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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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