Aging gangster accused of ‘Goodfellas’ heist goes on trial

In this Dec. 13, 1978 file photo, police cordon off an area around a stolen black van discovered in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Ken Murray/AP, 1978)

NEW YORK — 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, aligned himself 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 that Asaro had been a made member of the Bonanno organized crime family since the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

“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 a close associate of 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 State 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, admitted killer and former Bonanno underboss Salvatore Vitale, testified that after the Lufthansa robbery, he saw Asaro deliver an attache 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 broke ranks and became 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.

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