On December 11, 1978, six masked, armed men burst into the Lufthansa Airlines cargo terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport during a graveyard shift and robbed $5.8 million in cash and jewels, the largest heist in U.S. history at the time.
No shots were fired. No one was seriously hurt or killed. It took just 64 minutes for a crew of low-level crooks linked to the Lucchese crime family to steal $5 million in untraceable bills (worth $22.4 million in 2022) and $800,000 in jewels (worth 3.6 million in 2022).
It seemed like the perfect crime—until it wasn’t. Authorities never recovered the cash or the jewels, but a trail of at least a dozen bodies and disappearances of people tied to the heist kept them busy. Some were shot in the head, execution style. Another’s hogtied frozen body was found in a meat refrigeration truck. A woman’s headless torso washed ashore in New Jersey.
History's Greatest Heists With Pierce Brosnan
Watch the new hit series, History's Greatest Heists With Pierce Brosnan. Available to stream now.
After a decades-long investigation, only one person was ever convicted in the heist. The story of the crew that pulled it off inspired Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas. Two mob figures who led the caper—and the subsequent killing spree aimed at muzzling those involved—ended up in prison for other crimes and died behind bars.
Hill and Burke Plan the Caper in a Dingy Gangster Bar
The idea for the huge heist came from a pudgy Lufthansa cargo supervisor named Louis Werner, who ultimately served as the inside man on the job. Sweating a $20,000 gambling debt, Werner approached bookmaker and wig shop owner Martin Krugman about the huge stacks of untraceable bills frequently flown in from Germany and temporarily stored at the airline’s JFK vault. Werner asked Krugman to shop around for men who could pull off the heist.
Krugman passed the tip to mid-level drug-dealing gangster Henry Hill, who pulled in his mentor Jimmy “the Gent” Burke, whose crew was known for hijacking and robbing cargo trucks coming from the airport. Burke answered to Paul Vario, a fearsome capo of the Lucchese crime family. Vario, who needed cash quick after losing a cocaine shipment to authorities, greenlit the Lufthansa caper.
According to Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi’s book about Hill that inspired Scorsese’s movie, Hill said he helped Burke plan the heist in Robert’s Lounge, Burke’s gambling and criminal hangout in the Ozone park section of Queens. As they pored over cargo warehouse floor plans and sized up inside information, Burke assembled the crew of hijackers, killers, loan sharks and thieves who would pull off the heist.
The Heist: A Haul of Millions in 64 Minutes
According to court documents, Werner alerted the crew that a large shipment of cash had arrived on Friday, December 9 and would be in cargo storage all weekend because he kept the cash from being transferred to the bank right away via the Brinks armored trucks. At 3 a.m. on Monday, the 11th, six men in ski masks pulled up to the Lufthansa cargo warehouse in a black Ford Econoline 150 van. The crew sliced the gate padlock with bolt cutters, and some of the six went in.
After herding employees to the break room at gunpoint, the thieves forced the night shift manager to disable the alarm and open the double-door storage vault, which their inside contact had told them how to operate. They hauled forty 15-pound cartons of cash and jewels into the van, and two of the thieves got in. The others got into a waiting Buick, and they all zoomed away at 4:21 a.m. Employees were told not to call for help until 4:30 a.m. when police got the first call. The whole caper took just 64 minutes.
The thieves met Burke and transferred the loot to the trunks of two other cars at a warehouse owned by John Gotti, a captain of the Gambino crime family that shared the airport turf with the Lucchese family. In Wiseguy, Hill said Gotti also offered to have the black getaway van crushed at an auto salvage yard he controlled in Brooklyn.
After the Heist, Dead Bodies Start Piling Up
Krugman, the bookie who first approached Hill with the heist idea, complained too loudly and too often that he needed a large cut of the stolen cash. Hill said Burke and Sepe killed and dismembered Krugman a month after the robbery, fearing he would squeal. His body was never found.
But that didn’t happen, giving authorities their first break in the case. Two days after the heist, police found the black van parked at a fire hydrant in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood. Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, a longtime gofer for Burke’s crew, failed to take the van to the Gotti-controlled junkyard.
Afraid the van could lead police to Edwards and then to him, Burke, with Vario’s blessing, decided Edwards had to go. On his orders, two experienced killers in the heist crew, Tommy “Two Guns” DeSimone and Angelo Sepe, shot Edwards in the head in the middle of dinner with a piece of chicken still in his mouth.
Edwards was the first victim in Burke’s violent push for silence. By the summer of 1979, seven months after the robbery, Burke had carried out or ordered the execution of nine people, all of whom were either at the heist, laundered heist money or were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Rather than give everyone $400,000 or $500,000 apiece, it was easier to put a quarter bullet in their head,” Hill said in a History Channel documentary. “So, he started eliminating everyone at that point.”
At the end of February, Werner, the inside man, was the only person convicted in the Lufthansa affair and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. That spiked Burke’s paranoia.
Weeks later, Burke targeted his former cellmate, 300-pound Louis "Roast Beef" Cafora, who was laundering heist money through his Brooklyn parking lot business. Told to lay low, Cafora instead bought his wife Joanna a custom pink Cadillac, drove it near the JFK cargo area where the FBI was investigating, and told her about the heist and other mob business. They disappeared, and their bodies were never found.
Robert McMahon and Joe “Buddha” Manri, both cargo thieves who worked for Air France at JFK, refused to cooperate with the FBI in exchange for witness protection. In May, both were found shot in the back of the head, execution style, sitting together in a parked car.
A month later, the burned, naked and bullet-riddled corpse of Sicilian drug trafficker Paolo LiCastri was found on a burning trash heap in Brooklyn. LiCastri oversaw the caper for the Gambino crime family and was tasked with ensuring they got a $200,000 cut.
Also murdered: Florida restaurant and club owners Richard Eaton and Tom Monteleone, accused of skimming from the heist cash laundered through their businesses. Children discovered Eaton’s hogtied, frozen body in a refrigerated meat truck. The headless torso of Theresa Ferrara, the occasional mistress of some in Burke’s crew who was accused of being in on the skimming scheme, washed ashore in New Jersey.
Two others in the heist died for breaking crime family code. The hothead DeSimone, nicknamed “Tommy Two Guns” for his matching pearl-handled pistols, was shot in the head by Gotti in retaliation for murdering two Gambino crime family members without permission. In July 1984, more than five years after the robbery, Sepe’s own Lucchese crime family killed him for stealing thousands of dollars in cash and cocaine from a Lucchese-affiliated drug dealer.
Convinced by Burke’s wiretapped conversation that he was “going to get whacked,” Hill entered witness protection with his family. In exchange, he ratted on dozens of crimes by mob associates, including his gangster mentors Burke and Vario.
Burke was convicted for Eaton’s murder and a scandalous Boston College point-shaving scheme. Vario was jailed for extortion of freight companies. Both died of lung cancer while in jail.
“Little by little, the more people got killed,” said Hill in the documentary, “the more I started to realize that I just might be one of them eventually.”