Dad, son in court over 1970s heist

PLEADING NOT GUILTY: Bonanno crime family leader Vincent Asaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York.
PLEADING NOT GUILTY: Bonanno crime family leader Vincent Asaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York.

An elderly reputed mobster has been  arrested at his New York City home and charged with a 1969 murder and the US$6 (NZ$7.21m) million 1978 airport robbery dramatised in the Martin Scorsese movie Goodfellas.

Vincent Asaro, 78, was named along with his son and three other defendants in wide-ranging indictment alleging murder, robbery, extortion, arson and other crimes from the late 1960s through last year. It accused Asaro of helping to direct the December 11, 1978, Lufthansa airlines heist at Kennedy airport - one of the largest cash thefts in American history.

He and his son pleaded not guilty Thursday in Brooklyn federal court. They didn’t ask for bail and are behind bars.

The gunmen invaded the airline's cargo terminal and stole about US$5 million in untraceable US currency from a vault that was being returned to the United States from Germany. The cash was never found. Authorities say jewellery worth about US$1 million also was taken.

According to court papers, an unidentified co-operating witness told investigators that he participated in the robbery at the direction of Arsaro.

Each robber was supposed to be paid US$750,000, but the co-operating witness said "most did not receive their share, either because they were killed first or it was never given to them", according to the court papers.

Asaro and his son Jerome, both alleged captains in the Bonanno organised crime family, also were charged in a 1984 robbery of US$1.25 million worth of gold salts from a Federal Express employee.

All five defendants were in custody and awaiting appearances on Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn. Information on their attorneys was not immediately available.

In addition to the heist, the elder Asaro was charged in the 1969 murder of Paul Katz, whose remains were found last year during an FBI dig at a house once occupied by James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke. Burke, a late Lucchese crime family associate, planned the Lufthansa heist and was known for burying victims of mob hits in familiar places.

According to the co-operating witness, Asaro and Burke were close and were business partners in Robert's Lounge, the papers say. The saloon was described by a fellow Lucchese associate of Burke, the late Henry Hill, as Burke's private cemetery. "Jimmy buried over a dozen bodies ... under the bocce courts," Hill wrote in his book, A Goodfella's Guide to New York.

Katz once owned a warehouse where mobsters stored stolen goods, according to the court papers. After a raid at the warehouse, Asaro and Burke began to suspect Katz was a law enforcement informant.

Asaro told the cooperator that Burke "had killed Katz with a dog chain because they believed he was a 'rat'", the papers say.

Burke inspired Robert De Niro's character in Goodfellas, which was based on Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy and told the story of Hill's time in the mob and subsequent co-operation with law enforcement.

The papers say the co-operator wore a wire and recorded a conversation he had with Asaro in 2011 in which the pair discussed the Lufthansa heist.

"We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get," Asaro said, according to the court papers. "Jimmy Burke kept everything."