Arrest in 1978 Lufthansa heist that netted $5.8M

(CBS NEWS) - Five alleged members of the Bonanno organized crime family were arrested Thursday, including one in connection with the 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Law enforcement sources told CBS News that the other four are to be charged with a variety of violent crimes, including murder and extortion.

Senior investigative producer Pat Milton reports that, in surprise predawn raids, dozens of FBI agents descended on four houses in Queens and Long Island simultaneously. The men arrested were allowed to get dressed and then were taken to 26 Federal Plaza in New York for fingerprinting and processing.

The fifth suspect was at work and agreed to turn himself in at FBI headquarters, which he did.

They are expected to be arraigned in Federal Court in Brooklyn later today.

Milton reports that one of the five arrested today, Vincent Asaro, is suspected of being the lookout for the heist, according to the source. Asaro is also believed to have helped the crew get away, the source said.

The indictment also accuses the 78-year-old Asaro of the 1969 murder of Paul Katz. Authorities say Asaro strangled Katz, who was suspected of cooperating with law enforcement.

Katz's remains were found last year during an FBI dig at a house once occupied by James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, the suspected mastermind of the Lufthansa heist, who died in 1996.

Vincent Asaro indictment (pdf)

Also charged Thursday were Asaro's son, Jermone Asaro; Jack Bonventure; Thomas Di Fiore; and John Ragano.

In 1978 thieves took $5 million in cash and nearly a million dollars' worth of jewels from the vaults of Lufthansa at JFK, one of the largest thefts in U.S. history. The cash and jewelry were never recovered.

Only one man was ever prosecuted in connection with the robbery: Louis Werner, an airport employee and inside informant.

According to court papers, an unidentified cooperating witness told investigators that he participated in the robbery at the direction of Arsaro.

Each robber was supposed to be paid $750,000, but the cooperating witness said "most did not receive their share, either because they were killed first or it was never given to them," according to the court papers.

The papers say the cooperator wore a wire and recorded a conversation he had with Asaro in 2011 in which the pair discussed the Lufthansa heist.

"We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get," Asaro said, according to the court papers. "Jimmy Burke kept everything."

Asaro and his son Jerome, both alleged captains in the Bonanno organized crime family, also were charged in a 1984 robbery of $1.25 million worth of gold salts from a Federal Express employee.

One of those involved in the Lufthansa heist was Henry Hill, a mob member who entered the witness protection program and became the inspiration of the 1990 Martin Scorsese film, "GoodFellas." Hill died last June in Los Angeles.

 Nils Haupt, Director of Corporate Communications, said Lufthansa will not be making an official statement, but he would say this on the record:

Lufthansa did not make an official statement in response to today's arrests, but  Nils Haupt, director of corporate communications for the airline, told Milton, "The heist was part a famous movie with Robert De Niro, of course, and it got some fame at that time. But 36 years is a long time.  Two generations of Lufthansa people have changed since then.  There is nobody in the building who recalls it. It is pure history."


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