Lufthansa Heist: Who Was This Jimmy Conway?

Lufthansa Heist Helmsman was played by Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro.

Yesterday, the feds put out that they nabbed Vincent Asaro, reputed mobster in the Bonanno family, in an early morning raid along with four other gangsters. The cops say Asaro parcels out crimes at the JFK airport for the Mafia. Asaro will be the first accused mobster to face charges in the infamous 1978 Lufthansa Heist at Kennedy International Airport, made even more famous in the movie Goodfellas. That caper netted $6 million and it is still one of the biggest thefts in American history. Maybe the biggest. Asaro says the guy who planned that robbery never kicked up his full take to the family. In the Martin Scorsese movie Goodfellas, the mastermind behind the Lufthansa Heist was Jimmy Conway and he was played by Robert De Niro as a gentleman thief.

Who was this Jimmy Conway? This Jimmy the Gent? First off, he wasn’t Jimmy Conway, he was Jimmy Burke and his friends, and friends of his friends, called him The Irishman. He was tough, rough, and deadly. If he didn’t kill you himself, he knew guys who could do it for him. At cost. They owed him. Asaro says Burke owed him. It’s too late now. Burke’s in the ground. Asaro is on his way to court. Maybe jail.

The cops were following a lead they got from digging around Jimmy Burke’s daughter’s house in Queens. They found human remains that DNA tests matched to Paul Katz, a rat who disappeared in 1969. Katz was strangled, buried, dug up and buried again in Burke’s basement.

James Burke was an associate of the Lucchese family. He wasn’t a made guy because he was Irish. Burke was born in New York. His mother, Jane Conway, was from Ireland and nobody knows who his old man is. Burke’s mom put him in an orphanage when he was two and he was shuffled around in foster homes where he was usually abused. One of the families he stayed with blamed him for the death of his foster father in a car accident. The guy crashed his car giving Burke a beating while he was driving. The widow kept on beating Jimmy until he was taken in by the Burke family who gave him his last name. Word on the street is some of the cash from Lufthansa heist was buried at their home.

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When he was a kid, Jimmy’s summer jobs usually were off the books. Way off the books. Sometimes they were cooking the books. In 1949, when Jimmy was 18, he got five years for bank forgery for passing bad checks for Dominick Cersani. Burke was a standup guy, he kept his mouth shut and did his time. That put him in good with the bosses.

Jimmy the Gent was a charmer. When he found out that an ex-boyfriend was bugging his soon-to-be-bride Mickey, in 1962, that ex-boyfriend became an ex-person. The cops say the ex was whacked and hacked into over a dozen pieces and tossed all over the inside of his car.  Jimmy the Gent had two girls and two boys with Mickey. He named the boys Frank and Jesse James. Yeah, like the gunslingers. The outlaws. They grew up playing with a basement full of stolen toys.

Burke mentored young wannabe wise guys like Henry Hill, who was played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas and Thomas DeSimone, who was played by Joe Pesci. DeSimone was maybe ten years younger than Henry Hill, but who cares? The movies said they were about the same age and fuck you pay me. Burke paid. He said paying cops was like feeding elephants at the zoo. The elephant in the room is that all possible squealers that the cops found out about? Over a dozen of them wound up dead in a trunk of some car at JFK Airport.

Burke owned Robert’s Lounge, a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens. It was a great place for cards. Games usually went into the early morning. It was also a convenient burial ground for guys who didn’t pay up. Burke laundered his money through Moo Moo Vedda’s, a dress factory. Burke and Henry Hill did a dime starting in 1972 for beating the shit out of Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida for welching on a bet to union boss Casey Rosado. Well they were sentenced to ten years. They got out in six and 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, but who’s quibbling. Quibblers end up losing big with Jimmy Burke. He is said to have killed or ordered the killings of – a lot of guys. He told Tommy DeSimone to strangle Burke’s best friend, Dominick “Remo” Cersani, with a piano wire. Remo is buried next to the bocce court behind Robert’s Lounge now. Burke also gave a new meaning to the phrase “on ice.” Burke had a rep for locking people who owed him money in refrigerators. You know how they tell you not to play in dumped fridges when you’re a kid. If you owed Burke money he might bust your chops that he was was gonna “lock your kid inside the fuckin’ refrigerator.” Funny fucking guy.

Burke strangled Jimmy Breslin almost to death after he wrote a piece on Paul Vario, Burke’s inside man at this thing of theirs.

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Then there was the Lufthansa Heist, $6 million in cash and jewels just sitting in Building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport. Well it was there until December 11, 1978. Jimmy’s son Frank drove the crash car. What a kid. He’s gonna go far. Burke’s crew held up the cargo workers at gunpoint, handcuffed them and locked them in the lunch room. He took their wallets and told them he’d kill their families if they didn’t follow instruction. They loaded cash and jewels into a van and unloaded it in Canarsie. The van was crushed and the take was about $6 million. That money was split up between Burke, his crew and Gambino and Lucchese families, except that Asano says Burke didn’t kick up his full percentage.

Burke got spooked by all the publicity and went around clipping all the loose ends. Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards was found shot to death cos he was clumsy with his Pumas. Fat Louie Cafora and his blushing bride Joanna never got back from that unplanned honeymoon. Robert McMahon and Joe Manri were found in a Buick. Paolo LiCastri was found in a lot in Brooklyn. Theresa Ferrara, who did double overtime as goomah to Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, was found floating in Toms River, New Jersey. Martin Krugman disappeared on January 6, 1979. Better to fade away than cost half a million, which was supposed to be his take. Tommy DeSimone, and Angelo Sepe lived through it. They were standup guys. Jimmy’s son Frank James also lived through it, only to be shot to death in a drug deal in Brooklyn on May 18, 1987.

Henry Hill ratted out Jimmy and Burke was arrested on April 1, 1980. Burke was suspected of committing more than 50 murders, but only convicted for killing con man Richard Eaton. Burke left Eaton in an abandoned tractor trailer and kids found him. Burke contended that “the bastard died of hypothermia.” On the plane to Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, Burke pointed to JFK airport and told the cops “that was all mine.”

Burke died of lung cancer on April 13, 1996. They still haven’t found all the money from the Lufthansa Heist.

 

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