By Robert Sberna (He will follow Vincent Asaro's trial for Gangsters Inc. This piece was written on 10-27-15. You can find his other articles here. His latests book Badge 387: The Story of Jim Simone, America's Most Decorated Cop is available on Amazon and at stores near you.)
But he seemed to have few fans among the wiseguys and goodfellas who knew him during the time of the Lufthansa Airlines heist.
At the federal racketeering trial of Vincent Asaro, now in its second week, Asaro and government informant Gaspare Valenti can be heard on tape repeatedly denigrating Hill.
The “Marty” he referred to was Martin Krugman, a hairstylist and mob associate who had received a tip that large amounts of currency were flown monthly to the Lufthansa cargo terminal at JFK Airport.
Hill took Krugman’s information to Burke, who quickly pulled together a robbery crew and masterminded the $6 million score. Asaro, who oversaw the Bonanno family’s criminal operations at JFK, assisted Burke with the orchestration of the robbery. Valenti was also a key participant in the heist.
A former Bonanno soldier and the cousin of Asaro, Valenti became a mob turncoat in 2011. He subsequently recorded hundreds of hours of conversation with Asaro, during which Hill’s name occasionally surfaced.
On tapes that were played for the jury, Valenti and Asaro could be heard complaining that Hill got too much credit for the robbery.
“He [Hill] made a big thing that he was on the score and he wasn’t,” Valenti said on tape.
“Yeah,” Asaro agreed.
When Hill died in June 2012, Asaro and Valenti chatted about an upcoming memorial service for Hill, with Valenti asking Asaro if he planned to attend.
“No!” Asaro said.
The two men then repeatedly swore about Hill while discussing their shared distaste for him.
Curiously, Hill never mentioned in Pileggi’s book that Asaro or Valenti were involved in the Lufthansa robbery.
Despite Hill’s own minimal role in the heist, he certainly maximized that involvement in books and movies that were spawned by the daring caper.
While trying to earn a living as a writer in Manhattan in the late 1980s, I stumbled into a working partnership of sorts with Hill after being introduced to him by one of his family members. Hill was living in California at the time, ostensibly receiving treatment for his alcoholism and heroin addiction.
I never met him, but we spoke on the phone dozens of times. He was engaging and amiable, but also drunk during most of those conversations (peppermint schnapps was his drink back then).
Our plan was to write a sequel to Nick Pileggi’s book, with the storyline covering Hill’s life after Witness Protection and his reentry into mainstream society as a gainfully employed citizen. In actuality, Hill had been thrown out of the WITSEC program for repeatedly violating the U.S. Marshal’s instructions about maintaining secrecy. On more than one occasion, he’d gotten liquored up in a bar and loudly announced his true identity.
During his sober moments, I found Henry to be somewhat of a chameleon, with an intuitive sense for knowing what I—as a writer—wanted to hear. His ability to read people and situations, along with his adaptability, probably helped him to navigate the treachery of the mob, particularly since he was not a made man and could have been whacked with little consequence.
Henry, although he was prone to digression and rambling, was adept at growing a kernel of a Mafia incident or tradition into a dramatic narrative.
For assistance in shaping the story of Henry’s supposed redemption after his life of consorting with the mob, I met with Hill’s book agent, Sterling Lord, a colossus among literary types at that time. Lord then arranged for me to meet with Nick Pileggi in the Manhattan apartment he shared with his late wife, Nora Ephron.
Back then, Pileggi was busy developing a screenplay (which I assume was “Casino.”) He had neither the time nor patience to indulge my newbie questions about authoring, but he quickly sketched out a basic three-act drama for the sequel that included the appropriate dramatic crises and climaxes.
However, I couldn’t stop myself from informing Pileggi that I, a former journalist, “wasn’t comfortable” with the authenticity of Henry’s crime stories or his sobriety. I also told Pileggi that I suspected Henry hadn’t gone straight and was still running his small-time rackets. In reply, Pileggi shot me a withering look that seemed to ask: “Are you seriously letting facts disrupt a good nonfiction story?” He then ushered me—snappily—from his apartment. He might as well have pointed me in the direction of Ohio, because I would return there shortly.
The book deal with Hill never materialized, mainly because of New York’s “Son of Sam” law. The legislation, named for serial killer David Berkowitz (who signed his notes “Son of Sam”), prohibited felons from profiting from their crimes by writing books and movies. Hill couldn’t get paid, so he (and our publisher) lost interest.
I’d lost my opportunity to break into the big leagues of book publishing. I left New York disillusioned, but at least I had a suitcase full of names to drop.
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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