It’s rare that a real-world event is more dramatic and hard to believe than what transpires in the Oscar-winning movie it inspires, but you can absolutely make the case that it applies to the 1978 Lufthansa Heist, which serves as a climactic moment in Martin Scorsese’s classic film GoodFellas, about rise and fall of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill.
Hill became involved with the mob at a young age
GoodFellas is told from the point of view of Hill, a local Brooklyn gangster and drug dealer who worked as an associate for the Lucchese crime family, one of Brooklyn’s most notorious mafioso organizations. The son of an Irish father and Sicilian mother, he got in with the mob early, running errands for the gangsters who hung out near his family’s home in Brownsville and then graduating to more serious crimes, including arson.
He spent time in the army, though he was discharged for starting a brawl and stealing a sheriff’s car, and wound up back with the mafia in Brooklyn soon after. His wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas, was initially unaware of his crime connections, but ultimately embraced the lifestyle.
In 1967, Hill took part in robbing an Air France cargo terminal at JFK, which netted $420,000. As he told biographer Nicholas Pileggi for the book Wiseguy, on which GoodFellas was based, that robbery won him big points with the mafia higher-ups. In biographies, memoirs and interviews later in life, Hill swore up and down that he’d never killed anyone, though he openly admitted to witnessing 20 murders and helping to bury the bodies of at least 10 victims. The time he spent in prison was for extortion, not any violent crimes.
Jimmy Burke endured a rough childhood which contributed to his criminal behavior later in life
On the other hand, Brooklyn gangster Jimmy Burke delighted in murder and was responsible for several of the corpses that Hill had to bury. In his 2003 memoir, A Goodfellas Guide to New York, Hill said that Burke had the bodies buried locally, scattering them underneath houses, bocce ball courts and even his own bar. Burke was known as “Jimmy the Gent” because he was always passing out wads of cash and big tips to everyone in the neighborhood, but the nickname also contained more than a trace of irony.
Burke had a rough childhood. The first 13 years of his life consisted mostly of repetitive abuse from the foster families he lived with after his mother put him in an orphanage at the age of 2. While he eventually found loving adoptive parents, the mold had been cast. After so many years of absorbing beatings and fending for himself, Burke spent most of his teenage and early 20s alternately committing crimes and doing time in prison.
In the years that followed, he began working for both the Lucchese and Colombo crime families. The fact that he was Irish American made it impossible for him to be a full member or rise up the ranks in either group — only Italians could earn that privilege — but he commanded his own squad of loyal soldiers. He too got in on the drug game over time, though stealing was his true favorite past time.
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The heist was an inside job, engineered by Brooklyn gangsters
Well before dawn on December 11, 1978, six henchmen working for Burke pulled up outside a Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK Airport. They didn’t know it, but they were about to make history.
A tip had come in through Hill, Burke’s mob associate, that the German airline would be delivering a big load of cash to the New York hub. It was a pretty solid lead, having initially come from a Lufthansa employee named Louis Werner, who passed it to a bookie named Marty Krugman as make-good on some gambling debt. Krugman passed it to Hill, and despite Burke’s reservations about Krugman, the opportunity was too good to pass up. After planning it out in Burke’s Queens restaurant, the six men in the van, along with Burke’s son and another associate in a nearby Buick, set off for JFK to pull off the robbery.
What they thought would be a $2 million score wound up being a $5 million haul, with an extra $850,000 in jewelry thrown in for good measure. With inflation, that translates to just over $23 million in today’s dollars, all-in. At the time, it was the biggest heist in American history, making it the subject of a massive FBI investigation and decades’ worth of books and movies — in GoodFellas, Hill was played by Ray Liotta, while Burke inspired a character named Jimmy Conway, who was portrayed by Robert De Niro. Most everyone else involved in the heist, however, did not live to see themselves portrayed on the big screen by legendary actors.
The heist itself was relatively simple. The six mob soldiers wore ski masks, busted into the cargo area, took one Lufthansa employee hostage and then rounded up the rest of his co-workers. Once they had everyone tied up, they hit the airline’s vault, grabbing the boxes of cash — there were 72 of them, weighing 15 pounds apiece — and made their escape. It took just over an hour and the crew was gone before 4:30 a.m., still well before the sunrise.
Soon after, they met Burke in Brooklyn, transferred all the money out of the van and went their separate ways. The heist made international headlines for not only how much was stolen, but soon enough, just how little the police knew about it. It stayed that way for a long time, in part because most of the people who were involved with the high-stakes robbery were killed soon after.
The heist was just the beginning of Burke's crime spree
Burke’s propensity for bribing police officers meant that while he spent a stretch of time in prison in the ‘70s, his biggest crimes went unprosecuted — even when he went down years later, for his involvement in fixing college basketball games, he was never tried for murder. The reason why he never was arrested for the Lufthansa Heist, however, is quite different.
When the heist was over, one of the henchmen, Parnell "Stacks" Edwards, a guitar player and frequent mob soldier, was supposed to ditch the big van in New Jersey. Instead, he proceeded to leave it in front of his girlfriend’s apartment, where cops found it two days later, covered in fingerprints. That’s when it struck Burke that with so many people involved in the heist, he risked ultimately being found out by the FBI. Now paranoid — as well as unwilling to pay the participants their fair share of the money — Burke went on a killing spree.
After he had Edwards killed, Burke methodically mowed down — or signed death warrants for — nearly every other mob soldier involved in the heist. It didn’t matter that some of them were close friends or associates; guys like Joe "Buddha" Manri and Robert McMahon, who helped plan the heist in the first place, both got bullets in the back of the head. So did Marty Krugman (GoodFellas fans would know him as the wig salesman Morrie Kessler), though he was taken out more for his demand for half a million dollars as the guy who brought the tip to Hill in the first place.
Louis Cafora, who bought a pink Cadillac for his wife soon after the heist, permanently disappeared, which is to say his body still hasn’t been found.
Meanwhile, Thomas DeSimone, a close friend of Burke’s was killed by the Gambino crime family for a murder he’d committed earlier that decade. DeSimone was portrayed by Joe Pesci in GoodFellas as a hot-head, trigger-happy maniac, which won Pesci an Oscar.
Burke had other associates killed during this time, as well, including Richard Eaton, who had been one of Burke’s closest colleagues. He wasn’t involved in the actual heist, but he ripped Burke off for $250,000 in a drug scam and taking cash off the top of the Lufthansa score when the money was being laundered.
Why do we know all this? Because when Hill was arrested for dealing drugs and then his involvement in the Lufthansa Heist, he decided to become a government informant. He didn’t have any other option — he knew Burke was going to have him killed whether he remained on the street for the time being or went to prison. Hill’s testimony led to 50 convictions, including Burke’s arrest for rigging college basketball games.
Hill, his wife Karen and their two children entered the witness protection program after his testimony, though Hill couldn’t quite stick to the straight-laced anonymity required of the participants. He was kicked out of the program in 1987 and Karen divorced him in 1989, just a year before the premiere of GoodFellas. He spent the next 25 years milking the fame that came with the movie. When he died in 2015, none of his remaining mafia associates showed up at his funeral.