An aging gangster went on trial Monday on charges he was in on the $6 million Lufthansa holdup in 1978, a legendary theft dramatized in the hit film “Goodfellas.”
The brazen armed robbery of cash and jewelry in the dead of night at a cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport was “the score of all scores” for Vincent Asaro and other mobsters of his generation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Gerdes said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.
Asaro, 80, teamed with heist mastermind, the late James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke – played by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film – “because he knew Burke was someone he could make money with,” Gerdes said. “Jimmy Burke and Vincent Asaro were true partners in crime.”
The prosecutor told jurors – who had been asked on questionnaires if they had seen “Goodfellas” – that Asaro became a real-life member of the Bonanno organized crime family in the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. She also said he has the mob slogan “death without dishonor” tattooed” on forearm.
“For him, the Mafia was literally the family business,” she said. “The defendant is a gangster through and through.”
Defense attorney Diane Ferrone countered by accusing the government of relying on the testimony of untrustworthy turncoat mobsters, including Asaro’s cousin, Gaspare Valenti. She labeled the cousin a con artist who became a paid government informant in the late 2000s and agreed to wear a wire to record their conversations.
“You shouldn’t believe him because his latest con victim is the United States government,” Ferrone said.
On Valenti and other government witnesses, she said, “When necessary, they lie to each other and they lie to save themselves. … Once a liar, always a liar.”
Unlike Burke, Asaro was an obscure member of the Bonannos with low-level mob-related convictions before his arrest last year. He became the latest mobster to fall prey to a breach in the Mafia’s once-sacred code of silence that has decimated the ranks of New York’s five Italian crime families.
The first witness, former Bonanno underboss Salvatore Vitale, gave the jury the rules of La Cosa Nostra including an important one he had broken: “If you meet with law enforcement, we have the right to kill you.”
Vitale testified how he was involved in 11 payback killings, and how he grew disillusioned after he was ordered to rub out a friend for being disrespectful to a higher-up.
“I was just tired of the life,” he said. “I was tired of the killing.”
Vitale testified that after the Lufthansa robbery, he saw Asaro deliver an attache case to Asaro’s then-captain Joseph Massino. He said Massino opened the case to find it full of gold chains, telling Vitale, “This is from the Lufthansa score.”
After rising to boss of the family, Massino stunned the underworld by becoming the highest-ranking mobster to ever break the mob’s oath of omerta when he testified at the 2011 trial of his successor. He’s also expected to testify at the Asaro trial.
Prosecutors alleged that though Asaro didn’t participate directly in the Lufthansa robbery, he was given $500,000 because the airport was considered Bonanno turf. They also say he was a degenerate gambler who blew much of it at the racetrack.
The defendant also is charged in the 1969 murder of a suspected law enforcement informant, Paul Katz, whose remains were found during an FBI dig in 2013 at a house once occupied by Burke. Asaro told his cousin that Burke “had killed Katz with a dog chain because they believed he was a ‘rat,’ ” the court papers said.
If convicted of racketeering conspiracy and other charges, Asaro faces a maximum sentence of life behind bars.