NEW YORK (Reuters) - An accused octogenarian mobster charged in an infamous 1978 airport heist memorialized in the film “Goodfellas” is the victim of lies “bought and paid for” by federal authorities, a defense lawyer told New York jurors on Monday.
Vincent Asaro, 80, waited in a car a mile away on Dec. 11, 1978 as a group of masked men stole $6 million in cash and jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines building at John F. Kennedy Airport, according to U.S. prosecutors.
But Elizabeth Macedonio, a lawyer for Asaro, said in her closing argument on Monday that the government’s key witnesses were “despicable people” lying in exchange for payments and a promise of freedom from prison.
“The government has become the pension plan” for former mobsters, she said at the close of a three-week trial in Brooklyn federal court.
Macedonio said the prosecution’s star witness, Asaro’s cousin Gaspare Valenti, fabricated his account of the airport caper, which was one of the country’s most well known unsolved crimes until Asaro’s arrest in 2014. The heist and its violent aftermath formed the basis for a major subplot in “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning 1990 mob movie.
Since the other alleged participants are all dead, including supposed mastermind Jimmy Burke, who inspired Robert DeNiro’s character in the film, Valenti knew he could invent any story without fear of contradiction, Macedonio said.
When Macedonio showed a surveillance photo of Asaro and Valenti, one Asaro relative sitting in the courtroom muttered an expletive about Valenti.
Asaro is charged with numerous mob-related crimes, including murder, extortion and racketeering.
Prosecutors have portrayed him as a third-generation Mafioso in the Bonanno crime family whose close association with Burke included a murder the two committed in 1969, strangling a suspected informant with a dog chain.
But Macedonio said the government had failed to show Asaro ever took any action on behalf of the Bonanno family.
“There is no such thing in this country as guilt by association,” she said.
Jury deliberations will begin after the prosecution delivers its rebuttal argument and the judge instructs jurors on the law.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Christian Plumb