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The Men Behind the Biggest Heist in US History Inspired the Film Goodfellas

Tijana Radeska
Getty Images
Getty Images

We all pretty much know how the mafia works – there is a hierarchy in which everyone is expected to obey certain principles. The slightest mistake might cost one their life, so being a mobster is one of the definitions for “living on the edge.”

Among the many books and movies about the lives of mobsters and the way of the mafia, there are a few classics. One such masterpiece is Scorsese’s Goodfellas, released in 1990.

Unlike other movies, this one is based on a true story written in the 1986 book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Even though Scorsese believed that there was no point in making a gangster movie, he changed his mind after reading Wiseguy.

Nicholas Pileggi. Photo by David Shankbone CC BY SA 3.0

Nicholas Pileggi. Photo by David Shankbone CC BY SA 3.0

The central characters in the movie — just as in real life — were Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Paul Vario (Paul Sorvino), Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and the mastermind Jimmy Burke (Robert De Niro).

This was the gang that pulled off the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy Airport. Police spent 35 years investigating the robbery, making it the longest-investigated crime in the USA. It is also the largest robbery in US history — $5 million in cash and $800,000 in jewelry.

Joe Pesci portrayed Tommy DeVito (based on Thomas DeSimone) in Goodfellas. Photo by yausser. CC BY 2.0

Joe Pesci portrayed Tommy DeVito (based on Thomas DeSimone) in Goodfellas. Photo by yausser. CC BY 2.0

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” were the well-known words of Henry Hill in Goodfellas.

Living in Brooklyn, Hill dropped out of school at the age of 14 and started working for Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese crime family, becoming part of his crew.

He started with picking up money from local rackets but his responsibilities quickly became more serious. He got involved in truck hijacking, assault, arson, and credit card fraud.

FBI mugshot of Henry Hill taken in 1985.

FBI mugshot of Henry Hill taken in 1985.

Hill described his mobster life: “It was a glorious time. Wiseguys were all over the place…  It was when I met the world, and it was when I first met Jimmy Conway (Jimmy Burke).

He couldn’t have been more than 28, or 29 at the time… but he was already a legend. He’d walk in the door and everybody who worked the room went wild. He’d give the doorman a hundred just for opening the door. He shoved hundreds in the pockets of the dealers who ran the games. The bartender got a hundred just for keeping the ice cubes cold.”

Henry Hill as Ray Liotta in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Photo by gdcgraphics CC BY-SA 2.0

Henry Hill as Ray Liotta in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Photo by gdcgraphics CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1972, Hill and Burke got arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio, who owed a great deal of money — debt chalked up through gambling — to the union boss Casey Rosado. The two “wiseguys” were sentenced to 10 years in prison. It was here that they met Paul Vario, who was serving a sentence for tax evasion.

Hill soon realized that mobsters in jail were treated like bosses. Who would complain about sharing a room their best buddies and playing poker or board games for the next ten years while scotch, cigars, and delicious food such as lobsters kept coming?

FBI chart of American Mafia bosses across the country in 1963.

FBI chart of American Mafia bosses across the country in 1963.

After serving six years, Hill was released and got back to his life of crime, becoming involved in a major narcotics operation, selling marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. It wasn’t long before he had the police on his back and Hill was arrested in 1980 on trafficking charges.

Although at first Hill didn’t fold to police interrogators, he got suspicious that his own associates were becoming paranoid about him. In fear for his life, he began to talk.

He led the police to 50 arrests of criminals, and in return his family was placed in the Witness Protection Program. However, Hill was kicked out of it after revealing his true identity to others. He lived in fear for the rest of his life and died of heart disease in 2012, the day after his 69th birthday.

James ‘Jimmy the Gent’ Burke mugshot.

James ‘Jimmy the Gent’ Burke mugshot.

Jimmy Burke, known as Jimmy the Gent or The Irishman, was the star in the story. Born to Irish parents in New York City, Jimmy could never be a made man in the mafia – that was only for pure-blooded Italians. However, as a free agent, Jimmy had many ties which helped him organize all sorts of crimes, from heists to murders.

He spent most of his childhood in an orphanage where he suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse, which was probably the reason for him growing up into a sociopath and criminal.

A few days before his wedding, Jimmy’s fiancé told him that her ex-boyfriend was harassing her. On the day of their wedding, the body of the ex-boyfriend was found — cut into a dozen pieces and stashed in the boot of a car.

Robert De Niro portrayed Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. Photo by Roland Godefroy CC BY 2.5

Robert De Niro portrayed Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. Photo by Roland Godefroy CC BY 2.5

It was Jimmy Burke who orchestrated the Lufthansa heist and although he ended up in jail, he never answered for that particular crime.

He was merciless and cruel. Nobody wanted to mess with Jimmy Burke. He had a reputation for getting even with anyone who made him look bad.

He had a few corrupt cops working for him, and whenever an informant snitched on mafia business, Jimmy took care of their disappearance.

Paul Frank “Paulie” Vario was a captain in the Lucchese family.

Paul Frank “Paulie” Vario was a captain in the Lucchese family.

Some of his methods included strangling the victims with piano wire, and often locking the victims’ young children in refrigerators. Henry Hill admitted to the police that Jimmy was directly responsible for at least 60 or 70 murders.

After Hill became an informer for the FBI, Burke was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The DA tried to get more but there wasn’t sufficient evidence for Jimmy’s crimes.

He would have been eligible for parole in 2011 had he not died of lung cancer in 1998.

Martin Scorsese at Berlinale 2010. Photo by Siebbi CC BY 3.0

Martin Scorsese at Berlinale 2010. Photo by Siebbi CC BY 3.0

Tommy DeSimone’s uncle and grandfather were major figures in the mafia, so for him it was natural to follow in their footsteps. He committed his first murder at the age of 17, and seemed capable of killing just about anyone in cold blood.

His determination and courage were widely known within the mafia circle but he was mostly known for his short temper. His impulsiveness caused distrust among the bosses and even though everybody liked Tommy, he had to be eliminated.

In 1979 Tommy was told that he was going to become a made man of the Lucchese Family. However, it was a trap — an act of blood revenge sought by the Gambino family after Tommy killed one of their made men.

Read another story from us: Catch Me If You Can – The Real Story of Conman Extraordinaire Frank Abagnale

Goodfellas is a cult classic that perfectly depicts the acts and behavior of lowlifes who live by their own warped set of morals, and who operate on the rim of Italian Mafia structures. And that is what makes the movie and the story unique and so interesting.