Looking every bit of his 80 years, Bonanno gangster Vincent Asaro went on trial in Brooklyn this week for his role in the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist.
The Lufthansa score, which was immortalized in the Martin Scorsese movie, “Goodfellas,” netted $6 million in cash and jewels. At the time, it was the largest cash robbery in U.S. history. In the weeks and months following the crime, Burke allegedly killed off a half-dozen of his co-conspirators in order to pocket their share of the loot and also ensure their silence if they were ever arrested.
Asaro, who once oversaw crime enterprises at JFK Airport for the Bonanno family, personally pocketed between $500,000 and $750,000 from the robbery, according to federal authorities.
Asaro (right) put most of his take into loansharking, but also gambled much of it away. He shared $100,000 with Bonanno higher-ups, funneling the money through then-capo Joseph Massino, who would eventually become head of the Bonanno family.
Massino, who became a government informant in 2011, is scheduled to testify against Asaro, who was arrested for his role in the Lufthansa heist, as well as the 1969 murder of suspected informant Paul Katz, under a federal racketeering indictment.
Massino’s former underboss and brother-in-law, Sal Vitale, testified on Monday, telling the jury that he felt shortchanged by Massino, who gave him only a single gold necklace from the pile of jewels taken in the Lufthansa heist. The precious stones were reportedly disposed of by a “fence” on Canal Street in Manhattan.
The government’s star witness is mobster Gaspare Valenti, who testified on Tuesday against Asaro, his cousin. With his burly mobster son, Anthony “Fat Sammy” Valenti, glaring at him, Gaspare provided damning testimony against Asaro.
When prosecutor Nicole Argentieri asked Valenti what was the most serious crime he ever committed, he replied, “We robbed the Lufthansa air freight company.”
Valenti, 68, recounted for the spellbound jurors the break-in and robbery of the Lufthansa hangar. Along with mercurial gangster Tommy DeSimone (played by Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas”), Valenti ripped open cargo boxes and discovered bundles of cash.
Valenti testified that he first learned of the Lufthansa robbery plan from Asaro, who was a close associate of Jimmy Burke’s. Burke (right) assembled a robbery crew, which met at Burke’s bar in Queens, Robert’s Lounge, for strategy sessions.
The crew included Danny Rizzo, Tommy DeSimone, Louis Cafora, Angelo Sepe, Joseph “Joe Buddha” Manri, and Burke’s son, Frank Burke.
The conspirators were provided with a drawing of the cargo area by Marty Krugman, a low-level bookmaker and hair salon owner. On the night of the robbery, said Valenti, the men, who wore ski masks and were dressed all in black, met up at Burke’s house.
At the airport, Valenti cut the bolt to a gate so that the crew could drive their black Ford van beside the hangar. Once inside the facility, they loaded 50 boxes of money and valuables, including gold chains, watches, and metal drawers full of emeralds, diamonds and rubies.
After filling the van, they drove away to meet Burke and Asaro, who were parked nearby in a decoy “crash car.” Their job was to smash into any pursuing police cars.
Asaro proposed that they count the loot at Valenti’s house, where his wife and children were sleeping.
“We were very happy; euphoric,” he told prosecutors. “'We thought there was going to be $2 million in cash and there was over $6 million without the gold and without the German money.”
Asaro warned the crew members to be careful and not spend too much money. He was afraid of alerting police, but also fearful that other crime families would muscle in on their score.
Valenti said that Asaro used some of his proceeds to buy a second home, a boat and a Bill Blass designer edition of a Lincoln Continental.
Asaro was arrested in 2014 after Valenti wore a hidden wire and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with him stretching back to 2008. In 2011, prosecutors say, Asaro complained on tape that he hadn't received his share of the Lufthansa heist from Burke.
“We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get,” he was heard to say.
Asaro, who reportedly has “death before dishonor” tattooed on his forearm, cast a menacing look at Valenti as he testified.
In addition to his Lufthansa involvement, Asaro is charged with various other crimes, including arson, robbing Federal Express of $1 million in gold salts, soliciting the murder of his cousin, and a 2013 loan sharking case.
If convicted, Asaro potentially faces a life sentence.
Dominick Cicale, a Bonanno capo who turned government informant, said that Asaro has only himself to blame for his undoing.
“After all these years, he’s complaining to someone [in 2011] that he got shortchanged on his share of the Lufthansa take?” noted Cicale. “He was talking when he shouldn’t have. That’s why he was arrested.”
Asaro was long considered a liability by his Bonanno colleagues, said Cicale, putting a fine point on irony. He explained that Asaro had been ‘shelved’ by the mob years ago. “Basically, he couldn’t come around us anymore,” he said. “We couldn’t trust him to keep his big mouth shut.”
While acknowledging that there’s no statute of limitations for ongoing criminal enterprises, Cicale also questioned the arrest and trial of Asaro. “What’s the point of going after someone his age?” he asked. “The feds seem to be going after headlines on this one.”
Calling the Lufthansa robbery a “nice score,” Cicale said, “It was a nice payday for Jimmy Burke. But not for the guys he killed, of course. He had used street guys who he believed were at risk to cooperate with law enforcement and give up the gang. But, in a way, it was a smart move on his part to use accomplices who weren’t ‘made’ guys [initiated Mafia members]. Burke knew he wouldn’t have been able to get away with killing a made guy. That’s why he didn’t kill Asaro.”
Cicale was released from prison in 2013, after serving eight years of a 10-year sentence for a variety of mob-related crimes, including murder. He had originally faced two life terms for a pair of killings he committed with Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, a former acting boss of the Bonanno family who is now imprisoned in a federal "Supermax" penitentiary. Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis, however, reduced Cicale's sentence, saying his “extraordinary assistance” helped the government dismantle the Bonanno leadership.
Robert Sberna is an investigative reporter who has written a short-format book on the Lufthansa robbery, “The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist,” which is available on Amazon. Sberna hosts www.thecrimebeat.com.
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