The 1978 Lufthansa heist went down as the largest cash robbery on U.S. soil that had ever taken place until that time. Gangsters walked away with over $5 million in cash and almost $1 million in jewelry. In 1990, director Martin Scorsese forever immortalized the heist in his mob epic Goodfellas. But despite all the attention, authorities had no clue what exactly happened to the loot. Until now.
In the new short-format book, The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist: A Wiseguy Reveals the Untold Story, author Robert Sberna picks up the story where Goodfellas left off and gives readers a front row seat as he lets former Bonanno crime family capo Dominick Cicale tell in full detail what happened to the millions the Lucchese crew stole at JFK Airport in New York.
Since some of our readers have been waiting for this information since 1978, we will not delay things any further. What happened to all those millions in cash and jewelry? Well, most of it was pissed away gambling and a portion of the money was invested in an animated movie project about ferrets which never got made.
Feeling a bit letdown? You are not alone. “Yeah, it’s very mundane,” author Robert Sberna tells Gangsters Inc. “There was no bigger picture. Just gambling. There is no indication that they used the heist money as startup capital for legitimate businesses. They did not even use it to finance major drug deals like Jimmy Burke [one of the masterminds behind the heist] did.”
But as with all journeys: It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey itself. The same goes for the story behind the Lufthansa heist loot which was taken for a fast and furious ride by Bonanno gangsters.
The True Detailed Story Behind The Lost Loot
Back in December of 1978, when a crew of Lucchese crime family mobsters and wannabes had just executed the multi-million-dollar robbery, most of the loot was put on ice. Fearing that the FBI would be onto him, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke – portrayed by Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas – gave a clear warning to his crew to lay low and stay quiet. He held on to most of the cash and jewelry and only handed crew members a few thousand here and there, saying they’d get more once the heat died down.
Of course, it didn’t.
Always worried about possible rats and snitches, Burke then began murdering almost everyone who was involved in the Lufthansa robbery. He also kept most of the loot to himself.
A lot has happened since then, but for decades there wasn’t much news about the Lufthansa heist. Not so strange, says Sberna. “Very few people knew and were in a position to tell about the robbery. But now that they are out of ‘the life’ they can talk.”
The first to do so was Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill – played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas – who was the only member of Burke’s crew to become an informant and divulge intricacies of the successful robbery plot to authorities. In the early 1990s, Sberna was working as a stockbroker in New York when someone at the office told him she was related to Hill (photo right). “I had a Journalism degree from college and she knew that writing was what I really wanted to do. So she said ‘Oh, you gotta talk to my relative.’”
At the time, Hill was living in Los Angeles after he was kicked out of the Witness Protection Program. Sberna: “He had moved around a lot, was a bit of a screw up, kept getting drunk, and bragged to people that he was in the Witness Protection Program. During my interviews with him, first over the phone, then in person, he was not in a good state. He never addressed his addiction issues but I could hear he was intoxicated at times. And he was still trying to run scams and hustles. Trying to sell information to the government for a couple of dollars.”
Sberna had taped eight hours of interviews with Hill, yet it wasn’t until he was introduced to former Bonanno capo Dominick Cicale that he saw the story that was to turn into his first mob book. “The combination of my conversations with him and the tapes of Hill brought it all together,” he says.
“They never found the money, right?”
Dominick Cicale (photo, he's on the right) was very much a different person than Henry Hill. Cicale was a made member of the Mafia; Hill on the other hand could never become one because he was not of Italian descent. But there was more to it than that. “To be in that life you’d have to be organized, serious, and logical, at times,” Sberna explains. “Cicale is all that. He’s got a plan, he doesn’t have substance abuse problems; he’s very consistent, easy to talk to.”
It was the evening of December 14, 2001, recalled Cicale, when he sat down at a table at Rao’s Italian restaurant in East Harlem, New York, together with fellow Bonanno mobsters Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano (photo, he's on the left) and Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato. While enjoying dinner, Indelicato tells Basciano that they should “start putting the money back.”
Cicale has no idea what money Indelicato is referring to. And as a mere associate, the 32-year-old wannabe mobster is not in a position to ask his higher ranked tablemates any questions.
“What if Cathy goes in the safety deposit box and sees that all the money is gone?” Indelicato asks Basciano with a concerned voice. “Then you’ll get kicked out of the house,” Basciano says, laughing.
By now, Cicale can no longer hold back his curiosity. He has to know. What are they talking about? What money? “Lufthansa,” answers Basciano. “Are you talking about the robbery?” Cicale asks. “They never found the money, right?” Basciano just smiles.
Of Rats and Men
So begins Sberna’s book as he shows his readers the journey and final destination of much of the Lufthansa heist loot. His - and our - guide on this trip is mob turncoat Dominick Cicale, who was one of the Bonanno family’s fastest rising stars.
In those years, in the late 1990s, the Bonannos were the only mob family in New York whose leader, Joseph Massino, was not behind bars. As a result, Massino ran the family like a hands-on type manager. But when the FBI indicted members of Massino’s inner circle cracks began emerging, and after Massino’s brother-in-law Salvatore Vitale became a turncoat the floodgates opened. Dozens of wiseguys turned government witness and the family was sent into chaos.
For a while, the family was led by Vincent Basciano (photo left), a brash mobster with a hair-trigger temper and reputation as a stone-cold killer. Dominick Cicale was Basciano’s right-hand man. Together, both mobsters were captains on a ship that was taking on so much water it was not a question of if—but when—everyone would be on the bottom of the ocean either sleeping or talking with the fishes. Especially after their respected boss Joey Massino flipped and wore a wire on his own men.
Still, Basciano and Cicale were doing the best they could, and Cicale especially made the most of a bad situation. “Cicale was a fascinating guy,” Sberna says. “He was a hybrid. In the mob you have got the tough guys, the earners, and the bosses, and Cicale had all of those aspects rolled into one. You could see why Basciano wanted him by his side. In a really short time of 5 to 6 years, Cicale went from joining the mob to becoming a captain to running the show as Basciano’s proxy on the streets when he was locked up.”
A bona fide mob star. One who minces no words when it comes to describing his own toughness while at the same time calling many of his former colleagues stupid and weak. He will call out the rats who snitched on him, yet has no qualms about his own role as a government witness.
“Everything he says is ironic,” says Sberna. “In a sense he is a tough guy and he was mad at his former colleagues because they weren’t. From Joe Massino to Sal Vitale, and all the way down, they all toppled. There was nothing left for him to be loyal to. Unlike [his boss] Vinny Basciano, Cicale didn’t have family members on the street. Basciano couldn’t flip, I mean he had three sons out on the street, it would’ve been very hard on them. So Cicale was in a situation where he could control his own destiny. And he did.”
He did so out of disappointment, Sberna thinks. “Disappointment not so much in Massino, but in guys like Basciano who knew that Massino was breaking the rules. I mean the boss never talks about a hit, he never talks about murders, he doesn’t want to know about it. That is how he insulates himself.”
But when Massino and Basciano were both locked up, Massino asked his replacement about a murder his underlings took care of. “I thought this kid would have been a good wake-up call for everybody,” Basciano was recorded saying about the hit on Bonanno associate Randolph Pizzolo. The loud and obnoxious Pizzolo was shot seven times and died with $1,000 dollars in his pockets when cops found his corpse. Basciano had given the contract to murder Pizzolo to Cicale, who, in turn, delegated it to other crew members. With Basciano talking about the Pizzolo hit he had created a major headache for Cicale.
“In Dominick’s mind he’s asking ‘Vinny, what are you doing?! You know this is against the rules. You should’ve suspected something was up,’” Sberna relays Cicale’s thoughts. “So there was some loss of respect and disappointment there. That triggered him. He started thinking, ‘What is this even about? Why am I even involved in this? Not that I can’t trust the people around me not to rat, but more importantly I can’t trust the people around me not to be stupid.’ He’s a smart guy and if you don’t have respect for people’s actions around you, then in a sense you’re putting yourself at risk,” Sberna explains.
After coming to this realization, as well as being confronted with decades behind bars, Cicale decides to become a government witness himself. He breaks omerta, the code of silence, and gives up his former friends to save his own ass. Today, Sberna says, Cicale remains okay with his decision. Unlike Henry Hill. “Most rats live with guilt. Hill felt bad about what he did. That he had to go through life as a rat,” Sberna adds.
On the streets Cicale preferred to keep a low profile and stay out of the limelight. Now that he’s a government witness and is possibly targeted for assassination by the mob, he is living out in the open, refusing to join the Witness Protection Program, and has worked on two books about the Mafia.
Why the sudden craving for attention? “I don’t know,” answers Sberna. “It’s been very interesting to talk to him. In terms of what his motivation for seeking publicity is, I think he is trying to cast a light on why the mob doesn’t work, trying to be a voice of reason for somebody that buys into the glamour of the mob. In his own way he’s trying to dissuade people from really considering that life because he was very disillusioned by what happened within his own crime family.”
Pretty soon, Cicale could be in the spotlight again, testifying in court against Bonanno capo Vincent Asaro (photo right), a man he used to call “a friend of ours.” Asaro was indicted by the Feds in January of 2014 and is charged with participating in a 1969 murder and the Lufthansa heist in 1978.
Several former Bonanno bigwigs are ready to share their memories of those days in court. Former Bonanno boss Massino will testify that he was Asaro’s captain at the time and that Asaro gave him an attaché case filled with gold and jewelry as tribute. Massino’s former underboss (and brother-in-law) Salvatore Vitale will testify that he saw Massino sorting through the jewelry and was given a gold chain from the airport booty.
Though it sounds plausible, and men like Massino and Vitale would know, Sberna has a few question marks. “There was a lot of jewelry,” he says. “According to the FBI, the bosses divvied some of that up, Massino supposedly got some of that. But that’s all questionable because guys on the street know it would be very difficult to pawn that jewelry. Eventually it would surface. Somebody would talk. I mean someone would’ve gotten busted, someone that was involved in the selling process would talk.”
“That fucking Jimmy Burke kept everything”
The FBI built its case with help from testimony by former Bonanno gangsters, including Gaspare Valenti, Asaro’s cousin who flipped and wore a wire on his uncle.
During one conversation between Asaro and Valenti, the elderly Asaro says the following about the Lufthansa heist loot, “We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get, we got fucked all around. Got fucked all around, that fucking Jimmy [Burke] kept everything.”
Well, not everything, prosecutors claim. According to them, Asaro still received around $1 million dollars from the loot which he wasted gambling at the racetrack. When it comes to finding out what happened to the rest of the money, Sberna and Cicale have the answer.
Just when Jimmy Burke (photo below) was finally able to enjoy his riches after he had whacked everyone who dared ask him about their share of the Lufthansa loot, he was arrested and sent off to prison courtesy of Henry Hill's testimony. He died behind bars in 1996.
Burke was universally believed to be the man who held and protected the Lufthansa heist treasure – the cash and jewelry. If we would be playing connect the dots, then we would immediately look at the people who were closest to Burke to see if they could possibly have enjoyed some of his ill-gotten gains. When doing so, one person stands out.
Before his death, Jimmy received plenty of visits from his daughter Catherine. Though she was female many saw that she had inherited her father’s strong will and character. While visiting a friend in prison, Catherine Burke fell in love with Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato, a Bonanno mobster serving time for his role in the 1979 murder of Bonanno family boss Carmine Galante. Indelicato came from a similar background, his father was a mobster too, just like Catherine’s. The two got married in 1992.
Catherine Burke ran a jewelry story and lived modestly. Despite her mob father and husband, she looked every bit the part of a hardworking honest businesswoman. But as we said before, if we were to play connect the dots, then Catherine would be a big dot. Sberna: “In my book I make the implication that perhaps, maybe, somebody in the jewelry business that was close to Jimmy Burke (right) had something to do with refabricating and repurposing that jewelry into items that could be resold. That person being of course his daughter. However, we don’t have any evidence of that. But that might have been a good way of getting rid of the jewelry from the heist.”
By the time Indelicato sat down with Basciano and Cicale at Rao’s Italian restaurant in 2001, he had been back on the streets for several years already. And pretty soon after coming home, he had told Basciano about a large amount of cash Catherine and her sister Robin were holding on to in a safety deposit box at a bank in Queens. The box was set up by a friend of Jimmy Burke’s, who then himself proceeded to place between $2 million and $4 million dollars in cash in it. He gave the keys to the box to his two daughters. It was generally accepted by all involved that this was money from the infamous 1978 heist.
Within a year the two mobsters had robbed the box empty.
Everyday I’m hustling
Indelicato and Basciano were no Fortune 500 CEOs, they did not invest in smart business opportunities. As mentioned before, Jimmy Burke had used some of the money to set up a dope deal. But the closest these two got to setting up a new profitable enterprise was a $250,000 dollar investment in an animated movie project about ferrets titled “Ferretina,” which ultimately never got made.
The rest was gambled away at casinos. Sberna: “We know that Vinny Basciano (right) was banned from Atlantic City casinos. I found lots of public record lawsuits that showed they banned him for not paying his debts. According to Cicale, he had this degenerate gambling problem, so of course he is going to see that money [in the safety deposit box] as a way to satisfy that urge of his to gamble.” In the book Cicale describes with amazement how his boss blows hundreds of thousands of dollars at casinos throughout the United States.
Sberna has his own thoughts as to why mobsters like Basciano evaporated such large sums of cash into thin air without even trying to be smart about it. “To be successful at anything in life you have to be persistent and keep doing the same thing and do it right enough times,” he says. “Keep knocking at doors and once you get to the top, you consolidate your power, get a few people around you. But you’re still doing the same things that got you to the top. So if you’re doing drugs or gambling you’ll have a need for more money to obtain those same things. That’s your motivation. There is no noble cause. Just the desire to own it. A guy like a Vinny had a compulsion to gamble so of course he’ll see a stockpile of money as the fix he needed.”
Sberna: “Live by the sword, die by it. I think it was just typical that something this mundane happened to the loot from one of the most famous heists in modern history. It got pissed away at the blackjack table. That’s just how it had to go down.”
It’s stories like these that make the subject interesting for Sberna. “Maybe the mob won’t be around forever, but the stories about the mob will be. We are fascinated by people who are willing to do whatever it takes. Soldiers, police officers, mobsters, guys willing to risk their lives for some cause they believe in.”
Especially in the life of a Mafioso. “Think of the pressures,” Sberna says. “From police, rival gangs, your own people. Somehow you’ve got to be enough of a politician, be feared enough yet not too much, to be able to survive.”
Surviving is what Dominick Cicale has done. He continues working in the same legitimate businesses he was active in during his days as a Mafia enforcer. He’s smart enough, though, to avoid any of his old haunts, instead, finding new places to call home. It is unknown whether he will be called to testify against Vincent Asaro. What is known is that he plans to continue telling his story. A story that is steeped in blood and treachery. No matter who started it.
Robert Sberna’s book, The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist: A Wiseguy Reveals the Untold Story, is available at amazon.com. You can find Sberna at www.robertsberna.com and on Twitter @robertsberna.
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