The Real Goodfellas: Gangsters That Inspired the Martin Scorsese Film

Unquestionably one of the greatest mob movies of all time. We look at the true story of the real Goodfellas who inspired the flick.

Goodfellas is The Rolling Stones of crime movies. Criminals aren’t supposed to be allowed to reap the spoils of their crimes, but the Lufthansa Heist at Kennedy International Airport in 1978 made a lot more money than just the original $6 million ($20 mil if you account for inflation), which is the biggest heist in American history. The Lufthansa heist has, so far, produced two made for TV movies, The 10 Million Dollar Getaway (which I’ve never seen) and The Big Heist (with all its Donald Sutherland Irish accent mashup glory). Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, is of course a gangster classic.

The Beatles of crime, in case you were wondering, is the Gallo Profaci wars, which launched the stories of The Godfather.

The Lufthansa heist made its way back into the news in 2014 when Vincent Asaro got pinched. The cops claimed Asaro was in charge of all illegal activities at JFK airport. Asaro was alleged to be a big guy in the Bonanno family and his arrest made him the first gangster to face charges in the Lufthansa heist. Asaro’s mouthpiece said the feds just gave Martin Scorsese a follow-up to Goodfellas. Asaro says the mastermind behind the Lufthansa heist never kicked up his full take.

In Goodfellas, the Lufthansa heist was planned by gentleman thief Jimmy Conway, and aided and abetted by Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill. Well, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito didn’t really exist, and Henry Hill was a rat who wasn’t really involved in the Lufthansa heist.

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So who are these guys? Let’s look at the Lufthansa heist lineup from Goodfellas

Jimmy Burke AKA Jimmy Conway AKA Jimmy the Gent

Played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas.

In Goodfellas, Robert De Niro played Jimmy Conway. His real name was Jimmy Burke and he was known in the movie and in real life as Jimmy the Gent. Also, The Irishman. Both Goodfellas and Wise Guy, the book by Nicholas Pileggi, says Burke planned the heist. Working off a tip from a local bookie, well, in Goodfellas he covered up bald spots. Asaro says Burke owed him.

Jimmy Burke was an associate of the Lucchese family. He couldn’t get his button because he was Irish. Burke was born in New York. His mother was Jane Conway, and nobody knows who his old man is. Burke’s mom put him in an orphanage, and he was taken in by the Burke family. There are rumors that some of the unclaimed cash from the Lufthansa heist was buried at their house.

Jimmy Burke started in crime when he was a teenager. He proved that he was a standup guy by the time he was 18 in 1949 when did a nickel bank forgery without opening up his mouth. Jimmy the Gent made an ex-person out of his future wife’s ex-boyfriend when she complained that he was bugging her, and he wound up in a dozen pieces. Jimmy the Gent had two girls and two boys with Mickey. He named the boys Frank and Jesse James. Frank was the crash car driver on the Lufthansa heist.

Burke owned Robert’s Lounge, a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens, where wise guys played cards all night and Burke buried bodies in the morning. Burke and Henry Hill spent six years in prison starting in 1972 for beating the shit out of Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida. When they got out in six, they added dope to their portfolio. The Mafia had a no dope policy. It was really more like a “don’t ask don’t tell but fucking pay me” policy. Every mob book about the sixties and seventies sticks to that story.

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Burke’s crew held up the cargo workers, and Burke took their wallets and told them he’d kill their families if they couldn’t keep quiet for forty-five minutes. $6 million in cash and jewels was supposed to be split up between Burke, his crew, and the Gambino and Lucchese families. Except that Asaro says Burke didn’t kick up his full percentage, and a lot of guys didn’t live long enough to collect. Burke got spooked by the publicity and clipped everyone involved except his son Frank James, Tommy, and Angelo Sepe.

Henry Hill wasn’t part of the Lufthansa heist and wound up putting Burke away when he dropped a dime on all his friends. Burke died in prison, but on his way there he pointed to Kennedy airport and told the cops “that was all mine.”

Burke strangled Jimmy Breslin almost to death after he wrote a piece on Paul Vario. That should have made it to the movie. On December 11, 1978 Burke pulled off the Lufthansa heist.

Thomas DeSimone AKA Tommy DeVito

Played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

In Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito was played by Joe Pesci. The guy’s real name was Thomas DeSimone, and he was actually ten years younger than Henry Hill…even though Pesci looks older, and the movie makes out that they were kids together.

Tommy was born to be a mobster. Thomas Anthony DeSimone was born in Boston and called Rosario DeSimone after a grandpa who was an LA’s mob boss. Tommy’s “Uncle Frank” was Frank DeSimone, becoming the second DeSimone family member to become the Los Angeles crime family boss. Tommy was an associate of New York’s Lucchese family, and his two brothers were associates of the Gambino family. Tommy was married to Angelica “Cookie” Spione, her brother was gangster Joe “The Barber” Spione…who Tommy killed.

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In 1965, DeSimone joined Paul Vario’s East New York crew. In 1968, when he was 17, DeSimone committed what Henry Hill says was his first murder, a random stranger. Tommy carried his his gun in a brown paper bag on hijackings. Tommy’s brother Anthony was killed for being a rat.

Tommy was probably whacked for killing William “Billy Batts” Bentvena during his “welcome home” party at Burke’s Robert’s Lounge. Bentvena was a made man in the Gambino family and in the same crew as John Gotti. Burke held Bentvena down, and DeSimone beat him with a tire iron. But his fucking shoes shined. Burke and DeSimone had to kill Bentvena again on the way to the dog kennel they buried him under, but they stopped at Tommy’s mom’s house along the way. In Goodfellas, Billy Batts was played by Frank Vincent.

DeSimone killed bartender Michael “Spider” Gianco for asking why he didn’t go fuck himself. Unless Henry Hill made that story up. Tommy DeSimone strangled Jimmy Burke’s best friend, Dominick “Remo” Cersani, with a piano wire pretty much because Jimmy told him to.

But Tommy DeSimone, violent as he was, wasn’t all about killing. He helped plan and recruit for the Lufthansa heist. He was the only member of the crew who was spotted because his shoes were so polished; DeSimone also got rid of Parnell “Stacks” Edwards for forgetting to ditch the truck from the Lufthansa heist.

According to Henry Hill, in his memoir Gangsters and Goodfellas, Karen was sleeping with Paul Vario while Hill was in jail. Tommy wanted to get in on the action, but Karen turned him down, and DeSimone tried to rape her.

Vario fingered Tommy for the Bentvena killing to the Gambino family. Sometime in late December 1978, DeSimone was told he was going to get his button. DeSimone’s wife, Angela, reported Tommy missing on January 14, 1979. She said he owed her $60. In Gangsters and Goodfellas, Henry Hill says John Gotti whacked him; mob informant Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi says Thomas Agro did it.

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We have more information on the murder of Tommy DeSimone right here.

Pesci was 46 years old when he shot Goodfellas, DeSimone was 28 when he was shot by goodfellas.

Henry Hill AKA the wise guy who spilled to the feds and Nick Pileggi

Played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.

Henry Hill was played by Ray Liotta in GoodfellasHenry Hill, Jr was associated with the Lucchese family. He was never made, because his father was Irish. In 1980, Hill spilled to the FBI and more than fifty guys were sent up, including Lucchese capo Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke.

Hill was an errand boy for Vario since he was 13. He got a union card as a bricklayer and dropped out of school for easy “no show” work. Hill was hot when he was young, specializing in arson after he blazed the Rebel Cab Company cabstand. The first time Hill was arrested he was 16 years old. He was actually pinched for a Lenny Vario crime, but he kept his mouth shut under heavy questioning.

Hill joined the army in June 1960 to duck a probe into a 1957 Apalachin mob summit that may or may not have named his boss. Hill did two months in jail when he was in the army for stealing a sheriff’s car and getting into a fight at a bar. In Goodfellas, Hill meets his future wife Karen Friedman on a double date with Tommy, but it was actually Paul Vario’s son, Paul Jr., who went on the date. Setting his old man up, so he could give Hill the devil horns later on.

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On April 7, 1967, Hill and Thomas DeSimone knocked off Air France for $420,000 by getting a guard drunk and laid, and making a copy of his key to the safe. Lucky fucking guard.

Hill says that William “Billy Batts” Bentvena was killed because Burke took over Bentvena’s loan shark operatons while Bentvena was in jail and, now that he was out, Bentvena wanted it back. He says it happened a few weeks after the party, but it was still DeSimone who yelled “Shine these fuckin’ shoes!” and pistol-whipped Bentvena. Hill says they stopped at DeSimone’s mom’s to get a shovel, and she made them coffee and breakfast. DeSimone killed Bentvena with the shovel and a tire iron. Having killed Bentvena twice, it was only fair that they bury him twice.

Hill did a six year stretch with Burke for beating John Ciaccio for skipping a bet. A month later, Hill was busted because Ciaccio’s sister worked for the FBI. A judge found Hill and Burke guilty of extortion on November 3, 1972 and was housed at United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, along with Paul Vario. Most of John Gotti’s crew was there at the time too.

Two months after Hill got out of jail, Martin Krugman, his bookie, told him about Lufthansa and how much money there was in the vault at Kennedy Airport. Hill wasn’t actually on the job, and Krugman was whacked and hacked up at “Vinnie’s Fence Company.”

Hill went into dope. Selling and using. He got fingered by a mule who also squealed about Lufthansa. Hill was busted on April 27, 1980 and ratted out everyone who he thought was out to clip him. Burke allegedly tried to contract a job on Hill to Greg Bucceroni, but he passed and Burke went to jail. Hill’s testimony convicted 50 guys. Jimmy Burke got 20 years for the 1978–79 Boston College point shaving scandal.

Henry and Karen Hill went into the witness protection program. Henry got popped on drug charges in Seattle in 1987 and was kicked out of the program. Hill hid out on Howard Stern’s show. He’s currently an exhibit at the Museum of the American Gangster in New York City. Hill died on June 12, 2012, one day after his 69th birthday. The next day, the former arson specialist was cremated.

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Paul Vario AKA Paul Cicero

Paul Sorvino played Paul Cicero in Goodfellas.

Paul Sorvino played Paul Cicero in Goodfellas. His real name was Paul Vario, and he was born in New York City. Vario was a captain in the Lucchese family. At one point he was underboss. When he was 11, in 1925, Vario got a seven month juvenile detention term for truancy.

Vario and his crew treated Kennedy Airport like Citibank. Vario controlled and protected gambling in East New York, Brooklyn. He owned a flower shop, restaurant, and the cab stand that served as his office. His brother, Vito “Tuddy” Vario, ran the Euclid Avenue Cab Co. and Presto Pizzeria. Tuddy is based on Paul Vario’s younger brother Vito, and Vinnie (Charles Scorsese) is based on Thomas Agro.

Hill says Vario never talked on the phone, because you never knew who could be listening. Hill also says Vario had a nasty temper. Vario had his boys beat all the waiters from Don Pepe’s with baseball bats for keeping Vario and his wife Phyllis waiting in line. Paul and Phylis Vario had three sons, Peter, Paul Jr., and Leonard. 

Vario was “membership director” for mob boss Joe Colombo’s Italian-American Civil Rights League in the ’70s. He pulled out after Colombo started labeling the FBI and U.S. government racist, drawing heat. Starting in the late 1960s, Vario was underboss to Lucchese family head Carmine Tramunti.

Vario got three years for whatever was going on at his chop shop at the federal prison located in Lewisburg. Vario cooked for the other inmates. When Vario got out of jail in 1975, the Lucchese boss was Anthony Corallo and Salvatore “Tom Mix” Santoro was underboss.

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The DEA wanted Vario on a $1.5 million drug operation, even though Vario barred his soldiers from dealing drugs. Paul Vario approved of the Lufthansa Heist in 1978. According to Henry Hill, Vario kept a million dollars in cash in a vault. Vario fed Thomas DeSimone to the Gambino family for trying to rape Henry Hill’s wife, who Vario was schtupping.

Vario died on May 3, 1988 of an inflamed colon while he was jailed at Fort Worth Federal Prison in Texas. Vario was serving a ten to twelve year sentence for helping Henry Hill get a no-show job when he got out of prison. Also, on Hill’s testimony, for extortion at JFK Airport. He was 73.

Martin Krugman AKA Morrie Kessler

Played by Chuck Low in Goodfellas.

In Goodfellas, Chuck Low played Morrie Kessler who was based on Martin Krugman. Martin Krugman was a bookie who kicked up to Jimmy Burke. Krugman ran For Men Only, a men’s hair salon and wig shop for men who didn’t have enough hair to get salonned. Left to Jimmy Burke, those rugs might have been stapled on the lock-challenged.

Krugman was a Russian Jew. He was the guy who tipped off Burke about how much money they could make off the Lufthansa heist. Henry Hill was the go-between.

Krugman figured his cut from Lufthansa was $500,000. Burke figured anyone bald and brazen enough to ask for that much was spilling to the FBI. As Hill tells it, Jimmy, Angelo Sepe, and alleged Bonanno captain Vincent Asaro, the guy that was just pinched, killed and chopped up Krugman, and buried him next to Remo and Michael Gianco under Robert’s Lounge.

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Karen Friedman AKA Karen Hill

Played by Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas.

Lorraine Bracco played Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Karen Hill wasn’t part of the Lufthansa heist, but it impacted her life. Also, she was fucking Paul Vario, and Tommy DeSimone tried to rape her after she turned him down.

Karen Friedman was cleaning teeth when she met Henry Hill. She was a nice Jewish girl from a strict Jewish family from Nassau County. Her friend Dana Shapiro didn’t want to go on a date with Paul Vario’s son, Paul Jr., alone, so they paired her up with Henry Hill and they went out for drinks at the Villa Capra on Cedarhurst Avenue in Brooklyn.  

Henry and Karen got married on Aug. 29, 1965 in North Carolina, away from Karen’s family, who they wound up living with when they got back. Henry converted to Judaism so they could remarry in a Jewish ceremony. Karen and Henry had two kids, Gregg and Gina. Henry fucked around. Karen had an affair with his boss, Paul Vario.

After Henry Hill sang to the feds, he was put in the witness protection program with Karen and the kids. Hill got pinched for drug possession and got kicked out of the program. Karen and Henry separated in 1989, and Karen filed for divorce in 1990, but it was not finalized until 2002. 

Parnell Steven Edwards AKA Stacks Edwards AKA Stax Edwards

Played by Samuel L. Jackson in Goodfellas.

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Samuel L. Jackson played Stax Edwards in Goodfellas. Taken out with a shot behind the ear by Joe Pesci’s Tommy. He’d be late for his own funeral.

Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards was an expert at credit card theft and sometime musician who played the blues. His own blues started when he was supposed to get rid of a truck. On Dec. 18, 1978, Tommy DeSimone and Angelo Sepe shot Edwards for not getting rid of the getaway truck like Jimmy Burke told him to. Burke was convinced that the blues musician would sing if caught.

The Burke crew stole a van in Flushing to use on the Lufthansa job. Edwards was supposed to dump the van, but the cops found it in a no-parking zone in Brooklyn two days after the robbery. Cops found fingerprints in the inside of the van and also on Kerry Whalen’s wallet, which was sitting in the van.

The day after the cops found the van, Robert’s Lounge was hosting a Christmas Party for Paulie Vario, who was up from Florida. Stacks was at the party. Stacks took one look at the wad of cash Henry Hill was flashing and started joking about how the white Mafia guys kept all those millions from the Lufthansa heist while Stacks was fucking broke. Henry remembered, “I knew that Stax had signed his death warrant that day.”

Stacks Edwards was first on the hit parade when Burke ordered all loose ends cut off. On December 18, in an Ozone Park Queens apartment where Stacks was cooling his heels, he got shot in the back of the head six times. DeSimone was promised that the Edwards hit would straighten him out and he’d be a made man. We know how that went.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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