As the trial of Bonanno crime family mobster Vincent Asaro (photo above on the right) continues in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, New York, it has become patently clear that many of the major players involved in the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines robbery have shared a common affliction. Compulsive gambling—or more specifically, the consequences of that gambling—has been a driving element of the Lufthansa heist and its aftermath.
Asaro, 80, is on trial for his role in the robbery, in which $6 million in cash and jewels were taken from a Lufthansa cargo facility at JFK Airport. According to prosecutors, Asaro helped plan the daring caper with the heist’s shot-caller, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, a Lucchese family associate.
Nearly four decades ago, Louis Werner, a Lufthansa employee who owed a large gambling debt to the mob, set the heist in motion when he approached his bookmaker with information about the millions of dollars of U.S. currency that was flown into JFK every month from West Germany. Werner hoped that his pressing debt would be forgiven in return for his inside knowledge.
Armed with Werner’s information, Burke quickly pulled together a crew of Mafia associates and rag-tag mob wannabes and pulled off what was then the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history. After divvying up the money among the mob bosses who controlled the criminal enterprises at JFK, Burke pocketed upwards of $2 million, according to insiders.
Burke, who was never tied to the crime by authorities, would eventually kill a half-dozen of his co-conspirators in order to avoid paying them their shares and also to ensure their silence.
Flash forward 30 years and Bonanno associate Gaspare Valenti becomes a government informant after having a falling out with Asaro, who is his cousin. What was the source of their argument?
“Money, as usual,” Valenti told the jury Wednesday at Asaro’s trial. The 68-year-old Valenti admitted to a long-time gambling addiction that had put him in financial straits. It’s rumored that Valenti had borrowed money from Asaro to pay his debts, but was unable to repay the loans.
“I called the FBI,” said Valenti, the prosecution’s star witness. “I needed help financially to support my family.”
Valenti, who is scheduled to testify all week, was outfitted with FBI recording equipment and sent to spy on Asaro. He compiled hundreds of hours of taped conversations, including one damning rant in which Asaro complained that Burke (right) had short-changed him on his cut of the Lufthansa score.
“We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get,” said Asaro. “Jimmy kept everything.”
But prosecutors claim that Asaro did indeed get his money. As the overseer of the Bonanno family’s operations at JFK and a co-conspirator with Burke, Asaro received between $500,000 and $750,000, most of which he blew at the racetrack.
On Valenti’s tape recordings, Asaro could also be heard lamenting his awkward relationship with his son, Jerry, who had become a Mafia capo with the help of Asaro. As his son rose in the ranks, Asaro was demoted from capo to soldier because of his gambling problems and failure to repay debts to his mob associates, according to federal authorities.
“Jerry’s for Jerry,” Asaro told Valenti. “I lost my son. I lost my son when I made him a skipper. I lost my son when I put him there.”
Along with the Lufthansa heist, Asaro is being tried for the 1969 murder of Paul Katz, a suspected government informant whose skeletal remains were found in 2013 during an FBI excavation of a house once owned by Burke.
John Gotti, then a capo with the Gambino family, received $200,000 from the Lufthansa proceeds as tribute from Burke. Gotti, widely considered a degenerate gambler, was known to have lost large sums on football games and poker.
Burke himself was a heavy gambler who played both sides of the action. He not only was involved in bookmaking, but in 1982, he was convicted of conspiring to manipulate Boston College basketball games. Burke, who died in prison in 1996, was memorably portrayed by Robert DeNiro in “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film based on the Lufthansa robbery.
And what happened to the $2 million or so that Burke kept from the heist? Anecdotal evidence suggests that he spent about half of it financing drug deals. The remainder he put in a bank safety deposit box that he opened under a friend’s name, said Dominick Cicale, a Bonanno capo who turned government informant. According to Cicale, Burke gave the keys to the box to his two daughters, Cathy and Robin.
Cicale was friends with Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato, also a Bonanno capo and the husband of Cathy Burke. Cicale and Bruno worked closely with Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, a former Bonanno acting boss who went to prison for murder, largely because of testimony from Cicale.
Cicale said that the Burke sisters were aware that the safety deposit box contained a large amount of cash, but it’s not certain if they ever spent any of the money. Like their father, both women lived modestly and were hard workers. Robin drove a school bus in Queens and Cathy owned a Manhattan jewelry store, so perhaps the women were saving the money as a rainy day fund or a retirement nest egg.
Their brother, Jessie James Burke, had been educated in private schools and was an attorney on Long Island, specializing in real estate law. Their other brother, Frank, a mob associate, had been shot to death in Brooklyn in 1987 after an altercation in a bar.
If, in fact, Cathy and Robin were counting on their father’s stash to fund their retirement, they were facing a major disappointment. By 2001, the box had been emptied by Basciano and Bruno, who had convinced Robin Burke to turn over her safety deposit key to them.
“Bruno found about the money from his wife, Cathy,” said Cicale. “In those days, Cathy was basically in control of everything—the safety deposit box, her mother Mickey, and the rest of the family’s affairs. She would have never given Vinny and Bruno access to the box. Even though she was married to Bruno, she had an independent streak. She had her jewelry business, she traveled to Paris several times a year, and she even owned rental property that Bruno didn’t know about. Cathy was a smart girl. She acted tough, but she was very nice. I got to know her well through Bruno. She came to my daughter’s christening and I went to her daughter’s birthday parties.”
Along with inheriting her father’s strong will, Cathy also was the heir to his real estate. She took possession of the house in Queens that was used to hide the body of Paul Katz after he had been strangled by Burke and Asaro with a dog chain.
In late 1998, when Bruno first told Basciano (pictured in the photo on the left, Cicale is right) about the safety deposit box containing the Lufthansa cash, Basciano came up with the idea to approach Robin with a scheme, while keeping it a secret from Cathy.
“Robin was not a dummy,” said Cicale. “But she was more trusting of Basciano and Bruno than Cathy was. Basciano told Robin that they needed to borrow money for a business deal they were arranging. They asked her to not tell Cathy about the loan, and they promised to return the money quickly with interest. They basically charmed Robin into giving them the money.”
From 1999 to 2000, Basciano and Bruno made several trips to the safety deposit box, taking out $200,000 to $500,000 at a time.
A portion of the money did go towards a business deal, of sorts. Basciano was eager to invest in an animated movie about ferrets, tentatively called “Ferretina.” Although actress Chita Rivera had reportedly agreed to star in the movie and Sony Pictures had committed $20 million towards marketing, “Ferretina” never went into production.
Basciano spent the rest of the Lufthansa money at casinos, said Cicale.
The first batch of money taken from the Burke’s safety deposit box totaled about $500,000. Basciano promptly lost it all betting sports games and playing blackjack at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
“I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised,” said Cicale. “When I got to know Vinny, I realized that he was a degenerate gambler. He had been banned from all the casinos in Atlantic City because he didn’t pay his debts. He used the money from the safety deposit box to pay off his losses and to be able to keep gambling.”
Cicale had been with Basciano on numerous occasions when he lost thousands of dollars—even hundreds of thousands of dollars—playing blackjack.
“He thought he had a system,” said Cicale. “A compulsive gambler always thinks he has a system. They always think they can beat the house. But Vinny’s system didn’t make sense. If he won, he’d leave his money down. But he’d also chase his losses. His system was always changing. He had no discipline. And when he first approached a table, he’d try to get the casino to raise the limit to the maximum, at least $2500 or even $5000 a hand. He was trying to scare the amateurs off the table. If anyone stayed, he figured they knew what they were doing. Sometimes, he’d play two chairs or even three chairs at a time.”
Quitting was never an option for Vinny, said Cicale. “You couldn’t convince him to leave the table. It was like telling a junkie he couldn’t have heroin. Vinny wouldn’t step away until there was no money in his pocket…or mine.”
Since Cicale owned legitimate businesses, including a profitable mortgage company and an auto body repair shop, the casinos granted him credit lines of $300,000 or more.
“When Vinny went broke, he would tell me to tap my credit line. I couldn’t say no—he was my friend. So I’d give him the money and then tell him we’d go half on any winnings. There rarely were any. At least I got a lot of comps from the casino, since the credit lines were all in my name. Vinny ended up owing me $1.1 million that I never recouped.”
Cicale recalled that the only person who could pull Vinny away from the blackjack tables was his wife, Angela. “He wouldn’t listen to me. But he didn’t want to seem like a degenerate gambler in front of his wife. So he’d call it a night when she told him to.”
Cicale, only a casual gambler himself, said that Vinny was embarrassed by his gambling problem, but couldn’t stop himself.
“John Gotti was the same way,” Cicale said. “He and Vinny would blow $200,000 to $300,000 on a weekend betting football. They were always behind the dollar. Vinny did try to pay down his debts. He ended up paying off about $900,000. But he always needed more money to gamble. He spent so much money in Las Vegas that the casinos would send a Learjet to pick him up. They would put him up in the Elvis Presley suite [at the former Las Vegas Hilton]. Vinny would joke that the casinos would fly him to Vegas and then to one of their sister casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi for a steak dinner, and then back to Vegas for more gambling. In total, he ended up losing about $16 million to the casinos.”
Not only did Vinny lose all of the Lufthansa money, but he also took $40,000 from the safety deposit box that had been earmarked for college tuition for Robin Burke’s daughter. The money had been given to Robin by Ciro Perrone, a powerful capo in the Genovese family. Perrone’s son, Frank, was the father of Robin’s daughter.
Although Robin was assured that her daughter’s college money would be returned, the “loan” was never repaid. When Cicale was asked if Vinny and Bruno feared retribution from Ciro Perrone, he said, “Ciro would have been upset that they took his granddaughter’s money, but what could he do? Vinny and Bruno were killers in their own right. At the end of the day, they could tell Ciro that Robin gave the money to them. It was none of his fucking concern.”
To Cathy Burke, however, the missing money was a major issue. In 2004, when she discovered the box was empty, she became furious. “She was so angry at Bruno for taking the money that she nearly ended her marriage to him,” Cicale said.
Contemplating Vinny’s squandering of the Lufthansa heist money, Cicale, his one-time protégé and best friend, said, “It’s hard to believe that he blew it senselessly on gambling. Personally, I would have invested it in real estate or construction. I would have looked to make more money with it, not piss it away at casinos.”
Robert Sberna is an investigative reporter who has written a short-format book on the Lufthansa robbery, “The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist,” which is available on Amazon. Sberna hosts www.thecrimebeat.com.
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