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Vincent Asaro charged in '78 Lufthansa heist, legendary crime chronicled in 'Goodfellas'

Vincent Asaro is escorted from FBI offices in

Vincent Asaro is escorted from FBI offices in lower Manhattan. Asaro was arrested in connection with the infamous Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport in 1978, which was chronicled in the movie "Goodfellas." (Jan. 23, 2014) Credit: Charles Eckert

An alleged Bonanno family capo from Howard Beach was charged Thursday with participating in the legendary $6 million Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport, making him the first mob figure indicted in the 1978 robbery chronicled in the hit movie "Goodfellas."

Prosecutors said Vincent Asaro, 78, became involved in the Lufthansa theft -- at the time the largest cash robbery in U.S. history -- through his close ties to the late James Burke, the ruthless Queens mobster who was the basis for the character played by Robert De Niro.

Four cooperating witnesses link Asaro to the stickup, the government said, including an "ex-boss" -- an apparent reference to former Bonanno boss Joe Massino, the government's highest ranking mob turncoat. The ex-boss got an attache case of jewelry and gold from the job and discussed it with Asaro, an underling, the government said.

The Lufthansa charges were included in a 26-page racketeering and extortion indictment that accused Asaro and four other Bonanno family mobsters of crimes ranging from murder and arson to bookmaking and loan-sharking over 45 years.

"These 'goodfellas' thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted," said George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office. "It may be decades later, but the FBI's determination to bring wiseguys to justice will never waver."

Asaro, sporting tinted glasses, a tan and a thinning pompadour, pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance in Brooklyn federal court attended by his girlfriend and family members. He was held without bail.

His lawyer, Gerald McMahon, afterward quipped that prosecutors must have been trying to help out "Goodfellas" director Martin Scorsese -- "Marty must have needed a sequel" -- and brushed off questions about Asaro's alleged Lufthansa role.

"He doesn't even know how to spell it," the lawyer said. "There will be no guilty plea, and he will be marching out the door a free man."

Although the Dec. 11, 1978, heist was the subject of a tell-all book based on the late informant Henry Hill and the subsequent movie, no one but a Lufthansa cargo clerk named Louis Werner had been charged until Thursday in connection with the theft.

As Hill told it, Burke, a Lucchese family associate known as "Jimmy the Gent" who died in 1996, planned the robbery and later killed many Lufthansa participants to ensure silence. In the first activity in the case in years, the FBI last year dug up Burke's former home in Ozone Park.

According to prosecutors, Asaro -- who headed a Bonanno crew near JFK -- participated in "several planning meetings" with Burke and others in the weeks before the 1978 robbery.

Each participant was supposed to get a $750,000 share, the government said, but in a 2011 recording, Asaro allegedly told a cooperating witness that "we never got our right money" and complained that "Jimmy kept everything."

The government said one informant -- identified as a cousin of Asaro, who participated in the robbery at his direction -- told federal agents that "most did not live to receive their share, either because they were killed first or it was never given to them."

Asaro was also charged with a $1 million armored-car robbery conspiracy, the theft of $1.25 million in gold salts from Federal Express, and the 1969 murder of suspected informant Paul Katz. Katz's remains were found during the excavation of Burke's former home, the government said.

Asaro alone is charged with the Lufthansa theft and the murder as part of a racketeering enterprise. His son Jerome Asaro, 55, of Bethpage, and Jack Bonventre, 45, of Campbell Hall, were accused of racketeering for participating in criminal acts with him.

Two other men -- Thomas DiFiore, 70, of Commack, the Bonanno family's alleged street boss, and John Ragano -- are charged in extortion and loan sharking-related counts of the indictment, but not racketeering.

DiFiore, Ragano and Jerome Asaro pleaded not guilty Thursday and were detained without bail. Bonventre is scheduled to be arraigned Friday.

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