The Lufthansa Heist

The $6 Million Dollar Robbery That Put the Mob in the Headlines

mugshot of henry hill
Henry Hill, one of the key links in the Lufthansa heist. Wikimedia Commons

If you've seen the movie Goodfellas, you already know the basic story: On December 11, 1978, a team of thieves led by an associate of the Lucchese crime family stole $6 million in cash and jewelry from the Lufthansa Airlines vault at Kennedy Airport. At the time, it was the most ambitious robbery in American history, and it still counts as one of the largest cash hauls ever, anywhere in the world.

 

The Genesis of the Lufthansa Heist

There's a reason employers don't like their workers to get involved with the mob: once you're in hock, there's no telling what you'll give up to save your life. In the fall of 1978, a Kennedy Airport employee named Louis Werner owed $20,000 in gambling debts to a Mafia-associated bookie named Martin Krugman; to worm his way out, he gave Krugman a tip about a huge shipment of cash about to be shipped to New York by the German airline Lufthansa. (The money derived from monetary exchanges in West Germany used by American tourists and servicemen.) Krugman, in turn, told his fellow mob associate Henry Hill, who passed along the information to master thief Jimmy Burke (the latter two were portrayed by Ray Liotta and Robert de Niro, respectively, in Goodfellas).

Beyond passing along the initial tip, Louis Werner was instrumental in successfully pulling off the Lufthansa heist, since he actually worked at Kennedy Airport.

He gave the Burke crew a master key, briefed them on the names of the employees who would be working the day of the heist, and even told them the best place to park their getaway car. Before they could spring into action, though, the robbers had to square things away with the Five Families of New York: the Lucchese family backed the operation, but the Gambino family insisted on placing one of its own soldiers with the crew and the Bonnano family demanded a cut of the proceeds, since Kennedy Airport was technically on its turf.

The Day of the Heist

Oddly enough, given its centrality to the movie's plot, Martin Scorsese doesn't actually depict the Lufthansa heist in Goodfellas; all he gives audiences is a shot of Ray Liotta celebrating in the shower as the robbery is reported on the radio. In any event, the heist went off amazingly smoothly: at three o'clock in the morning, Burke's crew burst into the Kennedy Airport facility, rounded up the employees (without, thankfully, actually killing anybody) and loaded 40 parcels of cash into their waiting van, and then sternly warned their hostages not to alert the authorities for 15 minutes. Why 15 minutes? Because Louis Werner made sure to tell Burke that Port Authority police could seal off Kennedy Airport (which is the size of a small city) within 90 seconds of a distress call.

But here's where things began to get sloppy. The robbers drove to Jimmy Rourke's garage in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and loaded the money into another vehicle that was then driven to a safe house (no one knows exactly where) by Burke and his son. But rather than taking the original car to a junkyard in New Jersey, where it was supposed to be immediately compacted, getaway driver Parnell "Stacks" Edwards chose to get high instead in his girlfriend's apartment, parking the van carelessly on the street outside.

By morning, the police had the van in custody, and Edwards fled into the night, his fingerprints still on the steering wheel.

The Bloody Aftermath of the Lufthansa Heist

Not a sentimental man in the best of times, Jimmy Burke, in possession of $6 million in cash, was driven to murderous paranoia in the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist. It didn't take long for the police to put two and two together and identify the Burke crew as the likely culprits; they wired Burke's lounge, tapped the pay phones out on the street, and even followed members of the gang in black helicopters. In order to cover his tracks, Burke went on a killing spree. The first to go was "Stacks" Edwards (executed in his home, in a scene memorably recreated in Goodfellas with Joe Pesci and Samuel L. Jackson); the body of Martin Krugman was never found; and at least seven other people associated with the heist also wound up whacked or missing.

In the end, despite its reams of surveillance, the FBI was never able to definitively connect the Burke gang with the Lufthansa heist, and the money was never recovered. (Ironically, the only person ever convicted for the robbery was Louis Werner, the inside man who had made the entire scheme possible.) As for Jimmy Burke, he wound up jailed by the feds for his involvement in a college basketball point-shaving scam. and was then slapped with another 20 years for the murder of Richard Eaton (a low-level mob associate who was briefly depicted in Goodfellas frozen stiff and hanging off a meat hook). Burke died of cancer in 1996, and Henry Hill in 2012, meaning that we may never know how many houses, sports cars, fur coats and home theaters the cash from the Lufthansa heist wound up funding.