‘goodfellas' thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill, and a license to do whatever they wanted," George Venizelos, FBI assistant director-in-charge of the New York field office, told Reuters.
"It may be decades later, but the FBI's determination to investigate and bring wiseguys to justice will never waver," he said.
The arrests, made across the New York metro area in predawn raids, came after months of new leads and investigations, ABC News reported. One lead led to the FBI’s search in mid-June of the home of the suspected ringleader of the crime, James Burke, who had lived in Queens, according to Reuters.
Burke died in 1996 while serving a life sentence for a murder conviction unconnected to the Lufthansa heist. His wife still lived at the home the two had shared in the Queens neighborhood of South Ozone Park, NBC News reported.
All of the charged men – Vincent Asaro, Jerome Asaro, Thomas Di Fiore, John Ragano, and Jack Bonventre – are accused of belonging to the Bonanno crime family, a New York-based mob and a branch of the larger criminal group La Cosa Nostra.
The charges against them, outlined in a 26-page indictment, date back to the 1960s and are as lurid as a made-for-television Mob drama. Distributed among the five men are allegations of extortion, through various and nefarious means, arson, and bookmaking. There are charges of murder, and there are charges of hiring someone else to commit murder.
Just one, Vincent Asaro, is charged with participating in the Lufthansa heist. It is not clear in the indictment exactly what role he is accused of playing, saying only that he “and others agreed to steal property … from employees of Lufthansa Airlines.”
Vincent Asaro is named in the indictment as a member of the “administration” of the Bonanno family. Mr. Di Fiore is also listed as an administration member, and the other defendants are accused of holding lower ranks, including “captain” and “solider.”
Until Thursday, the only person ever charged in the Lufthansa case was the Lufthansa cargo agent, Louis Werner. Struggling to pay off gambling debts to the Mob, he is believed to have tipped off a crime ring to Lufthansa’s monthly shipments of cash and jewels to the airport’s vaults.
Other suspects in the case had a way of turning up dead just as the FBI closed in on them. To date, the case has accumulated six bodies, all associated with the crime family members' grisly attempts to conceal their connections to the heist, The New York Times reported Thursday.
The indictment also alleges that Vincent Asaro is connected with the killing of Paul Katz in 1969, almost a decade before the heist. Asaro’s son, Jerome, is accused of aiding his father in concealing the murder.
In addition to spelling out the charges, the indictment describes at length the clandestine workings of the alleged crime family, including its dynastic organizational structure and an induction ceremony in which a new member “swore allegiance for life to the crime family above all else, even the associate’s own family.”
Members swore, “on penalty of death, never to reveal the crime family’s existence, criminal activities and other secrets; and swore to follow all orders issued by the crime family boss, including swearing to commit murder if the boss directed it,” according to the indictment.