80-year-old goes on trial over 'Goodfellas' heist

19th October 2015, Comments 0 comments

An 80-year-old alleged mobster accused of taking part in the spectacular 1978 airport heist immortalized in Martin Scorsese's movie "Goodfellas" went on trial in New York on Monday.

Vincent Asaro, reputedly a member of the notorious Bonanno crime family, is accused of murder, violence and extortion that allegedly span 45 years from the late 1960s to 2013. He pleads not guilty.

In custody since his arrest in January 2014, the man who had triple bypass surgery in 2013, faces spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted by a jury in the federal court in Brooklyn.

In what was the biggest heist on US soil, armed mobsters stole $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at New York's JFK on December 11, 1978.

The value of the booty today is estimated at around $20 million.

The trial will lay bare accusations of murder, racketeering, robbery, extortion, arson, illegal gambling, loansharking and assault.

US prosecutors say Asaro strangled Paul Katz, a presumed informant, with a dog chain in 1969. His body parts were discovered in a New York basement in 2013.

Prosecutor Lindsay Gerdes narrated the grisly murder to jurors, saying: "The man with death before dishonor tattooed on his forearm sits in this court room today.

"That man is Vincent Asaro."

Asaro sat next to his defense team, his hair swept back and dressed in a casual sweater, before the packed courtroom in Brooklyn.

His lawyers say there was a lack of evidence against their client and that the government's star witness wore a wire for five years.

"If Vincent Asaro is truly the dangerous, violent, murdering individual depicted by the government, why did it take so long to arrest him?" said defense lawyer Diane Ferrone.

- Remains found in family home -

Asaro was arrested by the FBI in January 2014 in a series of raids that also netted his middle-aged son Jerome and three other suspects.

The 1978 heist 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.

Asaro, Burke and their co-conspirators allegedly expected to receive around $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 was not depicted in the film.

The charges against him date from January 1968 to June 2013.

He is accused, with Burke, of strangling Katz because they suspected he was cooperating with investigators. They buried his body under a cement basement floor of an empty home.

In the mid-1980s, Asaro allegedly ordered his son Jerome and another individual to dig up the body and move it to avoid detection.

Almost 35 years later, the FBI recovered a right hand and wrist, hair, teeth, clothing and human tissue identified by DNA as belonging to Katz from the Burke family home in Queens.

Prosecutors also accuse Asaro of soliciting the murder of a cousin in the early 1980s who managed to escape to Florida on a tip-off.

He and his son are charged with participating in additional armed robberies, including around $1 million in gold salts.


© 2015 AFP

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