Wearing black ski masks and gloves and driving a stolen van, six Mafia members and associates came to a stop outside a terminal at Kennedy International Airport on a December night in 1978 for what they thought would be a $2 million robbery.
A mile away, Vincent Asaro, who is now on trial in Brooklyn in connection with the holdup, waited with James Burke for the action to unfold.
Minutes later, after the employees at the Lufthansa terminal had been rounded up at gunpoint, the six robbers forced one of them to open the vault. Tommy DeSimone walked in first, followed by Gaspare Valenti, who testified on Tuesday in Federal District Court, riveting the courtroom with his breathtakingly detailed account of the infamous robbery.
Mr. DeSimone picked up a box from a shelf, threw it on the floor and stepped on it. Yellow plastic foam stuffing erupted from the box. He stuck his hand in and pulled out two packs of money containing $125,000 in hundred-dollar bills.
“This is it! This is it!” Mr. DeSimone said, according to Mr. Valenti. “Take all these 50 boxes!”
The crew formed a human chain and began handing the boxes down, loading them into the van along with “burlap sacks of gold chains, crates of watches, a big three-by-three metal box with little drawers on it and each drawer had diamonds in it and emeralds and all different stones,” Mr. Valenti said.
They made off with $6.25 million in cash, as well as the jewelry and German bank notes. The Lufthansa heist, one of the biggest cash robberies in United States history, went unsolved for decades.
In announcing the indictment of Mr. Asaro and several others last year, federal prosecutors said they had finally been able to pursue the charges against the men after developing several cooperating witnesses within the ranks of organized crime, including Mr. Valenti.
Despite a movie (Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”) a book (Nicholas Pileggi’s “Wiseguy”) and a library of articles about the robbery, neither Mr. Asaro, who has pleaded not guilty, nor Mr. Valenti had been widely linked to the crime. Little of the money was ever recovered. (The crime had long been attributed to Mr. Burke, the Mafia associate known as “Jimmy the Gent,” though he was never charged with it.)
The prosecution is something of a coda to an era when the Mafia was a more visible, and more violent, force in New York City, and Mr. Valenti’s remarks took the courtroom back to those times. Mr. Valenti, a cousin of Mr. Asaro’s, spoke of his long history with the defendant and recounted not only the Lufthansa scheme but also other feuds, crimes and escapades.
There was a disrespectful Doberman pinscher shot by a motorcycle-riding Mafia associate in the dead of night. There was the holdup of a truck full of minks, which turned out to be a truck filled with bras and shoes from Filene’s Basement. There was the time Mr. Valenti planned on robbing a wedding hall dressed as a woman, in burgundy boots, a wig and a woman’s coat. When passers-by began making fun of the bearded lady, his partner in crime pulled out a pistol “to defend my honor.”
“He says, ‘They can’t talk to you like that,’ ” he continued. “I says: ‘We’re on a score here. Forget about it.’ ”
But it was the details of the Lufthansa affair that held the room rapt; even Mr. Asaro, 80, watched with apparent interest as Mr. Valenti described the night.
Eight Mafia members and associates participated, led by Mr. Burke, who was not Italian and thus could not be an acknowledged Mafia member. Mr. Asaro, a member of the Bonanno family, and Mr. Burke knew one another from a Mafia social club, Robert’s Lounge, which they both owned shares in.
“It’s a heist,” Mr. Asaro said to Mr. Valenti in 1978, describing the Lufthansa plot. “Jimmy Burke has a big score at the airport coming up and you’re invited to go.” The eight did their plotting at the lounge, Mr. Valenti said.
“We were told to make sure that we went there at least twice, in case something went wrong with the heist,” Mr. Valenti said of the Lufthansa hangar. The group studied architectural plans obtained by Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” who did not participate in the action.
On the night of Dec. 11, the group assembled at Mr. Burke’s house. “Make sure you do everything you’re supposed to do; don’t dog it,” Mr. Asaro told Mr. Valenti.
Mr. Burke said he and Mr. Asaro would wait in a car a mile away, Mr. Valenti said.
At the terminal, Mr. Valenti was the first out of the van. He cut the lock on the gate. Frankie Burke, one of Mr. Burke’s sons, dropped the others off in front of the hangar, and he and Mr. Valenti drove through the gate.
When Mr. Valenti and the younger Mr. Burke got out, they held up two security guards. The bay doors opened — the work of the Mafia crew — and Mr. Valenti and Mr. Burke took the guards upstairs, depositing them with the rest of the Lufthansa workers, who were being held at gunpoint.
A worker opened the vault, and the men removed their spoils, then drove to meet Mr. Asaro and the elder Mr. Burke.
“Did you have an escape plan?” an assistant United States attorney, Nicole Argentieri, asked.
“No, it’s amazing; robbery that big and nothing was ever discussed about where to go afterward,” Mr. Valenti said. “Vinny yelled out, ‘Bring it to my cousin’s house!’ And that’s where we went, to my house.”
Mr. Valenti’s wife, children, mother and sister, who all lived with him, were asleep as the crew unloaded the van and put the contents in Mr. Valenti’s Brooklyn basement. The elder Mr. Burke left: He was required to report to his halfway house, and Mr. Asaro drove him. The rest of the crew began to have a look at what they had taken.
“I was separating gold chains and watches, the diamonds and the emeralds and rubies, just looking in the drawers, seeing how much was there,” Mr. Valenti said.
He said there was $6.25 million in cash; prosecutors have put the figure at $5 million in United States dollars and $1 million in jewelry. The crew felt “euphoria — we thought there was going to be $2 million,” Mr. Valenti said.
Mr. Valenti said he spent weeks using a cotton swab dipped in bleach to erase the ink markings from the bills to make them untraceable. Mr. Asaro arranged for Mr. Valenti to sell Christmas trees from his house to make it less conspicuous when he burned the cardboard boxes and wooden crates the goods were packed in. Soon Mr. Asaro and others began moving the money around to their friends, who were supposed to hold it for them, and providing small payouts to Mr. Valenti and the rest of the crew. Some of the others, though — as seen in “Goodfellas” — were killed off.
As for Mr. Asaro, he spent his money on gambling, a house, a boat and a Bill Blass-model Lincoln, Mr. Valenti said.
Even Mr. Asaro never got his full share: In a wiretap recording that prosecutors quoted in court papers, he complained that “we never got our right money, what we were supposed to get.” He added, “Jimmy kept everything.”
Life around the Mafia made Mr. Valenti uneasy at times, he testified. After the Lufthansa heist, Mr. Asaro opened a strobe-lit Ozone Park club called Afters, a reference to “After Lufthansa.” Mr. Valenti was the manager; Blondie and Gladys Knight performed there, he said.
One night, Mr. Valenti watched as a drug dealer dined with Mr. Asaro and James and Frankie Burke, among others, eating shrimp scampi. Later, Mr. Valenti was awakened by a knock at his window. It was Mr. Asaro’s son, who directed him to dig a hole. When Mr. Asaro, the Burkes and others pulled up, Mr. Valenti saw the drug dealer had been killed.
“I could never eat shrimp scampi again,” Mr. Valenti said.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the crime family that Vincent Asaro is part of. It is the Bonanno family, not Bonnano.