On December 11, 1978 half a dozen masked robbers raided the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK Airport in New York, making off with more than $5 million in cash ($21 million in today’s dollars) and almost $1 million in jewelry. To this day, the Lufthansa heist, as it is known, is considered one of the greatest in U.S. history.
The plan was dreamed up by Peter Gruenewald, a Lufthansa cargo worker at JFK Airport. Gruenewald knew that Lufthansa regularly flew large amounts of unmarked cash from Europe—the U.S. currency exchanged overseas by American tourists and servicemen—to JFK. Typically, this money would immediately be transferred to American banks via Brink’s trucks. However, delays sometimes caused the cash delivery to arrive after the last of the trucks had left for the day, which meant it was stored at the airport until the next business day—and vulnerable to theft.
Gruenewald took his plan to fellow cargo worker and friend Louis Werner, in the hopes of putting it in motion. Unfortunately for Gruenewald, Werner saw the robbery as an opportunity to get out from under a mountain of personal gambling debt and double-crossed his friend. He took Gruenewald’s plan to a big-time bookmaker in the area, Martin Krugman, who took the idea to his buddy, infamous mobster-turned-movie-consultant Henry Hill.
As depicted in the famous movie Goodfellas, Hill was part of a crew of gangsters run by James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. After years of earning money through nefarious deeds, Jimmy’s crew had become closely associated with the Lucchese crime family, and had amassed a solid reputation in the seedy world of organized crime. Burke and Hill took over the planning for the robbery. Jimmy’s crew was very familiar with JFK. Whenever they needed easy cash, the airport was an easy mark. The crew regularly hijacked trucks from JFK, often taking two or three trucks per week from there for quick money. Whether they were filled with televisions, clothes or food, they knew how to move merchandise to make extra cash.
Burke and Hill assembled a team for the robbery and waited for the word from his inside man, Werner. At about 3:00 A.M. on December 11, a black van loaded with the masked men pulled up to Lufthansa’s storage area. The men entered the building while the getaway van was brought to the back. They burst in, wielding guns, rounding up the night-shift employees and handcuffing them in the break room. The gunmen forced a supervisor to open the 10-by-20 foot vault to avoid setting off alarms. The cash and jewels were loaded into the van, and the crew inconspicuously drove away.
The entire heist took little more than an hour.
Unfortunately, they didn’t exactly get away free and clear. Rather than take the van to get crushed in a mob-controlled junk yard the night of the robbery, getaway driver Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards got drunk and left it parked illegally on the street in Brooklyn, where it was found with his fingerprints and footprint in the interior. Burke decided to cut the ties between Edwards and his crew, and the driver became the first suspect in the crime to be murdered. As Burke got more and more paranoid—and greedy for a larger share of the copious amounts of cash taken in the heist—the dominos began to fall fairly quickly. Krugman was the next to go, disappearing on January 6, 1979. By the summer of that year, eight men associated with the robbery were dead or missing.
Unable to connect anything to Jimmy and Henry’s crew, and with mobster bodies piling up, the FBI turned its attention to the inside man—Louis Werner. With help from testimony from Gruenewald, Werner was convicted for his role in the heist, but refused to cooperate or give up his co-conspirators. It seemed the Bureau would never solve the case, or bring to justice those involved.
“These ‘goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted,” said George Venizelos, FBI assistant director-in-charge, in the New York field office in a comment to Reuters.
The biggest break in the investigation finally came in the spring of 1980, when Hill was arrested on six drug-related counts. It wasn’t long before he had “flipped,” convinced by the FBI to testify against not only Burke, but Lucchese family underboss Paul Vario as well. Hill’s testimony led to Burke’s conviction on two separate counts—a basketball points-shaving scheme and an unrelated murder—and “Jimmy the Gent” died in prison in 1996. Vario was convicted of racketeering and died in prison in 1988.
Only a portion of the stolen money was ever recovered.