October 1, 2015
This Week in Gang Land
Today, a week before Bonanno capo Vincent Asaro goes to trial for the $6 million Lufthansa Airlines robbery, Ed McDonald, the former federal prosecutor who sponsored Henry Hill into the Witness Protection Program and who played himself in GoodFellas, the movie classic about the storied Lufthansa Heist, recalls the investigation that began the morning of December 11, 1978, when he got to his desk at the Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, where he was a deputy chief, and his late boss and friend, Tom Puccio, assigned him to work with the FBI on the case. In this special Gang Land report, McDonald, now a partner at Dechert LLP, details how the feds arrested, tried and convicted the heist's "inside man," a hapless Lufthansa cargo worker named Louis Werner, and how the feds eventually sunk the legendary gangster who orchestrated the robbery, Jimmy the Gent Burke, for fixing basketball games and the murder of a drug dealer.
When I got to work that morning, several hours after gunmen made off with five million dollars in cash and approximately a million dollars in jewelry, FBI and NYPD informants had already reported in. A few speculated that it had to have been the work of a crew run by John Gotti, but by the next day, Gotti, whom I had never heard of, had been eliminated from suspicion. The informants were unanimous: it had been James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke, a legendary Irish gangster associated with Paul Vario, one of the leaders of the Luchese crime family. The informants were certain: even though Burke was still housed in a federal halfway facility in Manhattan, he had somehow been tipped off by a Lufthansa employee and had organized the crew that executed the robbery.
The FBI promptly divided the investigation into two parts. The lion's share of agents was devoted to the Burke crew, but others were assigned to identify the "inside man" and gather evidence of his complicity. By May 1979, Lou Werner would be identified, indicted, tried, and convicted – and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Here's how it happened.
Just as the scene is depicted in GoodFellas, Henry Hill couldn't believe his ears when he heard on 1010 WINS while he was taking a shower that a team of gunmen had gotten away with $6 million in cash and jewels in a daring robbery of the Lufthansa Airlines cargo vault earlier that morning.
We were never able to charge James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke with the Lufthansa Airlines robbery or any of the murders in its aftermath. But the long federal investigation of the nation's largest robbery did in fact lead to Burke's demise – with more than a little help from Henry Hill.
Unless you get really lucky, and find a copy squirreled away in the wrong section of your local bookstore, you won't be able to get a first printing of Mob Boss: The Life Of Little Al D'Arco, The Man Who Brought Down The Mafia. But there are still some second print versions of the hardcover available as gifts or for your own reading pleasure.
Because of the heavy demand, Thomas Dunne Books went to the well again for a second printing of Mob Boss, the book that The New York Times called a "gripping, novelistic biography – a bulls-eye."
The mass market, paperback version was published in March, however, and is available online and at your favorite bookstores for about eight bucks. You still should be able to pick up a copy of the hard cover at your favorite bookstore, or, as Claude Raines might say to Humphrey Bogart, from any number of the usual online suspects: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and BooksAMillion, as well as an independent book seller near you.
See why Mob Boss has been praised by Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Nicholas Pileggi, Mister District Attorney Robert Morgenthau – as well as readers everywhere.
Mob Boss is also available in a special BIG PRINT edition. And for those who would rather hear every word of the 406 page book read to them, Mob Boss is also available on an MP3 CD from Tantor Audio.