By J. R. de Szigethy
Part One: Deja vu All Over Again
It's a case of Life imitating Art imitating Life. Over 3 decades after the infamous "Lufthansa Heist" at JFK airport, and 24 years after the story was immortalized in the Hollywood epic "Goodfellas," the Feds in New York have made arrests of 5 not-so-Wise-Guys on charges ranging from theft to murder.
"These 'Goodfellas' thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill, and a license to do whatever they wanted!," stated FBI official George Venizelos, in announcing the arrests of 5 members of the Bonanno Mafia Family. The key Defendant is 78-year-old Vincent Asaro, an alleged participant in the 1978 heist at JFK Airport, in which $6 million in cash and jewelry was stolen from a Lufthansa Airlines stash. Asaro's co-Defendants are his son Jerome, age 55, Jack Bonventre, age 45, "Tommy D" DiFiore, age 70, and John "Bazoo" Ragano, age 52. Named as a co-conspirator with Asaro in the Lufthansa theft was the late Mobster "Jimmy the Gent" Burke.
The charges against Asaro include the 1969 murder of associate Paul Katz, allegedly killed with a dog chain because Asaro and his associates believed Katz was a "rat" to law enforcement. The Feds charge that Asaro forced his son in the 1980s to dig up Katz' remains and re-bury the murdered mobster in another location, a home owned by Burke, where it was found last year. A similar plot line occurs in the Martin Scorsese movie produced back in 1990. The father and son also face charges of trying to hire a hitman to murder their cousin, whom they also believed had turned "rat." The duo also face charges of armed robberies.
All 5 Defendants face charges of Extortion, evidence of which is caught on tape, in what is certain to become an American Mafia classic sound bite. At a meeting in April, 2013, Ragano asks Vincent about collecting money from a mob associate. Says Ragano: "When do we stab this guy in the neck? That's what I want to know!" Vincent Asaro replies: "Stab him today!" (1)
The arrests caught some Mafia aficionados by surprise, with many in the belief that everyone involved in that classic crime were long dead. That was the theme of the hit movie starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, that there is no Honor among Thieves, let alone Murderers, thus the greedy character based upon "Jimmy the Gent" systematically set out to murder those involved in the heist, rather than pay them their "fair share" of the loot. In the real-life version of this story, an FBI wire is said to catch Asaro on tape complaining about how "Jimmy the Gent" basically kept most of the stolen money and jewels to himself. Almost predictably, Asaro's criminal lawyer, Gerald McMahon complained to the Media: "Marty (Scorsese) needed a Sequel and Loretta (Lynch, U. S. Attorney for Brooklyn) said she would help out!" (2)
As a Criminal Lawyer, McMahon has attainted success in the art and science of destroying the credibility of co-operating witnesses, or "rats," as they are derisively called, in Prosecutions of American Mafia members who are his clients. "Nobody does rats like I do!" McMahon bragged a year ago to the New York Post. Ever the showman, McMahon has appeared on-stage as an actor, notably in the role of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." (3) The movie McMahon alluded to by Scorsese was based upon the 1986 hit book "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family," by Nicholas Pileggi, the work product of interviews with Mafia "rat" Henry Hill. The new Indictments show that the events portrayed in Pileggi's book and subsequent movie may in fact be accurate depictions of what actually occurred.
These arrests are a major public relations coup for the FBI, which has experienced horrific corruption scandals in the past 3 decades. Among these were the cases of murderers and drug dealers such as Greg Scarpa, Sr. and Whitey Bulger, protected from prosecution for decades - and sometimes facilitated in the commission of their various crimes, because of their secret work as FBI Informants. Bulger's story was the basis for the 2006 Best-Picture "The Departed," also Directed by Martin Scorsese. Whitey Bulger was finally convicted for his murderous reign in Boston Federal Court last year. This new case may mark a turning point for the FBI, in which those people expected to be the "Good Guys," the FBI Agents, are exactly that, and those expected to be the "Bad Guys," members of the American Mafia, are in fact the bad guys.
However, as the Feds point out, these Indictments are only allegations, and the Defendants should be considered innocent until proven guilty. This might be problematic, given the Federal RICO Statutes invoked in this case. The accused can be charged with racketeering as long as the crimes continuously overlap a 5-year limitation, and these crimes go all the way back to 1969. Any "weak link" in this chain can threaten the entire prosecution. Such problems arose in Brooklyn Federal Court during the prosecution of "Mafia Cops" Lou Eppolito, Sr. and Stephen Caracappa. The Judge in that case, Jack Weinstein, post-Conviction, threw out the Guilty Verdicts on multiple counts of murder and other charges, concerned that the "Racketeering Enterprise" had been disbanded when the 2 cops retired from the NYPD and moved to Las Vegas. However, an Appeals Court reinstated the convictions, broadening the scope of the RICO statutes by ruling that the 2 cops comprised the core of the criminal conspiracy, whose accomplices changed with their change in locale. The trial of the Mafia Cops also set a new precedent when the son of one of the accused, Lou Eppolito, Jr., joined this reporter in coverage of this landmark case.
The movie "Goodfellas" marked the first appearance of Lou Eppolito in his second career as an actor, in which he was cast as a Gangster, in the cameo role as "Fat Andy." One year later, Eppolito and his partner in crime Stephen Caracappa pulled over the automobile driven by Gambino Family hitman Eddie Lino, using an unmarked police car, under the guise of a moving traffic violation. Fearing nothing worse than a traffic ticket, the surprised Lino was then gunned down by Caracappa in a brazen, public execution. The Mafia Cops carried out this Contract on the orders of Luchese Family Underboss Gaspipe Casso.
Prior to his arrest and conviction as a "Mafia Cop," Eppolito also appeared as a Gangster in "State of Grace," (1990), a Mafia hitman in the TV movie "Kojak: Fatal Flaw," (1991) , a Gangster in "Bullets over Broadway," (1994), a corrupt cop in "Lost Highway," (1997), whose co-star Robert Blake would later also be charged with, but Acquitted, of murder, a Mafia hitman in "Da Game of Life," (1998), a corrupt Union boss in "Turn of Faith," (2002), and a Casino Boss in "Lucky Quarter," (2005). (4)
Some might call this type-casting.
to be continued
Related Features by this author in the Archives of American Mafia:
At Long Last: The Conviction of Whitey Bulger
"Partners in Crime: The Mafia Cops" (with Lou Eppolito, Jr.) Parts One -Seventeen.
"The 'On the Waterfront' Trials," Parts One - Six.
"The 'Sopranos' Trial," Parts One - Four.
"License to Kill: Greg Scarpa and the FBI," Parts One - Eight.
J. R. de Szigethy can be reached at: email@example.com
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