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1978 Lufthansa heist was the 'score of scores,' prosecution says as trial starts

FBI agents escort Vincent Asaro, middle front, from

FBI agents escort Vincent Asaro, middle front, from FBI offices in lower Manhattan, Jan. 23, 2014. Asaro has been arrested in connection arrested with the infamous Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport in 1978, according to a federal indictment. Credit: Charles Eckert

A prosecutor called the $6 million Lufthansa terminal heist in 1978 the "score of scores" as the racketeering trial of alleged career mobster Vincent Asaro, the first organized crime figure ever charged in the notorious "Goodfellas" robbery, began in Brooklyn federal court Sunday.

Prosecutor Lindsay Gerdes told jurors that Asaro helped plan the heist, waited in a nearby "crash car" to help if needed with plot mastermind Jimmy Burke -- the Robert De Niro character in the movie -- while a crew carried it out, and received a $500,000 share.

"The defendant is a gangster through and through," she said in her opening arguments, noting that Asaro's grandfather, father and son all were so-called wiseguys. "He lived and breathed the Mafia . . . What mattered to this defendant was money and power."

The Dec. 11, 1978, theft of money and jewelry at Kennedy Airport, at the time the largest cash robbery in U.S. history, became the subject of a tell-all book by informant Henry Hill and a classic Martin Scorsese movie, but most of the mobsters involved are now dead.

Asaro, now 80, of Howard Beach, known as a mob tough guy with "Death Before Dishonor" tattooed on his forearm, allegedly headed a Bonanno family crew near Kennedy Airport and helped a Lucchese family gang pull it off.

It is one of a series of crimes from murders to loan-sharking he is charged with, but Asaro's lawyer told jurors that the government's case was based on testimony from turncoat witnesses who have gotten $2 million all told in support from the FBI and who aren't believable.

Defense lawyer Diane Ferrone had especially sharp words for star informant Gaspare Valenti, Asaro's cousin, who wore a wire for years. "He's no star," Ferrone said. "He's more a black hole."

The government's first witness Monday was Sal Vitale, a former Bonanno family underboss who admitted participation in 11 murders before becoming an informant.

He recalled shortly after the Lufthansa heist driving Joe Massino, Asaro's captain at the time and later the Bonanno family boss, to a meeting where Asaro handed over a case to Massino. When he returned the car, Massino showed him it was filled with gold chains and necklaces. "This is from the Lufthansa score," Massino said.

Vitale said Massino, who eventually became an informant and is expected to testify, later spread the loot out at his house, covering his dining room table. "He gave me one chain," Vitale said sarcastically. "He was always a big spender."

Vitale said he first met Asaro in 1975, when he needed a fence built at his house, and Massino recommended that he hire Asaro. "He put the fence up," Vitale testified. "The fence is still up. He did an outstanding job."

Asaro, looking grandfatherly in a cream-colored sweater, was quiet during the first day of trial, but his lawyers twice asked U.S. District Judge Allyne Ross to make sure he had a clear line of sight to the witness box, and he peered intently at Vitale during testimony.

Prosecutors say that during the trial, they expect to present evidence that participants in the Lufthansa heist were supposed to get shares of $750,000, but in recorded conversations Asaro complained that "we never got our right money" because Burke "kept everything."

The government says Asaro gambled away much of what he did make from the Lufthansa theft. He is also charged with a $1 million armored-car robbery, the theft of $1.25 million in gold salts from Federal Express, and the 1969 murder of suspected informant Paul Katz.


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