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'Goodfellas mobster' cleared of 1978 heist made famous in film

Crime WorldBy Sunday World
Vincent Asaro
Vincent Asaro

An ageing mobster has been acquitted of charges that he helped plan and pull off the 1978 Lufthansa heist in New York that was the basis for the hit Mafia film Goodfellas.

Vincent Asaro was cleared of murder, extortion and other crimes by a jury in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday.

Asaro, was also also found not guilty of killing a man with a dog chain in 1969 who he suspected of being an informer.

The 80-year-old, at first looked confused as the verdict was read out, and then leaped up, punched the air and hugged his lawyers. “Your Honor, thank you very much,” he said.

As he walked out of the courthouse, he threw his hands up in the air and shouted: "Free!"

"I was shocked, I was really shocked," he said. "I've got two years in, and I'm dying to get home."

The senior member of the notorious Bonanno crime family, one of New York's "Five Families", had remained in the shadows for decades after the $6 million armed robbery that was, at the time, the largest in US history.

But he was arrested in January 2014 after his cousin came forward to implicate him in the heist, the mob hit and other crimes.

The not guilty verdict comes as a blow to federal prosecutors, who had been seeking a landmark conviction in what was one of the last major Mafia trials to stem from organised crime's New York heyday decades ago.

The government's evidence included secret recordings of Asaro complaining he did not get his fair share of the Lufthansa robbery.

Prosecutors had said Asaro waited in a decoy car with another gangster, Jimmy Burke, about a mile from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, as a group of masked men robbed a Lufthansa Airlines cargo building of $6 million in cash and jewels.

The value of what was stolen is estimated at around $20 million in today's prices.

Following the raid, the alleged mastermind, Burke, killed off members of his own gang to avoid being arrested.

The crime was recreated in Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning 1990 film, in which Robert DeNiro played a character based on Burke, who died of cancer in 1996.

The three-week trial featured numerous former organised crime figures whose testimony painted a picture of the violent life of a New York Mafioso.

Among the witnesses at the trial was Asaro's cousin, Gaspare Valenti, who wore a wire for years and whose cooperation with authorities led to Asaro's arrest in January 2014.

Valenti claimed to be one of the robbers in the Lufthansa heist, delivering from the witness stand a riveting account of the infamous crime.

Until Asaro's arrest, the only man ever charged in connection with the robbery was a Lufthansa employee who functioned as the inside man.

One of those involved in the Lufthansa heist was Henry Hill, who later entered the witness protection scheme and was the main character in Goodfellas, played by actor Ray Liotta.

Before his death in 2012 Hill told The Telegraph in an interview at a secret location: "The whole crew were homicidal maniacs. Just about every guy was a cold blooded murderer.

"It was tough for me. I showed up with them when I had to but I was walking between rain drops. Every day I was scared."

Asaro's lawyers argued that he was framed by mob turncoats angling for leniency in their own cases.

"These are despicable people," said Elizabeth Macedonio, his defence lawyer, said in her closing statement. "They are accomplished liars."

"The government has become the pension plan" for former mobsters, she added.

Asaro said he was going home for a family meal. "Right now I've been eating bologna sandwiches (pre-sliced bologna sausage between slices of white bread)," he said.