The FBI May Have Finally Solved the Airport Caper That Was Immortalized in Goodfellas

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 23 2014 2:38 PM

The FBI May Have Finally Solved the Airport Caper That Was Immortalized in Goodfellas

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A plane waits at John F. Kennedy Airport on February 28, 2013 in New York City

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's been more than 35 years since a group of masked men pulled off the infamous Lufthansa heist of 1978, a caper that netted the criminals roughly $6 million in cash and jewelery—a record haul at the time—and that would be immortalized a dozen years later in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Today, after more than a few near misses, the FBI made its first mob-related arrest in the case, charging 78-year-old Vincent Asaro in connection with the crime. Police have not yet said exactly what role they believe Asaro played in the heist, although he is believed to have been a high-level member of the Bonanno crime family.

The indictment that revealed the arrest, in the words of the New York Times, "reads like a greatest hits collection of the Mafia: armored truck heists, murder, attempted murder, extortion and bookmaking." A total of five men were arrested in connection with the investigation—including Asaro's son—although only the 78-year-old has been linked to the Lufthansa heist. Here's the version of events offered to the feds by an unidentified cooperating witness, via the Associated Press:

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The gunmen invaded the airline's cargo terminal and stole about $5 million in untraceable U.S. currency from a vault that was being returned to the United States from Germany. The cash was never found. Authorities say jewelry worth about $1 million also was taken.
According to court papers, an unidentified cooperating witness told investigators that he participated in the robbery at the direction of Arsaro. Each robber was supposed to be paid $750,000, but the cooperating witness said "most did not receive their share, either because they were killed first or it was never given to them," according to the court papers.

Even with Asaro and the four others in police custody, the cooperating witness is no doubt doing his or her fair share of sweating today. As the Wall Street Journal reminds us, one by one, "many of the men and women suspected in either being involved in the heist—or associated with those involved—[have] turned up dead." Others simply disappeared. The first death was said to be the driver of the getaway van, who was reportedly supposed to take the vehicle to an impound lot following the robbery but instead opted to park it outside his girlfriend's apartment, where the cops found in the very next day.

While Asaro is the first reputed mobster to be arrested in connection with the crime, he's not the first to be linked to it. In the 1980s, Henry Hill admitted his involvement and quickly entered the federal witness protection program. (It was Hill who was the subject of the book Wiseguy, which in turn was the basis for Goodfellas.) Likewise, Asaro is not the first person arrested in connection with the heist. That honor went to Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent with gambling debts and whose inside info prosecutors say eventually reached the robbers via a string of bookmakers.

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.