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Lufthansa heist

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The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewels were stolen, at the time making it the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil. This robbery was the subject of two television films, The 10 Million Dollar Getaway and The Big Heist, and is a key plot element in the 1990 film Goodfellas.

Planning and execution

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As investigators later determined, the crime was planned by Jimmy Burke, an associate of the Lucchese crime family, and carried out by several of his associates. The plot began when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Henry Hill (an associate of Jimmy Burke's) about millions of dollars in untraceable money: American currency flown in once a month from monetary exchanges for servicemen and tourists in West Germany. After arriving via Lufthansa, the currency was then stored in a vault at Kennedy Airport. The information had come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 in gambling debts, and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald. Werner and Gruenwald had previously been successful in stealing $22,000 in foreign currency from their employer, Lufthansa, in 1976.

Louis Werner helped Krugman throughout the planning, even telling him where the robbers should park. A Ford Econoline 150 van would be used to transport the cash, and a "crash car" would accompany the van to run vehicular interference should the plot be interrupted and a chase ensue. Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Joe Civitello, Sr., Louis Cafora, and Angelo Sepe and Sepe's ex-brother-in-law, Tony Rodriguez, as inside gunmen. Paolo LiCastri, a Sicilian shooter, was later included as a representative of the Gambino crime family, which had been promised a tribute payment to sanction the crime. Parnell 'Stacks' Edwards, an African American associate of Burke's gang who served as a "gofer" and chauffeur was also included to dispose of the van used in the heist.

Once everyone was together, Jimmy told Lucchese family Underboss Paul Vario, who sent his son, Peter, to collect his 'end' of the loot. Vinne Asaro, who was the Gambino family's crew chief at the airport, would also be owed money because Burke, a Lucchese associate, was performing the robbery on territory belonging to the Gambino family.

On December 11, at 3:12 a.m., cargo agent Kerry Whalen, returning from making a transfer, spotted a black Ford Econoline van pulling into a bay near a loading platform for vaults. When Whalen walked toward the loading bay to investigate, he was struck over the head with a .45 pistol. Whalen saw a series of armed men running into the cargo terminal and then another man took his wallet and said that they knew where his family was and that they had men ready to visit them. Whalen nodded to indicate that he would co-operate with the robbers.

Senior agent Rolf Rebmann heard a noise by the loading ramp, and when he went to investigate, six armed, masked men forced their way in and handcuffed him. They then used a one-of-a-kind key from Werner and walked through a maze of corridors to where the two other employees would be. Once these two men had been rounded up, two gunmen ventured downstairs to look for unexpected visitors. The other men marched the employees to a lunch room, where the other employees were on a 3 a.m. break.

The gunmen burst into the lunch room; brandishing their firearms, they showed a bloodied Whalen as an indication of their intentions if anyone got out of line. They knew each employee by name and forced them onto the ground. They made John Murray, the terminal's senior cargo agent, call Rudi Eirich on the intercom. The robbers knew that Eirich was the only guard that night who knew the right combination to open the double door vault. Murray was made to pretend to Eirich that there was a problem with a load from Frankfurt and told Eirich to meet him in the cafeteria. As Eirich approached the cafe he was met by two shotguns and he saw the other employees bound and gagged on the cafeteria floor. One gunman kept watch over the ten employees and the other three took Eirich at gun point down two flights of stairs to the double door vault.

Eirich later reported that the men were informed and knew all about the safety systems in the vault, including the double door system, whereby one door must be shut in order for the other one to be opened without activating the alarm. The men ordered Eirich to open up the first door, to a 10-by-20 foot room. They knew that if he opened the second door he would activate an alarm to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which maintained a police force at the airport. Once inside, they ordered Eirich to lie on the ground and began sifting through invoices and freight manifests to determine which parcels they wanted from among the many similarly wrapped ones.

Finally, they began hurling parcels of cash through the door. Around 40 parcels were removed. Eirich was then made to lock the inner door before unlocking the outer door. Two of the gunmen were assigned to load the parcels into the van while the others tied up Eirich. The employees were told not to call the Port Authority until 4:30 a.m. When the men left it was 4:16 a.m. According to the cafeteria clock no calls were made until 4:30, when a report of the theft was made. The robbery took only 64 minutes and was the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil at the time.


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Driver Parnell "Stacks" Edwards was supposed to take the van used in the burglary to a car compactor to have it destroyed; instead, jubilant from the gang's easy heist, he got high on marijuana while en route to the junkyard, drove the van to his girlfriend's apartment, conspicuously parked it in a no-parking zone, and spent the evening getting drunk and snorting cocaine, apparently intending to deliver the van to the junkyard the next day.

The next day, while Edwards was still asleep in his girlfriend's apartment, the van was discovered by the police and quickly identified as the vehicle used in the burglary. Edwards himself successfully fled the complex without being apprehended. His finger prints were later found on the wheel of the vehicle, and a muddy shoe print found at the airport was matched to a pair of Puma tennis shoes Edwards owned.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had two suggestions of who led the heist, the John Gotti crew or the Jimmy Burke crew, and within 3 days since the robbery, the Federal Bureau of Investigation knew it was the Jimmy Burke crew. The FBI set up surveillance of the Burke crew, following them in helicopters and installing listening devices in their vehicles. According to Henry Hill, Jimmy Burke became paranoid and agitated once he realized how much heat Edwards' failure had drawn, and resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist, starting with Edwards.

With the violent deaths of most of the heist associates and planners, there was little evidence and few witnesses to the involvement of Burke or his crew in the execution of the heist. The authorities were able to gather enough evidence to prosecute inside man Louis Werner for helping to plan the heist.

The stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.

Violent deaths of heist associates

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Edwards was shot to death in his apartment on December 18, 1978 by Tommy DeSimone and Angelo Sepe at the request of Jimmy Burke after his failure to properly dispose of the truck was discovered. This was the first in a series of players, or their acquaintances, who were murdered after the heist at Burke's orders:

Edwards, Parnell StevenParnell Steven Edwards0Error: invalid time1978 Dec 18African-American blues musician, credit card theft expert and getaway truck driver. Shot by DeSimone and Sepe for failing to dispose of the truck, pointing the authorities to the Burke organization, and out of concern that he would inform if captured.
Krugman, MartinMartin Krugman0Error: invalid time1979 Jan 6Hairdresser and wig store proprietor, loan shark and bookmaker. A longtime associate of the Burke gang and regular at Hill's club, it was Krugman who first tipped off Burke (via Hill) about the potential for a major heist at the Lufthansa terminal. He was murdered and dismembered by Burke and Angelo Sepe after his increasingly nervous and angry demands for his $500,000 cut from the robbery convinced Burke he was about to inform to the FBI. His death is depicted graphically in the movie Goodfellas, and his remains were never found.
Eaton, RichardRichard Eaton0Error: invalid time1979 Jan 17Fort Lauderdale, Florida associate of Tom Monteleone, Burke front man, consummate grifter and con-artist. Uninvolved with the actual heist, he was personally tortured and murdered by Burke after absconding with $250,000 of Burke's money in a fake cocaine scam, and skimming some of the money from the heist while it was laundered through various legitimate establishments, including Monteleone's club. His body was discovered hogtied and hanging in a meat freezer truck. The actual circumstances of his death were depicted as those of Angelo Sepe in the movie Goodfellas.
Ferrara, TheresaTheresa Ferrara0Error: invalid time1979 Feb 10Occasional mistress of Tommy DeSimone and associate of both Richard Eaton and Tom Monteleone, murdered because of her knowledge of the heist and suspicion she conspired with Eaton and Monteleone to skim part of the money taken during the Lufthansa heist.
Monteleone, TomTom Monteleone01979-03-011979 MarchFort Lauderdale, Florida restaurateur and mobster. Associate of Richard Eaton, Monteleone owned The Players Club, a local bar frequented by Burke gang members, and was accused by Burke of conspiring with Eaton and Ferrara on a fake cocaine deal and skimming of part of the heist money while laundering it through his club.
Cafora, LouisLouis Cafora01979-03-011979 MarchDowntown Brooklyn parking lot owner and money launderer. Cafora had been Jimmy Burke's cellmate during his time in prison, and was contracted by Burke to launder some of the money from the heist through his collection of legitimate lots. Cafora's indiscreet, gaudy lifestyle and insistence on informing his wife Joanna about gang business, including the heist, eventually led to Burke ordering both to be murdered. Within days of the heist and against Jimmy Burke's orders, Cafora bought his wife a custom pink Cadillac Fleetwood with his share of the heist and brazenly drove it to a gang meeting just blocks from the JFK Air Cargo Center where the FBI were still investigating, an incident that was reproduced in Goodfellas. His body was never found.
Cafora, JoannaJoanna Cafora01979-03-011979 MarchLouis Cafora's wife, presumably murdered along with him.
Manri, Joe "Buddha"Joe "Buddha" Manri0Error: invalid time1979 May 16Night-shift Air France cargo supervisor. A long time Burke gang associate, Manri's inside information helped plan the heist. Along with McMahon, he was repeatedly offered the opportunity to turn state's evidence and enter the Witness Protection Program, an offer which both refused. He was found dead in a parked car alongside McMahon five months after the heist, shot execution-style in the back of the head.
McMahon, RobertRobert McMahon0Error: invalid time1979 May 16Air France night shift supervisor at John F. Kennedy International Airport involved in the similar Air France Robbery of 1967 with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. Suspected of helping Joe Manri plan the Lufthansa heist. He was found dead in a parked car alongside Manri five months after the heist, shot execution-style in the back of the head.
LiCastri, PaoloPaolo LiCastri0Error: invalid time1979 June 13Illegal immigrant, Sicilian-born Pizza Connection drug trafficker, and Gambino crime family associate. Uninvolved in the actual heist, he was a liaison from the Gambino family whose job was to oversee the plans and ensure the Gambinos received their $200,000 cut. His naked and bullet-riddled corpse was discovered on a burning trash heap six months after the heist.

Others involved in the planning, execution or followup of the heist were not killed in Burke's witness elimination program of 1978 and 1979, but did suffer other violence related ends.

DeSimone, Thomas "Tommy"Thomas "Tommy" DeSimone01978-12-011978 Dec to 1979 JanWas involved in the similar Air France Robbery of 1967 with Jimmy Burke associate Henry Hill. A particularly close, loyal and trustworthy friend of Burke, not involved in the Lufthansa heist until the murder of Parnell Edwards. Was murdered after the execution of Edwards and no later than Jan 14 1979, for having carried out the unrelated murders of two made Gambino crime family members and Gotti associates: William 'Billy Batts' DeVino, and Ronald 'Foxy' Gerote - similar to the fate of the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas.
Sepe, AngeloAngelo Sepe0Error: invalid time1984 July 18Lucchese crime family member, a particularly close, loyal and trustworthy friend of DeSimone and Burke. Sepe was responsible for most of the murders for Burke's witness elimination program of 1978 and 1979. Sepe and his girlfriend were murdered by unknown members of a Lucchese hit squad, reportedly a week after robbing a Lucchese-affiliated drug trafficker of thousands of dollars in cocaine and cash earmarked for the organization.
Lombardo, JoannaJoanna Lombardo0Error: invalid time1984 July 18Angelo Sepe's girlfriend.
Burke, Frank JamesFrank James Burke0Error: invalid time1987 May 18Son of Jimmy Burke and believed to be involved in the heist, was murdered by his drug dealer over a botched heroin deal.

The informants

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  • Peter Gruenwald, a Lufthansa heist organizer, who testified against his friend and fellow co-worker Louis Werner

  • Louis Werner, a Manhattan accountant who doubled as a money launderer.

  • William "Bill" Fischetti – was a taxi dispatch company owner, he was a mob relative who was involved in selling stolen bearer bonds. Fischetti had an affair with Beverly Werner.

  • Frank Menna, a numbers-runner who had been worked-over by Angelo John Sepe and Daniel Rizzo because of his boss Martin Krugman's incompetence.

  • Janet Barbieri, Louis Werner's girlfriend and future wife, testified against Werner before a Grand Jury.

In the aftermath of the heist, Henry Hill became a government witness. He was not able to help the government obtain convictions against Vario or Burke for the Lufthansa robbery, although both were convicted of murder because of his testimony.

The ending

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  • Jimmy Burke was convicted of murdering Richard Eaton. Burke died of lung cancer in a Buffalo hospital after being transferred there from the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, April 13, 1996.
  • Paul Vario died in Fort Worth Federal Prison (FCI Fort Worth) of respiratory illness May 3, 1988 at age 73.
  • Henry Hill entered the Witness Protection Program.
  • Anthony Rodriguez, Angelo Sepe's ex-brother-in-law, survived the aftermath of the heist and was later arrested for arson and car theft.
  • Martin Krugman's body was never found, in 1986 he was declared legally deceased and his wife, Fran, received a $135,000 pay-out from his life insurance policy.
  • Theresa Ferrara's disappearance or murder has not been resolved, nor anyone charged.
  • Paolo LiCastri, Joe Manriquez (a.k.a Joe Manri), Robert McMahon, and Angelo Sepe's disappearances haven't been solved.
  • Louis and Joanna Cafora's bodies have never been found.
  • Tommy DeSimone's body was never found.
  • Peter Gruenwald rekindled the relationship with his estranged wife and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
  • Bill Fischetti divorced his wife and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
  • Frank Menna disappeared into the Witness Protection Program.
  • Louis Werner convicted on May 16, 1979; married Janet Barbieri following his release from prison.

Grievances with Burke over Lufthansa

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Lucchese crime family associate Donald Frankos later expressed frustration in being a close friend of Jimmy Burke and regular habitué at Robert's Lounge but not involved in the actual heist in his biography Contract Killer: The Explosive Story of the Mafia's Most Notorious Hit Man Donald "The Greek" Frankos.

See also

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  • Air France Robbery (1967) - another big robbery they committed.
  • Goodfellas - an account of this heist takes place in the film
  • The Big Heist - another account of the heist

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