As the verdict rang out in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday, Vincent Asaro looked stunned.
In what was easily one of the most dramatic trials in recent American mafia history, the 80-year-old reputed mobster was acquitted of all charges related to the 1978 Lufthansa heist, as well as the 1969 murder of a suspected informant. Fourteen counts in total, gone; life in prison, evaded. The only mobster ever to face trial for the biggest cash heist ever—one that was dramatized in the 1990 Martin Scorsese flick Goodfellas—is a free man.
With a look of exuberance on his face, Asaro slammed his hands on the table, fist-pumped to himself, hugged his defense team, and then whispered out loud, "I can't believe it."
Neither, it seemed, could anyone else in the courtroom.
The verdict was the culmination of a month-long trial in which the US Attorney's office tried to use years worth of surveillance and days of testimony from former mobsters and FBI agents to paint a picture of the "the ultimate tough guy," as lead Prosecutor Nicole Argentieri put it. The majority of the prosecution's argument hinged upon the account of Gaspare Valenti, Asaro's cousin and a former mobster who wore a wire for the FBI in an attempt to record his relative dishing about past glories.
But in less than ten seconds, all of that work—a case nearly five years in the making—against the alleged Bonanno crime family associate evaporated. The prosecutors, almost as visibly shocked as Asaro was, left the courthouse without saying a word.
It's unclear what went wrong for the feds. In fact, throughout the trial, Asaro's defense team did a pretty mediocre job in cross-examination, barely asking the witnesses anything substantial and generally failing to get the attention of jurors. They even passed a clear opportunity to go after an integral piece of evidence: a piece of tape where Asaro is heard telling his cousin, "That fucking Jimmy kept everything," referring to Jimmy "The Gent" Burke, the mastermind of the heist played by Robert de Niro in Scorsese's gangster classic.
Instead, the defense saved its heaviest blows for the end.
While the prosecution spent an entire day on their closing statement, the defense lawyer, Elizabeth Macedonio, limited her shtick to about two hours, in which she assailed Valenti for not being a credible witness. She argued that there were blatant inconsistencies in his detailed account of the heist, and used his own financial missteps to paint him as money-hungry and willing to misconstrue the truth to get more cash. (Valenti lived off an FBI stipend after he voluntarily pleaded guilty to several crimes and began spying on his cousin.)
Now, Valenti will be the one spending time behind bars.
The minute Asaro walked outside of the courthouse, the man who had spent most of the past two years in jail exclaimed "Free!" Cameras swarmed, and he struggled to wade his way through, lawyers by his side.
"Even John Gotti didn't get this much attention," Asaro joked.
What did he have to say, someone asked. "A huge thank-you to my lawyers and to the US Marshal's Office. I can't say the same about the FBI."
What would he do next? "Have a good meal with my family."
Finally, a reporter asked what has surely been on Asaro's mind for the past two years: What would he tell the cousin who tried to land him in prison?
"Honey, you don't want to know," Asaro replied, before taking off in a white Mercedes.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.