By Jennie Matthew, AFP
NEW YORK–A New York mobster was arrested Thursday over the spectacular 1978 cash and jewelry heist from JFK airport immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s movie “Goodfellas,” and pleaded not guilty. Vincent Asaro, 78, reputedly a senior member of the notorious Bonanno crime family, was among five suspects detained by FBI agents in separate early morning raids in New York. “These ‘goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted,” said FBI assistant director in charge George Venizelos. During a nine-minute appearance in a U.S. federal court, Asaro pleaded not guilty to extortion, murder and violence charges that U.S. prosecutors say spanned a 45-year career in crime. He was also charged with the 1969 murder of Paul Katz, a presumed informant who was strangled with a dog chain and whose body parts were discovered in a New York basement in June. Asaro, who had triple bypass surgery in March, faces life in prison if convicted. He stood slightly stooped, his hair swept back and casually dressed in a sweater as he entered his not-guilty plea before the packed courtroom in Brooklyn.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn Go ordered him detained until further notice.
Asaro’s lawyer vowed to apply for bail but U.S. prosecutors call him a flight risk. In the biggest heist on U.S. soil, armed mobsters stole US$5 million in cash and nearly US$1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at New York’s JFK on Dec. 11, 1978. The value of the booty today is estimated at around US$20 million. The theft became legendary after its alleged mastermind James Burke — also known as Jimmy the Gent — killed off members of the crew to avoid being shopped to the police. U.S. officials say Asaro, Burke and their co-conspirators each expected to receive approximately US$750,000 in cash and large quantities of gold jewelry after the robbery. Scorsese immortalized the criminal feat in his Oscar-winning 1990 movie “Goodfellas,” long considered one of the best crime films of all time. Burke, who died of cancer in prison in 1996, was the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway in the film. Asaro appeared alongside his burly son Jerome, 55, who sported a blue hoodie and shaved head, John Ragano, 52, and Jack Bonventre, 45.