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Reputed mobster arrested in 1978 'Goodfellas' Lufthansa heist

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NEW YORK — Prosecutors say Vincent Asaro expected to get rich off the infamous heist of about $6 million in cash and jewels from a Lufthansa vault in 1978, a crime that unleashed a murderous spree by a paranoid mobster and inspired Martin Scorsese's film "Goodfellas."

He didn't.

"We never got our right money," Asaro is accused of grousing to an FBI informant in an expletive-laced conversation recorded in 2011.

But Asaro did get arrested and charged Thursday as the FBI unsealed an indictment detailing allegations that he planned the record-breaking heist and was involved in other crimes dating back decades, including murder, arson and illegal gambling.

Among other things, prosecutors say Asaro, now 78, used a dog chain to strangle a mob associate in 1969 because he thought the man was a "rat." The victim's remains lay buried beneath another mobster's home until FBI agents, acting on a tip, unearthed them last June.

In federal court in Brooklyn, Asaro pleaded not guilty to the crimes, which could put him in prison for life.

"Vigorously not guilty," his attorney, Gerald McMahon, said as Asaro stood silently beside him, dressed in a black sweatsuit and running shoes.

Asaro was one of five alleged members of the Bonanno crime family rounded up early Thursday in a culmination of what the FBI described as a long-term investigation bolstered by mob insiders working as informants.

The 26-page indictment accuses the five — Asaro; his son, Jerome Asaro; Jack Bonventre; Thomas DiFiore; and John Ragano — of racketeering and extortion and involvement in a series of thefts, conspiracies and shakedowns. All are being held without bail.

Only the elder Asaro is charged in the Lufthansa airline heist, which at the time set the record for the largest amount of cash stolen in a U.S. holdup. Today that $5 million would be worth about $17.8 million. Jewels worth about $1 million were also stolen when masked gunmen raided a Lufthansa cargo hangar at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 11, 1978.

The masked men shoved a gun into one employee's face, then grabbed nine other workers, cuffed them, and began taking cash and jewels from a 14-by-4-foot vault. They drove away in a black Ford Econoline van.

"They were prepared. They had enough handcuffs for all [the] employees," newspapers quoted an airport police official, James Connolly, as saying at the time.

According to the new court documents, on the night of the robbery, the team made off with about 50 boxes, each containing $125,000 cash; a silver box containing gold chains, rings, watches, settings and other jewelry; and German money.

The bounty, flown from Frankfurt, was destined for a Manhattan bank when it was stolen. Virtually none was recovered. Only one person, Louis Werner, ever was convicted in the case. Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent, was accused of providing the robbers with information about the hangar's security system and layout. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1979 and died in 2007.

The suspected heist mastermind was James Burke, the crime boss who inspired Robert De Niro's character in the 1990 film "Goodfellas."

One of the FBI informants said that before the heist, Burke told Asaro he had a "score" that could net millions of dollars. According to the plan, each member of the robbery team was to get about $750,000, but few received their share.

"Jimmy kept everything," a man, allegedly Asaro, complained in that taped 2011 conversation.

Burke, concerned about the publicity surrounding the crime, began killing or ordering the killings of associates he feared could lead authorities to him, the FBI said. Burke died in prison in 1996 while serving time for crimes not related to the Lufthansa heist.

Seventeen years later, the FBI, acting on a tip, discovered the remains of a man named Paul Katz buried beneath the Queens home where Burke's daughter was living. Prosecutors say Asaro, acting at Burke's behest, had strangled Katz in 1969 after they began suspecting him of being a snitch.

The Lufthansa heist remains New York's biggest such robbery. With Asaro's arrest, prosecutors say everyone involved in it is either in custody or dead.

"These 'goodfellas' thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill, and a license to do whatever they wanted," said George Venizelos, the FBI's assistant director in charge for New York. "Today's arrests … [bring] an end to their violent and ruthless ways."

Outside court, McMahon said his client, who had triple bypass surgery last March, was innocent and was being framed by snitches.

"There will be no plea and he will walk out the door a free man," McMahon said of Asaro.

Asaro's next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 19.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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