© Irish TimesVincent “Vinny” Asaro, the reported head of the Bonanno crime family, is escorted by FBI agents out of a New York federal building yesterday.
Organised crime suspects held over series of crimes including infamous cash robbery

Several organised crime figures have been arrested as part of a federal investigation into a series of unsolved crimes, including the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist at Kennedy International Airport, according to a racketeering indictment unsealed Thursday.

The indictment reads like a greatest hits collection of the Mafia: armoured truck heists, murder, attempted murder, extortion and bookmaking. But the crime that garnered the most attention was the Lufthansa robbery, where a group of robbers stole about $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa cargo building in December 1978 - the largest cash robbery in the nation's history at the time.

The robbery, a key plotline in the movie Goodfellas, was also infamous for how it frustrated investigators; the only person ever convicted in the heist was a Lufthansa cargo agent, described as the "inside man" in the plot. Other suspects were found slain, or disappeared; the man thought to be the mastermind of the robbery, James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, died in 1996 in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder.

Some of the alleged crimes in the indictment predated even the airport heist, including a homicide committed in 1969. The federal investigation first became public in June, when FBI agents descended on a home in Queens owned by Burke's daughter, and began digging in the basement, soon finding human remains, a person familiar with the investigation said.

Unclear role

One of the men who has been arrested, Vincent Asaro (78), was accused of participating in the airport robbery, according to the indictment. It is not immediately clear what investigators believe to have been his role. The other men under arrest are not accused of that particular crime. Asaro was also charged in connection with the murder of Paul Katz in December 1979; in addition, Asaro and his son, Jerome Asaro (55), were charged with hindering an investigation into Katz's death.

The defendants, who investigators believe to be linked to the Bonanno crime family, were expected to be arraigned in US District Court in Brooklyn. The investigation into the Lufthansa heist seemed to be gaining steam by mid-1980: Henry Hill, an associate in the Lucchese organised crime family, admitted his involvement in the robbery and was quickly swept up into the witness protection programme when he agreed to co-operate.

But other suspects kept turning up dead and convictions were elusive. By the time Hill began co-operating, the corpses of at least six people connected to the robbery or to its participants had been discovered. The only person convicted of the Lufthansa robbery was the Lufthansa cargo agent, Louis Werner, who had gambling debts to pay off. Werner took the idea for the crime to his bookmaker, who introduced him to another bookmaker, a beautician from Long Island, who is believed to have passed along the tip to the robbers, prosecutors said.

Sports fixing

Investigators came to suspect that the heist was masterminded by Burke, who was a close associate of top members of the Lucchese crime family. Burke was sent to prison on information provided by Hill, but the crime was not related to the Lufthansa heist: it involved fixing Boston College basketball games.

Only a fraction of the money stolen at Kennedy airport was ever recovered.

Source: New York Times service