On December 11th 1978, a group of mobsters pulled off the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time. Now known as the Lufthansa heist, half a dozen armed robbers wearing ski masks took off with an estimated $5.875 million ($21.4 million today) haul.
Investigators pointed the finger at Lucchese crime family associate James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, as they believed he was the mastermind behind the plot. Although to this day Burke has never been formally charged with the heist, he died behind bars following a conviction for other unrelated crimes.
The heist has since become the main subject of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas. Tommy DeSimone (Joe Pesci) was one of the gunmen men on the inside and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was also one of the first of Burke’s associates to hear about the plot. The real-life Henry Hill said the film was “99% accurate.”
Burke had no idea just how big the heist was going to be, netting almost $6 million was three times the amount he was expecting and he suspected this would attract the wrong kind of attention. Every local, state and federal officer wanted to find who was responsible for the heist and put them away for good.
Burke became edgy, paranoid and he brutally turned on his closest associates in order to protect himself from detection. Burke’s plan was to murder anyone who could implicate him, either by doing so himself or through ordering an associate to carry out his dirty work.
Here Are The Reasons Burke Murdered His Following Associates…
Falling Asleep On The Job
Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in the film, was a blues musician and getaway driver. He was very close to Tommy DeSimone and they considered each other as “brothers”.
Stacks was a heavy drug user, smoking marijuana before moving on to heroin and cocaine – it was this addiction that led to his murder.
Following the heist, Stacks had the job of destroying the getaway truck but instead he chose to visit his girlfriend, use heroin and fall asleep. The police then found the truck, parked in a no parking zone, with a muddy boot print matching a pair of shoes owned by Stacks.
Knowing the police identified Stacks from his boot prints, Burke was certain the drug addict would become an easy police informant. He sent DeSimone to Stacks’ apartment on December 18th 1978, where he shot him with a .32 silencer-quipped pistol.
Demanding More Money
Martin Krugman, portrayed by Chuck Low, was a Russian-Jewish wig shop owner and associate of Burke and Hill. Krugman was the first to provide the tip off about the potential for a major heist at the Lufthansa terminal, which he believed secured him a $50,000 cut off the money.
Krugman persistently demanded his $50,000 and the other mobsters thought he was close to becoming an FBI informant. They eventually murdered him on January 6th 1979 then dismembered the body.
Scamming Burke Out Of Money
Eaton was a con artist and front man for the Lucchese crime family. Although he was uninvolved in the heist, he still felt the wrath of Burke, when it was discovered that Eaton had used up $250,000 of the cash in a fake cocaine scam. Eaton also laundered some of the cash through legitimate establishments.
Burke tortured and murdered Eaton on January 17th 1979, leaving the body to hang hogtied in a meat freezer truck. Two months later his associate Tom Monteleone was also murdered as it was discovered he was tied to the cocaine scam too.
Burke was eventually convicted for the murder of Eaton and he died behind bars in 1996
Ferrara was the mistress of DeSimone and a drug dealer, supplying cocaine and quaaludes to DeSimone and other Lucchese mobsters.
Ferrara was believed to be an FBI informant and the suspicion that she conspired with Eaton to skim the money saw her murdered on February 10th 1979. She was only 27-years-old. The mob’s suspicions were true however, as it was revealed that she had passed information to the FBI.
Buying A Bright Pink Car
Louis Cafora was a parking lot owner and money launderer. He had been Burke’s cellmate during his earlier years in prison and Burke trusted him to launder money from the heist through legitimate businesses.
Burke started to grow a strong disliking for Cafora; he found him indiscreet, gaudy, persistent, and he told his wife, Joanna, every detail of the heist.
The last straw for Burke was when just days after the heist, Cafora bought a custom pink Cadillac Fleetwood and drove it to a meeting during a time the FBI was still investigating.
Burke ordered the murder of both husband and wife during March 1979 – although unlike the film, their bodies were never found.
Being The “Guy On The Inside”
Known as “Frenchy” in the film, Joe “Buddha” Manri, was a long-time associate of Burkes and he worked as a cargo supervisor for Air France. It was Buddha’s inside information that helped with the successful heist.
The FBI knew this was an inside job and they repeatedly offered Buddha the chance to enter the Witness Protection Program if he gave evidence. Five months after the heist, Buddha was found dead in parked car, shot execution-style in the back of the head. By his side was Air France night shift supervisor, Robert McMahon, who was also shot in the back of the head too; it was believed he assisted Buddha with the heist.
Being The “Go-Between Guy”
Sicilian-born, illegal immigrant Paolo LiCastri was a suspect in the heist although other reports claim he was not involved, he just had the job to ensure that members of the Gambino crime family received their $200,000 cut.
Something went wrong – on June 13th 1979, his bullet-ridden body was discovered burning on a trash heap. The body was so badly decomposed that forensic scientists could not tell his age, race, or even sex. Dental records later identified him.