​An Old Mobster Is Now on Trial for the Massive Airport Heist from ‘Goodfellas’

Vincent Asaro, an 80-year-old said to be a longtime member of the Bonanno crime family, is in court for his alleged role in the 1978 Lufthansa heist, which at the time was the largest cash theft in US history.

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Oct 19 2015, 9:30pm

Vincent Asaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York after his arrest last year. Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

In Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas, mafia associate-turned-informant Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) breaks the fourth wall and stares right at the camera as he delivers testimony against his former pals.

"We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges," he says, walking off the stand. "Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now, it's all over."

In real life, Hill's account of his involvement in organized crime helped land 50 convictions of high-level gangsters, including James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke (played by Robert De Niro). But no bona fide mobsters ever got put on trial for carrying out the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist, during which a record $6 million was stolen from JFK Airport, as dramatized in the movie.

Until now.

On Monday morning, that storied American subculture of payoffs, whacks, and half-joking, half-murderous lines made a startling return to Brooklyn federal court. The first day of the trial against Vincent Asaro, an 80-year-old longtime member of the Bonanno crime family, made for an incredible spectacle at a time when depictions of the mafia's power are increasingly relegated to reruns of The Sopranos and throwback Hollywood blockbusters.

Arrested last year, Asaro—who has a history of mob-related convictions—is accused of taking a direct cut from the $6 million in cash and jewelry stolen that night in 1978. He is also charged with the late 1960s murder of a man believed by the family to be an informant named Paul Katz and burying his body at Burke's old house in Queens.

For his part, Asaro denies all allegations, and has pleaded not guilty.

According to an account provided to the feds by his cousin-turned-informant, Gaspare Valenti, Asaro kept his own involvement in the heist secret for years, while the rest of the organized crime world around him faltered. Valenti agreed in 2013 to wear a wire to get an admission out of Asaro after Valenti himself was convicted of racketeering. As recorded by the wire, Asaro reportedly said out loud that "We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get... Jimmy kept everything."

In 1978, the Bonanno family, one of the famous "Five Families", reportedly controlled the turf of JFK Airport. They apparently gave their blessing to a group of Lucchese family–affiliated crooks, led by Burke, who allegedly went on to order the ritualized killings of those involved because Burke believed were attracting too much attention by flaunting their new wealth. (Burke was ultimately convicted, in the 1980s, of a college basketball point-shaving scheme and murdering a drug dealer.) At the time of the heist, Asaro was just a low-level Bonanno soldier; once he received his cut, prosecutors claim, he gave a briefcase full of gold and diamonds from the heist to Joseph Massino, the former boss of the Bonanno family, as a sort of tribute.

Prosecutors say Asaro later blew his cut on a growing gambling addiction. After becoming a mafia capo in the following years, he was actually demoted back to soldier due to his "his gambling problems and failure to repay debts to those associated with organized crime," according to the feds.

But by 2013, when most of the Bonanno crime family was either behind bars or wired, Asaro had apparently reclaimed his position as captain and even won a spot on "the panel" that oversaw Bonanno family affairs. When he was arrested the next year, the "made men" who placed him back on the Mafia food chain, including his own son, Jerome, were also thrown in handcuffs for crimes unrelated to the Lufthansa heist.

In her opening statement on Monday morning, federal prosecutor Lindsay K. Gerdes argued that Asaro had a "long history of borrowing money from people and never paying them back." In his defense, Asaro's lawyer, Diane Ferrone, claimed that the feds had no evidence that anyone saw Asaro commit these crimes, and of course, that he should be seen as innocent until proven guilty. She urged the jurors to make their decision based on "what the government does not have."

Soon Sal Vitale, a former underboss in the Bonanno family and Massino's right-hand man, took the stand on the eighth floor of Brooklyn federal court. Better known as "Handsome Sal," Vitale's hours-long testimony was a stunning primer in the Mafia—how it functions, how it kills, and, of course, how it profits.

"Money goes up, orders go down," was how Vitale put it at one point.

"Scores," as Vitale described them, are "anything to make money that's illegal." Inducted "soldiers" are known as "goodfellas" or "made men" who "earn money for the family and do what they're told." "Captains" are usually in charge of ten soldiers, he added, and underbosses oversee the captains.

The boss himself? "He's God," Vitale said.

Eventually, Vitale pinned the crime directly on Asaro, who was sitting silent in the courtroom, suggesting he was in a car with Massino when Asaro handed them a briefcase full of diamonds and gold from the Lufthansa vaults. The goods were apparently later sold on Canal Street in Chinatown.

In the early 2000s, Vitale served as a government informant and was later set free after serving seven years in prison. He now lives under federal witness protection ("I'm still in danger," he told the court on Monday), and during his testimony he casually mentioned 11 murders he played a part in. His list of crimes also includes extortion, gambling, loan sharking, intimidation, and an array of other offenses.

In the coming days of the trial, Joseph Massino is set to testify, as well as Valenti, the cousin who set this series of events in motion. Asaro—whose concealed forearm tattoo reads "Death Before Dishonor"—is not currently expected to testify.

Even if these aging gangsters are clinging to the remnants of a once-prominent criminal underworld, on Monday morning, the machinery of the Mafia was described in the present tense. For the duration of the trial, at least, all these grisly slayings and money-making schemes are no longer confined to the dustbin of history.

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