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Five held for links to 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK

Five alleged members of a New York crime family have been arrested in a case with links to the $5 million Lufthansa heist in 1978 at John F. Kennedy International Airport recounted in the film Goodfellas.

The five men, who prosecutors say are members of the Bonanno crime family, were engaged in a racketeering conspiracy that dates back to Jan. 1, 1968, and continued as recently as June 30, 2013, according to an indictment unsealed yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn.

One of the defendants, Vincent Asaro, 78, an alleged captain in the Bonanno crime family, plotted with unnamed organized crime members to carry out the Dec. 11, 1978, robbery of a Lufthansa Airlines plane at JFK, the U.S. said. About $5 million in U.S. currency and about $1 million in jewelry was stolen, according to the U.S.

The four other defendants aren’t charged in connection with the Lufthansa heist. The indictment alleges a series of crimes that include racketeering conspiracy, extortion, murder and bookmaking.

According to prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, Asaro and a second alleged Bonanno captain, Jerome Asaro, engaged in attempted robberies of armored cars between 1984 and 1986 to steal about $1 million.

Vincent Asaro is also accused of operating an illegal gambling and bookmaking operation from April 1994 to December 2002 that had revenue of at least $2,000 a day, according to the indictment.

The defendants, including Vincent Asaro and his son, Jerome Asaro, are Thomas “Tommy D” DiFiore, John “Bazoo” Ragano and Jack Bonventre. The men were scheduled to be arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Go in Brooklyn yesterday, said Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for Lynch.

“Vincent Asaro devoted his adult life to the Bonanno crime family, with a criminal career that spanned decades,” Lynch said in a statement yesterday. “Far from a code of honor, theirs was a code of violence and brute force.”

Peter Donald, a spokesman for the FBI, declined to comment on why it took years to charge the defendants.

Vincent Asaro, Jerome Asaro and Bonventre are charged with a racketeering conspiracy that operated from Jan. 1, 1968, to June 20, 2013. Both Asaros are accused of an arson conspiracy from January 1980 to January 1981 in which they attempted to burn down a building in the Ozone Park section of Queens, New York.

Henry Hill, a federal informant whose life in organized crime was portrayed by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, said convicted Lucchese crime family captain Paul Vario was one of those behind the Lufthansa heist and a beneficiary of the crime’s proceeds, according to Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy.

In the book, Hill implicated the late James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, as the robbery’s mastermind. Burke, who was played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, died in federal prison while serving a 20-year prison term for murdering a drug dealer. He was never charged with the airport robbery.

Vario was convicted by a federal jury in Brooklyn 1986 for running a protection racket at JFK airport in a case brought by the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force. Hill testified against Vario and his co-defendants at trial. Vario died in federal prison in Texas in 1988.

Authorities at the time said the men involved in the Lufthansa heist escaped with millions of dollars in cash, U.S. and foreign currency, unmounted jewels and pure gold.

According to the book The Heist by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings, the robbery was considered “the greatest cash robbery in American history,” larger than the armed hold-up of the Brink’s Armored Car Co. in Boston in 1950, in which $2.7 million was stolen. The authors said it remained the largest U.S. cash robbery until December 1982, when a private armored car company in New York was robbed of almost $11 million.

Edward McDonald, who won the cooperation of Hill when he was a prosecutor on the Justice Department’s strike force, said in a phone interview yesterday that the U.S. convicted only one person tied to the JFK heist, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent. Werner, arrested a few months after the robbery, was convicted of being the insider who provided information to the robbers to help them carry out the heist, said McDonald.

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