The Big Heist: The Real Story of the Lufthansa Heist, the Mafia, and Murder

The Big Heist: The Real Story of the Lufthansa Heist, the Mafia, and Murder

by Anthony M. DeStefano


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“A comprehensive account of the legendary 1978 heist . . .  impressive.”
Kirkus Reviews
The crime that inspired the movie Goodfellas.
The rest of the story that couldn’t be told—until now.
One of the biggest scores in Mafia history, the Lufthansa Airlines heist of 1978 has become the stuff of mafia legend—and a decades-long investigation that continues to this day. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony DeStefano sheds new light on this legendary unsolved case using recent evidence from the 2015 trial of eighty-year-old mafioso Vincent Asaro, who for the first time speaks out on his role in the fateful Lufthansa heist. This blistering you-are-there account takes you behind the headlines and inside the ranks of America’s infamous Mafia families—with never-before-told stories, late-breaking news, and bombshell revelations.
Praise for Anthony D. DeStefano’s TOP HOODLUM: Frank Costello, Prime Minister of the Underworld
“An engrossing chronicle of the life of notorious Mafia boss . . . DeStefano’s canny insight into the don’s mind and motivations set this biography apart from others on Frank Costello.”
Publishers Weekly
“DeStefano tells Costello's story well.”—Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806538938
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 05/28/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,143,004
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony M. DeStefano has covered organized crime for over three decades, including the crime beat for New York Newsday for the past twenty years. His books on organized crime include Gangland New York, King of the Godfathers, Mob Killer, and Vinny Gorgeous among others.

Read an Excerpt


The Message from the Bones

Bradley Adams was someone who was not squeamish when confronted with the dead. As a forensic anthropologist, he was around human remains all of the time. The pieces could be as large as a thigh bone or as small as a fingernail. Adams's subjects usually never died peacefully.

As a child visiting his grandparents' funeral home in Kansas, Adams had to go through the embalming area to get to the garage when he stayed with them on school vacations. Sometimes he would see the deceased on the preparation table, although he was spared seeing the corpses having embalming fluid pumped into their body cavities. Their internal organs would have been sliced open with a trocar, a blade designed to cut a person's internal organs so that the fluid could be more readily absorbed by the lifeless tissue. He didn't have to witness that procedure either.

No, dead people didn't seem to bother Bradley Adams. As a college man he took to specializing in archeology and worked on prehistoric sites in the United States and Central America. He then became more interested in the forensic aspect of science, spending time in graduate school at a body farm in Tennessee. It was a place where, in the interests of science, corpses were placed all over the grounds in various states of burial — or no burial at all. The bodies were consigned to this natural state so that scientists could study the decomposition of human bodies in assorted situations. Students like Brad Adams would sometimes have to stick their hands — gloved of course — into the decaying flesh to understand what was happening to our mortal remains. At first he thought the putrefaction might make him vomit or pass out. But, no, Brad Adams discovered he wasn't bothered by it. It was something you got used to.

There aren't many jobs for forensic anthropologists. It is a rather rarified field with most of the positions in big cities or at major universities. However, Adams was good enough at what he did that he got a job with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City as the resident forensic anthropologist and was something of a legend, the go-to guy whenever cops needed help when a body or human remains were found. He knew his stuff and was often loaned out to study cases all over the world.

Prior to joining the OCME, as the office is known, Adams worked with the U.S. military in Hawaii, the headquarters of the command that was responsible for finding and identifying the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in various conflicts. He spent time in Vietnam to sort through the graves of U.S. servicemen killed in the war. Adams even did the same in North Korea, where he was kept in a guarded compound after the Communist government there allowed American experts in to examine what were believed to be the graves of Americans killed in the Korean War. The North Koreans did relax things enough that Adams and his colleagues were able to go on guided tours during weekends.

In New York City, the cases Brad Adams was called to deal with weren't as politically charged as the wartime stuff. If the NYPD or other law enforcement agencies telephoned it was a safe bet that Adams would be going to what could be a crime scene to examine the remains of some unfortunate. It could be a railroad siding, a ditch, a sewer, a sandy beach, the inside of an apartment, even a drainage pipe in a cemetery: Brad Adams had been to just about any place imaginable where a dead body or bones might wind up.

On June 1 8, 2013, the request for assistance to Brad Adams came from the Manhattan office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agents were preparing to dig in the basement of an attached home in Ozone Park, a section of the Borough of Queens. They had a tip — a pretty good one from a trustworthy source — that the remains of a murder victim might be under the concrete floor. If they found something, Adams would be needed to do a quick examination to determine if the finds were human and then take them back to his lab for further analysis. To keep Adam's mind open and to avoid saying anything suggestive that might later taint the investigation, the agents didn't tell him very much about the victim.

It wasn't uncommon for cops to come across bones, only to discover they were not human. In fact, in Brooklyn once under the basement floor of an old mob social club police uncovered some bones after an informant swore that many bodies had been buried there. They found bones all right, but they turned out to be those of a horse. Fragments of chickens sometimes littered city parks in the aftermath of Santeria or other religious rituals. After years of study Adams could quickly tell if the bones he was looking at were those of a person. He had co-authored a forensic textbook on the subject, complete with photographs comparing human bones with those of animals ranging from birds to water buffalo. Alligators it turned out had shoulder blades very similar to those of a man, Adams noted.

Adams had actually been alerted by the FBI about the dig a day earlier, June 17. It was then that the agency's evidence response team showed up with jackhammers, pick axes, shovels and other tools to begin digging in the basement floor of 81-48 102nd Road. To cover all their bases, the agents also did some digging in the backyard. The bureau's informant had said the body was toward the rear of the cellar, under some relatively fresh cement by a door. That was enough for the agents to get a search warrant from a federal judge. The residents really had no say in the matter. Agents unlocked the garage door, which was at the end of an inclined driveway and started to work inside. News media crews eventually showed up and took photographs of the agents, who had set up a blue tent at the house to shield their work from prying eyes as they started to go about their business

The cellar area didn't look at all sinister. The main room was well lit and cluttered with boxes of household items, children's games, and laundry baskets. Agents moved the stuff aside and with jackhammers broke through the concrete rather easily. But the agents had only dug down about six inches when they were suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with a problem. They hit a small water pipe and the resulting flood caused everybody to stop digging and rush to repair the leak. It took the rest of the day to fix the pipe, and the digging was put off until the next morning, when Adams returned with the rest of the team.

Agent Michael Byrnes was leading the FBI team that day, and as the jackhammer broke through the concrete and other agents pulled away pieces of the floor, it seemed clear that the spot where the digging was going on had some distinctive characteristics that indicated someone had been there before them. Unlike other portions of the floor, this particular spot didn't have reinforcing metal mesh in the concrete. The soil also seemed to have been disturbed in the past.

The agents resumed digging, carefully using trowels to scrape away layers of the sandy soil. They used small paint brushes if they had to. Going down about six inches at a time, the agents sorted through the various rock, pebbles, and bits of broken cement. The work was tedious and each scraping that wasn't productive brought them closer to a dead end. They repeated the process through a number of half-foot increments, going down around two to three feet.

Then they saw it. Lying in the soil was an unmistakable piece of bone, around two inches long. It was stained brown, had no odor and had no flesh adhering to it. It was clearly bone. Based on his expertise, Adams didn't need much of the bone fragment to tell if it was human, although in some cases really small pieces would require microscopic analysis to distinguish them from another species. But Adams was pretty certain that what was sticking up in the earth came from a human hand, a fact borne out when further careful brushing away of the soil revealed other parts arranged roughly as a hand would be if the fingers were splayed. The additional hand pieces were also stained brown, an indication that they had been in the ground for several years. Adams believed the bones had to have been there for at least five years and likely more.

The agents kept digging and brushing. Very soon their efforts were rewarded with more bones: a human vertebra, a piece of a skull, a part of the coccyx or tailbone, the hyoid bone which normally lies behind the tongue and just above the Adam's apple. A tooth was also uncovered, as were two ribs. There was also some mummified flesh and bits of clothing. Clearly, Adams and the agents were staring into a grave. Or what had been a grave.

There was no complete set of remains so it was obvious that the remainder of the corpse had at some time in the past been removed and taken somewhere else. In cases where a grave is disturbed, unless the diggers are very careful, smaller bones get churned in the process and can migrate deeper into the ground or get overlooked. This is particularly true if those making the removal are working in haste, which is what had happened at 102nd Road. For mobsters, the act of disinterring the remains of a murder victim is unnerving, especially to people who didn't expect to have to perform such a grisly task to later conceal the crime. As a result, bones are sometimes left behind. The result was that Adams and the FBI agents found the evidence they were looking for. Just to make sure nothing was overlooked, Kristin Hartnett, another member of the medical examiner's team, supervised the screening of the soil on another portion of the property.

Adams took what was found and returned to the medical examiner's laboratory on First Avenue in Manhattan, in a building adjacent to Bellevue Hospital. It was there that the bones would be sent to a laboratory to extract DNA evidence to see if the remains could be identified. Actually, based on what the FBI informant said, the agents had a pretty good idea that the bones were those of Paul Katz, a small-time hijacker and fence for stolen property who disappeared in December 1969. The FBI source had said Katz had been strangled and dumped in the basement hole because James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, an infamous homicidal mob associate, believed, based on tips from law enforcement, that the trucker might have been an informant. Given that Katz and Burke had committed some crimes together, Burke was not about to be thrown to the wolves by the ill-fated hijacker. Burke struck first. But, since he died in 1996 while serving a state prison sentence for the murder of another associate who had crossed him, Burke had escaped justice for the Katz killing.

It was up to Frances Rue, a specialist at the medical examiner's office, to do the actual analysis of the DNA testing, which began about ten days after the bones were discovered. The bones taken by Adams should be enough to allow lab experts to extract DNA material for comparison with samples provided by Katz's surviving children, a son Lawrence and a daughter Ilsa. Teeth can be of some usefulness for DNA analysis but generally forensic experts like to deal with bones and hair samples that contain the roots. DNA identification is based on the reality that each human being gets half of the genetic makeup from the father and half from the mother. Experts think maternal DNA gives more possibilities for identification, but the paternal side is also adequate.

Since the agents had kept much of the information about Katz, and his possible killers, from Adams so as not to bias his finding, he really didn't know the backstory to the body parts found under the floor in Ozone Park. But while he didn't know about Burke and the other suspects in the killing, Adams was really that day not only doing the work of a forensic expert but also acting as the archeologist, the kind of job he originally studied for. However, this time his subject wasn't an ancient civilization like that of the Maya but rather New York City's Mafia past. What Adams found wouldn't wind up in a museum but instead would become important evidence in an historic trial that would rock New York City and dredge up the ghosts of one of its spectacular twentieth- century crimes.


"The Feds Are All Over ..."

With news of the FBI dig all over the radio, television, and newspapers, it didn't take long for the curious to come by the house at 102nd Road and gawk at the blue tent set up in the driveway. Agents took the soil from the dig and sifted it through screens and, in fact, found some other pieces of bone that had been overlooked in the burial pit. The tent shielded that activity from the public and news photographers. The word was that the FBI was looking for a victim of a mob hit, a "hood." To the good citizens of Queens, long used to searches for mob victims in the area, the identity of the deceased was a source of speculation. A quick check of real estate records showed the home was owned by Burke's daughter Catherine, who leased it to an elderly woman Burke had known growing up in an orphanage after being born with the name "Jimmy Conway."

Gasper Valenti knew the house on 102nd Road well. His father had helped construct it as part of a series of attached and unpretentious two-story brick homes that took up most of that section of the block. Valenti was a local guy who always had dreams of becoming a gangster. It was the career path of preference for young men in that neighborhood who harbored romantic notions of what being a wise guy could mean. With idols like the old John Gotti, the "Teflon Don," to look up to, there seemed to be prestige, money, power, status in the mob.

But as life would have it, and try as he might, Valenti couldn't break into the ranks of the made Mafia men. A nondescript man with thinning hair, Valenti didn't have a fearsome nature. He committed small crimes such as peddling pornography and bigger ones such as thefts from trucks. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Burke and his gang of misfits who everybody knew over the years had killed whenever it seemed convenient for self-preservation, particularly over the big theft of loot in December 1978 from the secured cargo area of Lufthansa Airlines at John F. Kennedy International. It was a crime everybody knew was a job Burke had put together but for which neither he nor any of the big fish were ever caught. Bodies were rumored to be planted under the floor of Burke's Brooklyn social club and were found scattered around the five boroughs.

Valenti had left for Las Vegas in 1990 after stealing $20,000 and tried to reinvent himself there, getting a job at a casino and doing a bit of thievery. He came back around 2005, made amends with his old New York mob friends and tried making it again as a low-level criminal. God knows he needed something. When he returned from Las Vegas, he had just the suit he was wearing and a new baby daughter in tow. Murder was something Valenti didn't do although he falsely bragged while in Las Vegas about taking part in killings back in New York. He didn't have that lust for blood that just might have given him mob membership. Instead, he worked his niche as a mob associate, earning money here and there but never getting ahead of the game. He was constantly borrowing from one loan shark to pay off another. The mob had no retirement plan for lowly associates like Valenti, or for that matter even the higher-ranked men who found themselves stretched to even raise cash to pay for lawyers.

So, by the time the sun had risen on June 17, 2013, and agents began digging in the basement on 102nd Road, Gaspare Valenti had already decided years ago that mob life wasn't the path forward in his life. But he didn't tell that to his cousin Vincent, with whom he had a few falling outs over the years but who seemed to forgive him. If truth be told, Vincent Asaro wasn't much better off financially than Valenti. Asaro may have been a captain in the once-vaunted Bonanno crime family, but that was no guarantee that he would find himself living above the poverty level.

Asaro was what was known in the mob as a "brokester," a made member who was constantly scratching around for money, a situation made worse by the fact that the old Mafia rackets just weren't making anybody rich. People who owed him cash — it could be as little as $50 — might pay him when they got around to it. Or in some cases they didn't pay him at all. He just didn't have the muscle to scare anybody and was bitter about all the dough he threw away gambling.

"We did it ourselves. It's a curse of this fucking gambling," Asaro would complain to his cousin. In his waning years Asaro found himself living off the beneficence of friends and loans, along with whatever Social Security gave him.


Excerpted from "The Big Heist"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Anthony M. DeStefano.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Message from the Bones 11

2 "The Feds Are All Over …" 17

3 A Goodfella's Lament 27

4 "Super Thief" 41

5 "We Will Get You" 52

6 Tales of the Gold Bug 59

7 "I Got a Couple of Million" 74

8 The Ring 78

9 "My God, You Lost Millions" 84

10 The Friends Who Hurt You 93

11 "See, Big Mouth" 105

12 Dead Fellas … and Gals 117

13 The Shakedown Guy 130

14 "We're in Trouble" 137

15 Never Say Never 146

16 Dead Men Told No Tales 156

17 "Score of Scores" 164

18 "Come Dressed" 179

19 "This Is It" 190

20 All in the Family 198

21 "What Is This, Watergate?" 211

22 "Free!" 223

Epilogue 231

Lufthansa Roll Call 235

Notes 241

Bibliography 247

Acknowledgments 251

Index 255

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