NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five people said to be part of a New York crime family were arrested on Thursday, including a 78-year-old man accused of participating in a notorious 1978 airport heist that inspired the movie “Goodfellas.”
More than three decades after $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry was stolen from a Lufthansa airlines cargo building at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the FBI arrested Vincent Asaro, an alleged leader of the Bonanno organized crime family, on robbery charges.
Four other men, who prosecutors said were members of the New York-based gang, were arrested for other crimes.
“Vincent Asaro devoted his adult life to the Bonanno crime family, with a criminal career that spanned decades,” said U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in a statement. “Neither age nor time dimmed Asaro’s ruthless ways, as he continued to order violence to carry out mob business in recent months.”
Asaro pleaded not guilty in a brief appearance at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, and his attorney said he would fight the charges.
“I got a call from Martin Scorsese,” joked attorney Gerald McMahon, referring to the director of the 1990 movie about the heist. “He wants to do a sequel to ‘Goodfellas’ and it seems that federal prosecutors are providing him with the script.”
At the time of the JFK caper, the currency was being shipped to a U.S. bank from West Germany and the theft was the biggest cash heist ever in the United States. The stolen $5 million in cash would be worth $17.9 million in 2013 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“These ‘goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill, and a license to do whatever they wanted,” said George Venizelos, FBI assistant director-in-charge, in the New York field office.
The gangsters involved in the heist had each been promised a $750,000 payment that most didn’t get “either because they were killed first or it was never given to them,” according to court papers filed in the Brooklyn court on Thursday.
Asaro resented the non-payment, according to a 2011 recording made by a cooperating witness.
“We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get, we got fucked all around,” Asaro told the witness, according to the papers. “That fucking Jimmy (Burke) kept everything.”
James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke was played by Robert De Niro in the popular Scorsese movie adapted from the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi. Affiliated with the rival Lucchese crime family, Burke was the suspected mastermind of the brazen crime that stumped investigators for decades.
“A lot of the main characters, like Burke, either died, disappeared or were murdered,” said Anthony DeStefano, a veteran New York crime reporter and author of the 2013 book “Vinny Gorgeous: The Ugly Rise and Fall of a New York Mobster.”
A break in the case came after an FBI investigation of a New York property tied to Burke last summer turned up human remains. Burke himself died in prison in 1996 while serving time for the murder of a drug dealer.
The Thursday indictment charges Asaro with the murder of Paul Katz in 1969, as well as robbery, conspiracy and other crimes tied to the 1978 heist.
Asaro and Burke strangled Katz with a dog chain because they thought he was cooperating with investigators, prosecutors said. His body was first buried in the basement of a vacant house in the New York borough of Queens and later moved to the location where it was found last summer, they said.
The papers also charge the men were involved in the 1981 torching of a building where a businessman had intended to open a nightclub catering to black people in the then mostly white neighborhood in Queens where the accused gangsters socialized.
The papers also mention a discussion between Asaro and the other indicted men about more recent crimes, including extortion, loan sharking and violence, as recently as 2013.
Asaro was charged with four criminal counts, including robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery, in connection with the Lufthansa heist.
He is also charged racketeering and extortion for other alleged criminal activity.
Vincent Asaro and his son, Jerome Asaro, 55, are charged with stealing $1.25 million in gold salts from a Federal Express employee in February 1984. They are also accused of robbery conspiracy in the theft of $1 million from an armored car in the mid-1980s.
Three others defendants, Jack Bonventre, 45; Thomas “Tommy D” Di Fiore, 70; and John “Bazoo” Ragano, 52, are charged with multiple crimes, including racketeering and extortion, unrelated to the Lufthansa heist, officials said.
Jerome Asaro and Ragano, wearing baggy sweatsuits and sneakers, pleaded not guilty to all charges in Brooklyn on Thursday, while Bonventre did not enter a plea as his lawyer was not yet present. Di Fiore was not present in court.
Much of the money from the 1978 heist has not been recovered, said DeStefano, who writes for Newsday: “Some of it went up the chain in tribute to the Luccheses, some of it went to Burke and his businesses and some of it is still unaccounted for.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone, Nick Zieminski, Alden Bentley and Gunna Dickson