In a Brooklyn federal courtroom on Tuesday, Gaspare Valenti did the one thing mobsters like him aren't supposed to do: talk.
As his son glared at him from the gallery and his cousin sat enraged at the defendant's table, Valenti recounted how the first time he went on a score, he showed up in a seersucker suit, not quite understanding that "come dressed" meant come with a gun. He even told the court how he "got rid" of a body by pouring lime over it. "I was told it helps it decompose faster," the 68-year-old said, nonchalantly.
But when asked what his biggest crime was, Valenti replied with one word: "Lufthansa."
That answer marked the first time a gangster has admitted in court to helping carry out what was once the largest cash theft in American history: the 1978 Lufthansa heist at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. The robbery was a key plot point in Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas, and the way Valenti described it, you could see why it showed up in a movie.
"I was separating gold chains and watches and the diamonds and emeralds and rubies," the criminal told the court of the spoils.
Valenti is the key witness in the trial of Vincent Asaro, his 80-year-old cousin, who is charged with taking a cut from the $6 million heist, as well as murdering Paul Katz—who was believed to be a snitch—with a dog chain a decade earlier. That's the man Valenti graphically described burying, exhuming, and then "getting rid of" a second time, years later.
Valenti was arrested in 2013 for racketeering conspiracy, pleaded guilty, then agreed to wear a wire to help the Feds catch his cousin mouthing off about the heist. A year later, Asaro was arrested. When asked by a federal prosecutor on Tuesday what the penalty is for talking to law enforcement—one of the biggest no-no's in Mafia politics—Valenti responded quickly: "Death."
Throughout Valenti's testimony in the courtroom on Tuesday, Asaro stared at him, his hands clasped below his chin. At one point, when Valenti described a robbery where he dressed up like a woman to avoid detection, Asaro broke character, laughing to himself, perhaps at the memory of a mafioso in drag getting cat-called on the streets of Queens. It was clear that at one point, the cousins were friends.
In many ways, Asaro and Valenti's relationship closely resembled the one famously shared by the two other major players in the heist: Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill, the Lucchese family associates respectively played by Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. According to Valenti, Asaro and his father, who were both part of the Bonanno crime family, brought him into organized crime. Asaro apparently taught him how to rob, signed off on all of his scores, and, in one situation, instructed Valenti to brutally beat a bartender "who showed him disrespect" after a Fourth of July party.
But most importantly, Asaro always wanted to make sure he was making money, Valenti said, which is why he was invited to get in on the multi-family Lufthansa heist led by Burke. Fortunately for prosecutors, Valenti was able to offer a play-by-play of the caper.
If true, Valenti's account of the Lufthansa heist represents pure gangster gold.
He reeled off a list of alleged participants—something that the feds were never able to fully compile—and discussed the meetings held beforehand at Burke's club in Queens to plan just exactly how they'd rob the airport hanger. (Blueprints were apparently provided by Henry Hill's friend, Marty Krugman—the guy in Goodfellas who keeps pleading to Liotta for the heist money. He was later allegedly murdered in cold blood.)
On the night of the heist, Burke and Asaro waited a mile away in a "crash car," according to Valenti, and before arriving at the scene, Tommy DeSimone—Joe Pesci's character—bragged about using his silencer. Valenti then recounted how he and Burke's son, Frank, held up two terminal workers at gunpoint, hiding them in a van while the two mobsters cleaned the place out.
What happened afterward, though, is where the key details lie. "A robbery that big and nothing discussed of where anyone would go afterward," Valenti recalled thinking to himself.
Apparently, the group hadn't chosen a place to store the money, so at the last minute, according to Valenti, his own house in Brooklyn was chosen to stash the burlap sacks filled with the stolen $6 million. It was initially divided up around Christmastime to the families involved who were guaranteed a cut. Valenti asserted that he and Asaro were promised $750,000 at the onset. "Jimmy and Vinnie said, 'Don't spend anything,'" Valenti said. "'Don't catch any heat.'"
But the final amounts weren't fully doled out, he said. Some participants were apparently killed for disobeying Burke's orders (you might remember this scene from the movie, set to "Layla"), and others went missing. So the rest of the cash and diamonds allegedly remained in Burke's possession, especially when Burke later came under fire for unrelated crimes—something that apparently particularly pissed off Asaro, as he and Burke were partners for some time.
Years later, Asaro's frustration was caught on Valenti's wire. "We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get… Jimmy kept everything," Asaro is reportedly heard saying. Prosecutors claim that whatever cut Asaro did end up with, he blew it all on gambling. (That vice ran in the family: Valenti testified that he, too, went straight to the racetracks and social clubs with his end of the heist.)
After an explosive first-day primer of Mafia life, the key witness's testimony made up the entire second day of Asaro's trial, and could provide the feds with their best chance at booking Asaro for the age-old crimes with a life sentence. However, just as Valenti's memory serves the prosecution nicely, it also lays the groundwork for the defense to argue that his knack for details is suspicious—or too good to be true.
Regardless of Asaro's fate, Brooklyn federal court saw history on Tuesday: an admission from someone who was apparently involved in a legendary crime nearly four decades ago. In the process, old grudges—these rivalries and relationships that once dominated the New York City crime underworld—were given a dramatic public airing.
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