Day 346: Go Home And Get Your Shinebox – The Real Lufthansa Heist

originally published December 11, 2012

If you can look at the photo above and remember the specific scene it’s pulled from, then you are going to love today’s article. If not, don’t worry – it’s still a fascinating story. One with spoilers, but seriously, if you haven’t seen Martin Scorcese’s gangster epic Goodfellas by now, you just need to go watch it. No, I mean it. Close your computer and just go door-to-door; one of your neighbors will have it, and chances are they’d love to sit and watch it with you right now.

The above photo is Ray Liotta as mobster Henry Hill, the moment he learns that his buddy Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) has just pulled off the greatest heist in the history of the United States, the Lufthansa Heist.

And the best part is, it’s all a true story. And it happened exactly 35 years ago today.

It all started when a guy named Martin Krugman was tipped off to the goods: an unspecified (but large) amount of non-sequential and therefore untraceable US currency getting shipped into Kennedy Airport in New York from West Germany, the result of monetary exchanges for tourists and American servicemen overseas. Martin Krugman, if you need a visual, was this guy in the movie:

Yes, Krugman actually owned a wig shop. And Lufthansa was indeed his caper; the movie got that right.

Jimmy Conway was, in real life, Jimmy Burke. I could post a photo of him, but it’s going to be much cooler if we imagine him looking like this:

Anyway, Krugman told Henry Hill about the money, and Henry passed the word to Jimmy. Jimmy did his homework, then put together the crew that would pull it off. The film glosses over the details of the actual heist, but it was clearly a slick, meticulously orchestrated operation.

At 3:12am on December 11, 1978, a black Ford Econoline van pulled into a loading bay at the airport. Cargo agent Kerry Whelan noticed it, and walked over to investigate. He was struck from behind by a .45 pistol. One of the assailants went right for his wallet. Remember the truck robbery scene from Goodfellas? They did the same kind of thing here – they took Whelan’s license, then informed him they now knew who he was and where his family lived. He had no choice but to comply.

The robbers rounded up the other employees, leading everyone into the lunch room. Nobody was going to put up any resistance – the blood trickling down Whelan’s head was a sufficient deterrent. They forced someone to contact the senior cargo agent on shift, Rudi Eirich. Eirich was the guy with the vault combination.

Eirich was lured to the lunch room, at which point the robbers took him to get the loot. They knew what they were doing; they knew that the vault’s outer door had to be shut before the inner door was opened or it would trigger an alarm with the Port Authority. They knew how to find the packages they needed on the manifest list. And they knew to instruct every last one of their hostages not to make a phone call until 15 minutes after they’d left, because the Port Authority could lock the airport down in ninety seconds.

Just like in the film, the heist was a success. Jimmy Burke had to pass on a tribute to his boss, Paul Vario, as well as a cut to the Gambino family, since the robbery took place on their turf. But no matter – the $2 million Jimmy had been expecting was in fact about $6 million, or more than $20 million in 2012 money.

It took about three days for the cops to figure out who pulled the heist. They’d narrowed it down to John Gotti’s crew or Jimmy’s, and the deduction was made a lot easier when Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, the guy who was supposed to dispose of the van, got high and crashed at his girlfriend’s instead, leaving the van parked in a no-parking zone. Stacks avoided arrest, but he didn’t avoid Jimmy catching wind of what happened.

Stacks’s failure freaked Jimmy out. He knew the heist was going to attract some major attention from local, state and federal cops, and he decided his best move would be to eliminate almost everyone who could connect him with the job.

After Stacks was shot, Martin Krugman (Morrie, the wig guy in the movie) was next. He wanted his $500,000 share, and was getting so damn yappy about the money, Jimmy was worried he’d blab to the FBI.

Next came Richard Eaton:

In the film, this is Frankie Carbone, one of the most inside members of Jimmy’s crew. Carbone’s real-life counterpart was actually Angelo Sepe, who was a part of the heist and actually carried out most of the murders for Jimmy afterward. Sepe lived another six years; Richard Eaton had skimmed a bit of Jimmy’s heist money in a fake cocaine scam, and it was he who ended up frozen in a truck.

Theresa Ferrara, a mistress of Tommy’s (Joe Pesci in the film) knew too much, so she was next, followed by Eaton’s buddy Tom Monteleone. Then came Louis and Joanna Cafora, whose deaths were depicted in their new Cadillac:

In real life, Cafora (who laundered a lot of the heist money for Jimmy) and his wife were never found. Jimmy didn’t like the way Cafora boasted to his wife about the job, nor did he care for Cafora’s gaudy and attention-drawing lifestyle. He had to go.

Then there were Joe “Buddha” Manri and Robert McMahon (who, as ‘Frenchy’, is on the right).

McMahon had helped plan the Air France robbery of 1967, also depicted in the movie. Not sure why Jimmy got rid of them – I suppose they simply knew too much. The last one to go was Paolo LiCastri, the representative of the Gambino family who had overseen the heist’s progress for his employers.

Each of the above murders took place between December 18, 1978 (a week after the robbery) and June 13, 1979. Jimmy was quick and efficient. At some point in the midst of all this, within a month of the heist itself, Jimmy’s close friend Tommy DeSimone was wiped out for completely separate reasons, including revenge for the murder of William “Billy Bats” DeVino.

The movie really got a lot of this bang-on correct.

In total, Jimmy Burke got to enjoy the spoils of his success for about fifteen months. On April 1, 1980, he was taken into custody on suspicion of a number of crimes. He was convicted first of fixing Boston College basketball games – a huge focus of Henry Hill’s co-authored autobiography Wiseguy upon which Goodfellas was based, but barely mentioned in the movie. Then, thanks to Hill’s testimony, he was convicted of a single murder:

Richard Eaton must have really pissed off Jimmy Burke with that fake cocaine scam. Usually Burke had Angelo or Tommy do his dirty work, but Jimmy killed Eaton himself, and that did him in. The movie doesn’t say this (it came out in 1990), but Jimmy died in prison in 1996.

The thing is, technically the heist was a complete success. Nobody was ever actually convicted of pulling it off, mostly because everyone involved wound up dead or arrested for something else. The money and jewels – that’s right, there was also close to a million dollars-worth of jewels stolen – were never recovered. Over $23 million in cash and prizes in 2012 money, and it totally vanished. Where did it go? Who actually got to enjoy it?

Somebody didn’t have to live the rest of their life like a schnook.

One thought on “Day 346: Go Home And Get Your Shinebox – The Real Lufthansa Heist

  1. I have read somewhere that Joe “Buddha” Manri was arrested for an unrelated murder charge sometime after the Lufthansa robbery. Burke must have feared that he would have snitched to the authorities about the heist and Burke had him murdered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s