BROOKLYN, NY — On June 12, 1943, Henry Hill came into the world, squalling and brawling, by way of the tough, Mafia-run Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Hill died 69 years later, almost to the day, in Los Angeles.
Along the way, Henry Hill led a corrupt, violent, drug-addled, and, let’s just say it — a largely entertaining life — first as a mobster with one of the most ruthless crews in New York history, then as an FBI turncoat on the lam in Witness Protection, and finally as a media curiosity about whom both the mob and the Feds really just quit caring.Related: How “The Godfather” Invented Modern Mob Entertainment In 1972
In terms of crime, Henry Hill peaked on December 11, 1978. That’s when he and fellow Lucchese crime-family associate James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke pulled off the Lufthansa Heist, in which they stole $6 million in untraceable cash and jewelry from the German airline’s terminal at John F. Kennedy airport. For some time, the Lufthansa Heist stood as the most lucrative cash theft in U.S. history.
Despite some of Hill’s claims — and denials — Burke actually orchestrated and oversaw the operation.
Burke and Hill had heard from crooked JFK employees and other crime associates about a monthly shipment of American currency from flown in from West Germany. It was money traded in exchanges by American tourists and members of the military.
Burke assembled a team of six operatives. They struck at 3:12 A.M. Wearing disguises, they bludgeoned a security guard and threatened his family, then stormed the airport workers’ lunchroom and tied up 10 more employees. One worker was ordered at gunpoint to summon senior cargo agent Rudi Eirich to the scene.Eirich knew the combination for the vault containing the cash. Once he arrived, gunmen forced him to open the door, and they unloaded 40 packages loaded with dough.
Upon leaving at 4:16 A.M., the thieves said not to call the police for 15 minutes. The workers obeyed. At the point, Burke’s crew and their bounty were well on their way to a safe house in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Once there, Burke couldn’t believe the haul. He and Hill had expected, at best, $2 million. They actually came away with more than three times that amount.
It may well have been the perfect crime, except for the fact that few criminals are more imperfect than low-level mafia hoodlums.
Case in point: Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, whose job was to drive the gang’s getaway van to a car compactor in New Jersey and personally watch it be crushed. Instead, Stacks got high on pot and cocaine and ditched the van in a no-parking zone to party with his girlfriend.Cops immediately impounded the vehicle and identified it as the same one used to rob Lufthansa. In addition, they matched a shoe print in the van to one they found at JFK. The shoe belonged to Stacks Edwards.
The FBI rapidly suspected the relatively sophisticated Burke as being the local mob thug most likely to actually make it happen. In short order, the agency set up intense surveillance of Burke’s gang, and bugged their homes, their cars, and every other place they congregated.
With the authorities moving in, eight associates directly involved in the heist — along with one guy’s wife — turned up dead in short order. Hill always claimed this was Burke’s paranoia in action, as he wanted to take out absolutely anyone who might connect him to the crime.
Eventually, Burke’s lethal gaze turned toward Hill, as well. Before Jimmy the Gent could get to him though, the Feds arrested Hill on a laundry list of drug charges and offered him Witness Protection in exchange for turning state’s evidence against his fellow Lufthansa conspirators. Henry leapt at the chance.
Jimmy Burke died in prison. Henry Hill collaborated with crime writer Nicholas Pileggi on the 1986 bestseller Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Four years later, filmmaker Martin Scorsese adapted that book into his masterpiece GoodFellas.
Those are just two pop-culture accounts and/or spin-offs of the Lufthansa Heist. Here’s a list that includes some other killers.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Not just one of the greatest gangster movies of all time, one of the great movies, period, GoodFellas adapts the book Wiseguy as only bravura director Martin Scorsese can — particularly with Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci (who won an Academy Award) in the lead roles as, respectively, Henry Hill, Jimmy Burke (here called Conway), and Joe Pesci as their colorfully psychotic paisan, Tommy DeSimone (here called De Vito).
GoodFellas tracks the entirety of Hill’s life from his early days admiring neighborhood Mafiosi up until his going into the Witness Protection Program. The movie builds toward the Lufthansa Heist as the pivotal moment for all its characters.
It’s followed by one of cinema’s most powerful blends of visuals, dialogue, and music. In a brilliant montage, Scorsese’s camera reveals the fatal fates of all those involved, and Liotta describes the details over the piano coda from “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. [Roger Ebert]
THE 10 MILLION DOLLAR GETAWAY (1991)
Director: James A. Contner
Cast: John Mahoney, Gerry Bamman, Joseph Carberry
John Mahoney, the cantankerous dad from the sitcom Frasier, stars as Jimmy Burke in The 10 Million Dollar Getaway, a TV movie that ups the Lufthansa haul by four million bucks and directly attempts to cash in (pun intended) on GoodFellas.
Getaway even helps itself to Scorsese’s signature style as it boasts a soundtrack of vintage hits and familiar sequences such as a tracking shot in which Mahoney, via voiceover narration, introduces all his mobster pals by their nicknames. [The Movie Scene]
THE BIG HEIST (2001)
Director: Robert Markowitz
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Nick Sandow, Rocco Sisto
Originally airing on the A&E cable network, The Big Heist stars Donald Sutherland as Jimmy Burke, Nick Sandow as Henry Hill, and Rocco Sisto as Tommy DeSimone.
The movie is based on the 1986 true crime book The Heist: How a Gang Stole $8,000,000 at Kennedy Airport and Lived to Regret It by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings (again the tally gets hiked up in that title).
While reasonably entertaining, The Big Heist drew criticism for inaccuracies such as mob kingpin John Gotti being involved in the crime (he wasn’t) and implying that Henry Hill may have been bisexual (he certainly never indicated such an orientation). [AllMovie]THE LUFTHANSA HEIST: BEHIND THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR CASH HAUL THAT SHOOK THE WORLD by Daniel Simone and Henry Hill (2015)
During the final stages of his life, Henry Hill collaborated with novelist Daniel Simone on The Lufthansa Heist, his personally expanded account of the case. The book came out three years after Hill’s 2012 death at 69 from heart disease.
The Lufthansa Heist was actually Hill’s final contribution to a considerable literary canon, beginning back in ’86 with Wiseguy.Related: Serial Killer Cinema — 9 Movies Based on John Dillinger
In 2002, Hill made the daring decision to leave the Witness Protection Program in order to promote his recipe venture, The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As a Goodfella To Cooking On the Run, cowritten with Priscilla Davis. Fortunately for Hill, at that point, just about every mobster he betrayed was either dead, behind bars, or close to death behind bars.
The following year, Hill and Bryon Schreckengost coauthored A Goodfella’s Guide to New York: Your Personal Tour Through the Mob’s Notorious Haunts, Hair-Raising Crime Scenes, and Infamous Hot Spots.
Then, in 2004, Hill worked with Gus Russo on the memoir Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run. So, yeah, Hill went from living in hiding to leaving his literary mark. [NPR]
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Main photo: GoodFellas (1990) publicity photo: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci [promotional image]