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Reputed New York mobster, 80, cleared in 1978 'Goodfellas' heist

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An 80-year-old reputed mobster was found not guilty on Thursday of participating in a brazen 1978 New York airport heist that helped inspire the Mafia movie “Goodfellas.”

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Vincent Asaro, whose arrest more than 35 years later had supposedly closed one of the most infamous unsolved crimes in the United States, was cleared of murder, extortion and other crimes by a jury in Brooklyn federal court.

The verdict is a surprising rebuke to prosecutors in what may be one of the last major Mafia trials stemming from organized crime’s heyday in New York decades ago.

Prosecutors said Asaro waited in a decoy car with another gangster, Jimmy Burke, about a mile from John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 7, 1978, as a group of masked men stole $6 million in cash and jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines cargo building.

The caper was memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning 1990 film, in which Robert DeNiro played a character based on Burke, long believed to be the mastermind of the robbery.

Asaro, whom prosecutors said is a third-generation member of the Bonanno crime family, had also been charged with strangling a suspected informant with a dog chain in 1969, soliciting the murder of a relative and robbing an armored car.

As he left the courthouse, a beaming Asaro yelled out, “Free!”

“I got two years here, and I’m dying to get home,” Asaro, who has been in custody since his January 2014 arrest, told reporters.

When asked what he planned to do, he said, “Have a good meal and see my family.”

The three-week trial featured numerous former organized crime figures whose testimony painted a picture of the violent life of a New York Mafioso.

Among those witnesses was Asaro’s cousin, Gaspare Valenti, who wore a wire for years and who linked Asaro to the Lufthansa heist and the 1969 murder.

Valenti claimed to be one of the robbers, delivering from the witness stand a riveting account of the infamous crime.

Until Asaro’s arrest, the only man ever charged for the robbery was a Lufthansa employee who functioned as the inside man.

But defense lawyers argued successfully that Valenti and the other cooperators were professional liars who perjured themselves in exchange for payments and promises of leniency.

“The government has become the pension plan” for former mobsters, Asaro’s lawyer Elizabeth Macedonio told jurors in her closing argument. “How can you believe them?”

Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Christian Plumb and Grant McCool