The retired federal agent in charge of the 1978 Lufthansa heist at Kennedy International Airport said he couldn't believe it when he got a call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that an arrest in the case was about to happen.
"I was surprised and proud that these guys followed up on their leads and they did what I couldn't," said Stephen Carbone, 72, of Amityville, who supervised the investigation of the famous caper that inspired the film "Goodfellas."
The government Thursday arrested Vincent Asaro, 78, an alleged leader of the Bonanno crime family, and accused the Howard Beach, Queens, man of taking part in the heist.
Carbone said he suspected Asaro of playing a role in the legendary theft, but didn't know his exact involvement.
Back in the 1970s Asaro and mobsters made money by hijacking cargoes that came through the airport, Carbone said. The heist was famous for the amount of money stolen, $5 million cash and $1 million in jewelry, the largest cash robbery at the time. And, most of it was never recovered.
On Dec. 11, 1978, seven masked men drove up to the Lufthansa cargo facility at JFK in a stolen van, a black Ford Econoline, about 3:15 a.m., according to news accounts. The bandits, armed with shotguns and automatic weapons, beat two employees, rounded up the others and eventually handcuffed all nine workers and took them to the cafeteria.
The intruders forced one employee to disable the alarm to the storage room where the money and jewelry -- which had been shipped by West German Commerzbank to Chase Manhattan Bank -- were kept. The thieves had a key to the storage room.
It took the robbers about an hour to move the money and the jewelry, which were kept in 35 metal boxes.
About 15 minutes after the robbers fled, one of the employees staggered to the stairs and saw a colleague coming in. They called police.
Since retiring in 1998, Carbone said he has thought of the case now and then, wondering where the money went.
"The fact that we didn't solve it makes it more challenging."
Carbone said he was convinced that James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, who died in 1996, was the mastermind behind the theft and had some of those involved in the caper killed.
More than a dozen people connected to the holdup turned up dead or missing, including Theresa Ferrara, 27, part-owner of a beauty shop in Bellmore, and Martin Krugman, a bookmaker from Nassau County.
Krugman, who authorities believed had gone to Burke to carry out the plan, disappeared a month after the heist.
Ferrara, who was believed to have shared a house with an associate of Burke, was found dead in May 1979. Her dismembered body washed ashore near Toms River, N.J.
"Every time we would come up with another name, that person ended up dead," Carbone said.
The only person ever charged and convicted in connection to the heist was Louis Werner, a Lufthansa cargo agent who helped set up the robbery.