An Alleged 'Goodfella' Gets Indicted, Decades Later

More than 30 years after the crime, authorities in New York have charged an alleged mobster in connection with the Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport. At the time, it was the biggest robbery in US history. It's still one of the most famous, thanks to the film, Goodfellas.

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Early this morning, FBI agents in and around New York arrested five men in connection with a number of unsolved crimes. At the top of that list is the infamous 1978 Lufthansa robbery at Kennedy International Airport. Law enforcement officials have long suspected that the mob was behind it. And today, more than 30 years later, they finally charged a reputed mobster in connection with the case. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The indictment reads like the plot of a mob movie: murder, arson, extortion and the $6-million heist at Kennedy Airport. Actually, that last part is the plot of a mob movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOODFELLAS")

RAY LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) Whenever we needed money, we'd rob the airport. To us, it was better than Citibank.

ROSE: Martin Scorsese film "Goodfellas" is based on the Lufthansa heist. In December of 1978, armed gunmen really did break into the cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport. They got away with $5 million in cash and another million in jewelry. At the time, it was the biggest robbery in U.S. history. Here's how it went down in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOODFELLAS")

LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) Tommy and Carbone were going to grab the outside guard and make him get us in the front door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Who's the (unintelligible)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) with that?

LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) Frenchy and Joe Buddha had to round up the workers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3): Stand there (unintelligible)...

LIOTTA: (as Henry Hill) Johnny Roastbeef had to keep them all tied up and away from the alarms.

ROSE: Only one man, a Lufthansa airport worker, was convicted. No alleged mobsters were ever charged, until today when prosecutors unsealed an indictment against Vinny Asaro, a reputed mobster with ties to the storied Bonanno crime family. The FBI declined to comment on today's arrests, but they did connect us with Steve Carbone, the agent who led the case in the 1970s and '80s and is now retired.

STEVE CARBONE: It wasn't like we didn't know. I mean, we knew who did this job two days later.

ROSE: Carbone says the FBI had long suspected that Asaro was involved, along with Jimmy Burke, who was the basis for Robert de Niro's character in "Goodfellas." They could never find enough evidence to charge either of them. Burke was later convicted of murder and died in prison. But retired agent Carbone says all the witnesses who could have tied him to the Lufthansa heist were either dead or terrified.

CARBONE: Right after, we put up, I think, $100,000 reward for information and nobody called. Nobody. Not one call. I'll tell you the truth, I never expected this. I mean, it seemed like it was dead.

ROSE: Alleged mobster Vinny Asaro is also charged with strangling Paul Katz, a suspected police informant who disappeared in 1969. His remains were discovered last summer at a home in Queens that used to belong to Jimmy Burke. Asaro pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Four other alleged members of the Bonanno crime family were arrested this morning on a range of other charges, including bookmaking and extortion. All five were arraigned today in Brooklyn. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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