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LUCCHESE CRIME FAMILY EPIC: DESCENT INTO DARKNESS PART II

By Thomas L. Jones  

Jimmy the Gent and Paulie

Such men are dangerous.
- Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.


On December 11th, 1978, just before dawn, a gang of seven men carried out a daring robbery at the Lufthansa Air Cargo Terminal at Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York. Their prize was eight million dollars in cash, unmounted jewels of undetermined value, foreign currency and gold. No one was ever convicted for this crime. None of the stolen goods were ever recovered and at least thirteen people connected to the crime were murdered or disappeared, missing presumed dead.

At the epicenter of this mammoth criminal exploit was a man with fists like hams and a temper to match a raging bull. Behind him, peering down from a position of omnipotent power, stood another man: big and squat with a massive, slab-sided head and eyes that bulged behind thick rimmed glasses. The man who orchestrated the robbery was Jimmy Burke, an Irish American cast in the mould of a mean and deadly gangster, and the man who watched over him was Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese family.

After serving six years of a ten year sentence for extortion, Jimmy Burke returned to New York on October 27th, 1978, released conditionally into an institution known as a halfway house. This, in theory, would allow him to re-enter society via a work release program under supervision, living in a community treatment center. He would seek gainful employment and for ninety days would be under supervision, prior to release from custody into parole. Burke however, was interested in only one thing -- to get back into the loop and do what he did best -- be a crook.

He was born in the tough East New York section of Brooklyn on July 5th, 1931, and entered into a Roman Catholic foster-care program at the age of two. Moving from foster home to foster home, he grew up wild and undisciplined. At 14, he was sent to Mount Loretto Home for Boys on Staten Island as an incorrigible adolescent. By the age of eighteen he was in prison for bank forgery. He never looked back. A habitual criminal by the age of twenty-two, he had become invulnerable to prison or the penal system. He loved to steal and became a specialist in hijacking. This became his forte among the other illegal trades in which he involved himself. In his early days, he became a good friend of future mafioso Paul Vario, who ran a florist business as a front for a series of gambling, bookmaking and loan-sharking operations that he handled.

Jimmy Burke

Burke built up a significant criminal profile and by 1978 his yellow sheet ( NYPD arrest record ) included thirty arrests, ten convictions and five prison terms, including the one he had just finished. His talent as a great hijacker developed from his gambling interests. Some of his clients had significant jobs at Kennedy Airport, and as they fell back or reneged on loans, they paid Burke in a different but equally valuable kind of currency. They supplied him with information on shipments and details of valuable cargo movements, and also the timetables of trucks moving expensive goods.

By the early 1960�s, Burke was king of the hijackers at Kennedy; relieving carriers of their trucks and airlines of their cargoes had become one of his major pastimes. On one occasion, an Eastern Airlines truck driver into hock to Burke accidentally dropped off some mail bags along the road from a plane loading area to a post office. They contained $2 million in cash and stocks. Stolen credit cards, another Burke sideline, was also big business at Kennedy, used to buy airline tickets then resold at full value or discounted for volume purchasers. Dante Barzottini, the business manager of Frank Sinatra Jr., bought $50,000 of tickets at half price, and used them to transport Sinatra and a group around America.

In the first ten months of 1967, there were forty-five major robberies at the airport and goods and cargo valued at $2.2 million and $2.5 million in nonnegotiable stocks were stolen within the perimeter. There is no recorded figure for the thefts that occurred outside the airport, which originated from inside the complex.

Burke was nicknamed �Jimmy the Gent� from his habit of giving the drivers of trucks he hijacked a $50 bill as a panacea for their inconvenience, instead of a bullet in the head. He had been a bricklayer in his youth, and had a stocky body with huge arms and massive hands. He had curly gray hair and sharp, piercing blue eyes. Henry Hill, his partner in crime and surrogate son, described him:

�Jimmy was the kind of guy who cheered for the crooks in a movie. He named his sons Frank and Jesse after the James brothers. He looked like a fighter. He had a broken nose and a lot of hands. He had a reputation for being wild. Jimmy would plant you just as fast as shake your hand. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but he would blow you away for desert.�

In 1962 when he and his fianc�e Mickey, a coat-check girl, were planning their marriage, he found out that an ex-boyfriend was harassing her. On their wedding day, the police found the remains of his wife�s old boyfriend. The body had been cut up into a dozen pieces and scattered all over the inside of his car.

Burke ran his operation from a dingy bar called the Roberts Lounge located not far from Kennedy Airport in Ozone Park, Queens. Here, gathered around the five pay telephones, or sitting at the bar, he and his crew ran their scams and socialized with the underworld rabble that operated out of the airport just down the street: loan sharks, hijackers, bookmakers and strong arm artists. Legitimate customers were soon driven away and it became a social club for thieves and gangsters.

Among his motley group were: Robert (Frenchy) McMahon, a hijacker and thief for over twenty years; Joe Manri, who was into cargo theft, bookmaking and auto theft; Tommy DeSimone, a tightly wired hood known as �Tommy Two Guns� (for his habit of carrying matching pearl handled pistols), who was consumed by the desire to be made into the Mafia crew headed by Paul Vario; Angelo Sepe, an unkempt, lowlife hood who stood just five feet tall, loved animals, and was for some reason a favourite of Burke�s; Parnel (Stax) Edwards, a black man who acted as a gopher for the crew and who had become an acquaintance of Burke�s when they both served prison time together; Martin Krugman, known as �Bug Eyes,� a bookmaker with some very good contacts at Kennedy; Louis Cafora, a 300 lb monster known as �Whale,� who seemed to spend his whole waking life eating, when he was not running his loan-sharking and narcotics enterprises and Paolo LiCastri, an illegal immigrant and a Sicilian bandit, who used to tell people he was in the air-conditioning business- because he put holes in people.

Henry Hill
(AP)

There was also Henry Hill.

Hill who became famous as the central character in a book, and then in the movie �Goodfellows� was a wannabe�s wannabe. Although he had an Italian mother, because his father was Irish, he could never be �made� or inducted into the mob, desperate as he was for the opportunity. He grew up in the Brooklyn area dominated by Paul Vario�s enterprises, and eventually became a kind of second son to Vario. Through him, he came into contact with Burke, who also more or less adopted him, teaching him and showing him the finer points of criminal life. Hill repaid their generosity and affection by helping to send them both to jail.

These were the men who worked for Burke, who although a free agent in many ways, was ultimately answerable to one man: a very tough and very dangerous man, Paul Vario, who was often called by his nickname �Paulie.�

Paul Vario

Vario was a big guy, standing six feet tall and weighing over 240 pounds. He had been born in New York on July 10th, 1914. He had the arms and chest of a sumo wrestler, with large hanging jowls that made him look like a recalcitrant bulldog. He spoke in monosyllabic grunts and he moved slowly through life, confident in the knowledge that things would always bend to his will. He lived with his wife, Phyllis and three sons -- Peter, Paul Jr. and Lenny in the Island Park section of East New York at 132 Island Parkway North.

He owned a flower shop on Fulton Avenue and an auto junkyard at 5702 Avenue D in the Carnasie section of Brooklyn. In addition, he also owned a bar-restaurant called Geffkens in this same area at 9508 Flatlands Avenue. Here, his men and their cohorts would gather to seek an audience with Paulie and to ask for his help or to endorse their schemes and enterprises. Deals were made, disputes resolved and punishments meted out to the guilty.

A man who loved to eat, he was something of a trencherman; he was also considered by some observers as simply a glutton with the table manners of a pig ( once devouring an entire large shrimp cocktail by simply tilting back his head and swallowing the whole thing in one gulp). There was no doubt however regarding his culinary ability. His home made pasta fagiole was considered the best in New York.

His criminal career had started back in the 1920�s and he had accumulated an impressive record, including just about everything from burglary to murder. He had a fearsome reputation as a mob leader who would not hesitate to kill those who transgressed against him.

He was psychotic about security. He was the only person with a boat moored in Sheepshead Bay without a name. He did not have his name on anything . He never owned a telephone and only made calls from public boxes. Whenever he was arrested, he gave his mother�s address to the police. Federal prosecutors identified him as �one of the most violent and dangerous career criminals in the city of New York.�

By his middle age, his main tactical strengths were directed towards gambling and he had developed a large network of bookmakers, loan-sharks and numbers operators, generating for him over $20,000 a day in earnings.

A dyed-in-the wool thug, he also displayed another talent that helped him operate his lock over Kennedy Airport: diplomacy. Although the Lucchese family through Vario �owned� the airport in terms of hijacking, thieving and traditional crime as far as the rest of the other Mafia families in New York were concerned, another major family -- the powerful Gambino clan also had their hooks into the place.

However, their operations were involved almost exclusively in union corruption, and they extorted millions annually from frightened shippers eager to keep labour peace in a very competitive market. The overlapping of the two crime cartels spawned all manner of complex diplomatic arrangements with both sides desperate to avoid a shooting war, bending over backwards to accommodate each other. Vario displayed great talent in this area of inter-family arbitration and helped cool down many explosive situations before they got out of hand.

Vario ran his business from a drab cab stand at 391 Pine Street in the Brownsville-East New York district of Brooklyn and at times from a trailer parked at his car junk yard. Like some Eastern potentate, ruling through his four brothers, Lenny, Tommy, Vito and Sal, he controlled all of the illegal gambling, loan-sharking, labour rackets and extortion operations in the area. It was an area steeped in Mob lore. Ten miles to the south west at the corner of Livonia and Saratoga Avenues had stood Rose�s Candy Store, the headquarters of a group of mobsters who became known as �Murder Inc� during the 1930�s. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone had cut their teeth in East New York before heading west to take over Chicago.

Vario ran one of the toughest and most violent crews in the Mob that did most of the strong arm work for the Lucchese family. Somehow in the murky world of organized crime there were always people to be intimidated; businessmen to be �encouraged� in the payment of their outstanding loans; witnesses to be killed and informants to be �disappeared.� Paul�s crew was eminently qualified to handle any of these requirements.

Towards the end of 1978, due to a combination of factors, Vario seemed to be losing his touch. He had been sentenced to three years in prison in 1972, as the result of a Brooklyn DA Squad investigation, resulting from the �bugging� of his trailer headquarters on Flatbush Avenue.

Mounted by the Brooklyn�s DA office, in addition to the tapes recorded over the surveillance period, investigators had made 54,000 telephoto pictures of people who went in and out of the trailer. Also they filmed 36,000 feet of color movie film. Together these documented the fact that members of all five of New York�s major crime mobs had visited the trailer frequently. And so had politicians, businessmen, more than 100 policemen and several judges. The 1,622,600 feet of recording tape revealed that the mobs were involved in running over 200 legitimate businesses in and around New York.

On his release, a number of his bigger loan-sharking schemes fell flat, and with Jimmy Burke away in prison, revenues from that area of hijacking and extortion were drying up. He had moved temporarily to Florida, from which he was trying to control his operations by telephone, but his distancing himself from Brooklyn only made things worse. To add insult to injury, he had been passed over to replace Thomas Lucchese after he died, and his dreams of becoming the big boss had been shattered, first by the appointment of Carmine Tramunti, and then when Tony Corallo assumed the role, replacing Tramunti who had gone off to prison.

Desperate to make a lot of money quickly, he teamed up with a man he knew within the family to achieve that objective. A man with a reputation as a ferocious earner for the family, but always at great risk.

70-year-old Joseph (Joey Beck) DiPalermo was a capo in the Lucchese clan. He had a special place in mob lore. It was Joseph Valachi�s belief that DiPalermo was attempting to murder him at the behest of Vito Genovese in 1963 that helped turn Valachi into the first significant member of Cosa Nostra to speak publicly about the Mafia in America.

A gaunt, thin man weighing less than 140 pounds, DiPalermo was one of the Mob�s leading narcotics trafficker. A deadly man, he was currently engaged in a bitter internecine struggle that had already taken the lives of twelve men for control of New York�s narcotic distribution territories.

Together the two men put up $1.5 million to fund a large drug shipment out of Colombia. Its street value was estimated at $40 million, so the stakes were high. Unfortunately for them, details of their smuggling operation were passed on to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), a federal unit devoted to fighting the war on drugs that had grown out of the old and now disbanded FBN.

Their informant Theresa Ferrara, a beautiful blonde hairdresser, was a girl friend to many mobsters, including Tommy DeSimone. One of them had told her about the shipment. She had been caught in a �scam� earlier trying to sell drugs to an undercover officer and had been �pardoned� as long as she was prepared to keep supplying them with useful tips.

One day she dropped a dime into a telephone box and rang her contact with some very important information about a large drug shipment due into the New York area.

On November 11th, 1978, a shrimp boat docked at midnight at a marina in the Queens waterfront district of Far Rockaway. The boat was quickly surrounded by agents of the Coast Guard and the DEA. They secured the contents -- over 30 tons of narcotics, the largest drug shipment seizure ever at that time in the north eastern United States, but everyone onboard escaped.

Vario�s fury when he heard the news can only be imagined. He contacted Burke, now back on the streets, and asked for two things. First, to find out who the informer was and, second, to organize a really big job; he needed money and he needed it quick. And so the Lufthansa robbery was instigated.

Louis Werner, a pudgy forty-six year-old Lufthansa Cargo supervisor, owed $20,000 in gambling debts to an airport bookie called Marty Krugman. Marty was connected to Jimmy Burke, who was putting pressure on them both to liquidate the debt. Werner decided the easiest way out would be to steal from his employer and put together a plan to rob the Cargo Terminal. However the job became too big for him and eventually, through Krugman, he met up with Joe Manri, who put the details to Burke to set up a team to handle the robbery.

The plan was to break into the building, immobilize the staff on duty and steal what they thought would be a haul as big as $2 million. On a regular basis, Lufthansa shipped back into America US dollars, money that had been taken into Germany by tourists and armed forces personnel. The money was landed in the late afternoon on flights from Frankfurt, along with jewels and precious stones, stored overnight and picked up the next morning by armored trucks and taken to banks in the New York area.

In the early hours of December 11th, the robbery was carried out and everything went like clockwork. The team Burke used on the �heist� was Sepe, Manri, McMahon, DeSimone, Cafora, LiCastri and Edwards.

Instead of the expected $2 million, Burke found that they had landed a mountain of money; the robbery produced over $8 million in cash, precious stones and securities.

After the haul was checked, each man received his share for the night, which varied between $30 and $50,000. Burke packed $2 million into boxes, stashed it in the trunk of his car and drove all the way to Florida to personally deliver it to Vario.

Within hours of the raid, the FBI and NYPD were following leads from a number of informants who had been ringing in to their contacts, reporting that the robbery was the work of Jimmy Burke. A cargo worker had caught a glimpse of one of the thieves who had removed his ski mask during the robbery. He was identified as Tommy DeSimone. Another worker picked out Angelo Sepe as one of the gang. Soon the police and FBI were mounting a massive surveillance of the gang members.

On February 20th, 1979, Louis Werner was arrested and charged in connection with the robbery. As  the law enforcement agencies began putting more pressure on him and his gang, Jimmy Burke decided on a course of action that would solve his problems. He would remove them all, permanently.

Over the next seven months, the Roberts Lounge gang slowly disintegrated through murder and what the Sicilian Mafia call �The White Death�-- absolute, total and final disappearance. On May 16th, Werner was tried and convicted, and faced a 25-year sentence. Jimmy Burke had been arrested for parole violation on May 13th, but by then, he had put his plan into operation to remove all those he thought were the most dangerous. He had never had any contact with Werner, so did not have to fear any direct link with him.

The first to go was Stax Edwards. He was shot dead on December 18th, 1979. Then in January, Marty Krugman the bookie disappeared. On January 14th, Tommy DeSimone vanished. Some believe he was killed in connection with an unrelated killing involving a made man in the Gambino family that happened some years before. Others link his connection to Theresa Ferrara and believe he vanished for reasons connected directly to the Lufthansa robbery. In March, Louis Cafora and his wife disappeared. On May 16th, 1979, Joe Manri and Robert McMahon were found shot dead in a Buick sedan in the Mill Hill section of Brooklyn. On May 18th, a female headless torso was found in a trunk washed ashore near Toms River, New Jersey.

It was subsequently identified as that of Theresa Ferrara. The informant had landed.

In June, the bullet riddled dead body of Paolo LiCastri was discovered on a smoldering trash heap in a deserted Brooklyn lot. And then finally, in July 1984, Angelo Sepe and his girl friend, Joanne Lombardo, were executed at his home in Brooklyn. His unsolved murder may have been connected to the Lufthansa heist, or maybe it arose out of a drug deal gone sour. It may even have come about because of threats he had been making into avenging the murder of his uncle, Thomas �Shorty� Spero, who had been killed in 1980.

In May 1980, Henry Hill was arrested on a narcotics conspiracy charge and faced life in prison without parole. So he did what was to become increasingly popular with his peers in the years to come -- he became an informer. As a direct result of his testimony, his best friend Jimmy Burke went off to prison forever, dying of lung cancer in an upper New York State penitentiary -- Wande Correction facility near Buffalo, on April 13th, 1996. His adopted father, Paul Vario, who was then seventy three years of age, went to jail for 6 years and died on May 3rd, 1988, at Forth Worth Prison hospital, Texas. Hill disappeared into the Witness Protection Program, from which he re-emerges from time to time to get himself into all sorts of trouble.

If there is honour among thieves, it is a commodity vested in a most fragile container.


CHAPTERS
1. Jimmy the Gent and Paulie

2. Johnny Dio

3. Stella by Lunchtime

4. Tony Ducks

5. Good times-bad times

6. The Jaguar that talked

7. The Mother of all RICO’s

8. The Author

- Part I

- Part III
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