Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lufthansa Heist Revisited

Unofficial Hollywood Review

The recent movie The Big Heist, presented by the Arts & Entertainment network, leaves the average viewer and mob follower hungry for the true facts of what really happened in the infamous 1978 robbery at the Lufthansa Air Cargo terminal in New York City. The Big Heist, based on the book The Heist by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings, was an expanded version of the coverage given the Lufthansa robbery in the blockbuster movie Goodfellas. Neither movie excelled in providing viewers with a factual product.

The Goodfellas movie logo (AP)
The Goodfellas movie logo (AP)

It was interesting to see how the two directors approached various characters in the movies. The James Burke character in Goodfellas, named Jimmy Conway (Burke was still alive) and played by Robert DeNiro, was a vicious, greedy, self-absorbed, cold-hearted killer who looked out for number one. Donald Sutherland in the Burke role came across as a sniveling, pathetic character who actually cared about his pitiful band of robbers, while always being looked down upon by mob heavy Paul Vario. The relationship between James Burke (Sutherland) and his son Frank was a spin the screenwriters put together to show some level of compassion in the movie. This was hardly the case in real life.

Robert DeNiro & Joe Pesci (AP)
Robert DeNiro & Joe Pesci (AP)

Another interesting comparison involved Thomas DeSimone. Played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, for which he received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, DeSimone was portrayed as a psychopathic murderer who helped beat and stomp to death "Billy Batts" (Frank Vincent) and killed the teenager, "Spider" (Michael Imperioli, now Christopher in The Sopranos). In reality, Joe Pesci represented two characters in his Goodfellas role. Several of the incidents Henry Hill discussed in his book Wiseguy were carried out with Paul Vario's son, Lenny. Screenwriters decided to combine Vario and DeSimone into one on-screen character.

One has to wonder how Tommy's real life widow, Cookie DeSimone, must have felt seeing her husband portrayed as a heartless mob hitman and an immoral womanizer in Goodfellas, then to see him as an almost clownish mob wannabe in The Big Heist. In real life Thomas DeSimone fell somewhere in between.

The most glaring mistake in The Big Heist was the role of Paul Vario as a member of the Gambino Family. One can only assume that the screenwriters did this to glorify the role of John Gotti in the movie. Imagine that — someone wanting to glorify John Gotti. Vario was a ranking capo and highly visible member of the Lucchese Family. John Gotti's role in the robbery was minimal and will be discussed later. Paul Castellano deserved no part in the movie whatsoever.

As far as the string of murders following the theft were portrayed, Goodfellas showed the graphic brutality of the killings, although inaccurately and out of sequence. The Big Heist, while basically a made-for-TV movie, mercifully left out the graphicness, had most of the killings and disappearances out of sequence, and completely left out the role of two key gang members who were eliminated in a cold double-murder.

In addition to the bad guys, none of the roles of the good guys were accurately portrayed. The screenwriters in The Big Heist decided to focus on one fictional police officer and two FBI agents.

Other inaccuracies about the film included Burke and "Stax" Edwards participating in the actual robbery. Neither was there. Also, the roles of Louis Werner and Peter Gruenwald, Lufthansa employees, were minimized. Burke was given credit as the mastermind behind the robbery. However, it was Werner and Gruenwald's idea to rob the airline cargo terminal. Werner, as was incorrectly depicted in the movie, was not present during the robbery.

Henry Hill was portrayed more accurately in The Big Heist than in Goodfellas. In real life, Hill was not the charming, likable character played by Ray Liota. Heavily into alcohol and drug abuse most of his adult life, Hill continued to live the life of a misfit even after he was given a second chance in the Witness Protection Program. Only recently has he seemed to have gotten his act together. Hill was the recent subject of an Arts & Entertainment Biography production and has created a website called "goodfellahenry.com.

With information from The Heist and Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, and using newspaper accounts of the robbery and the ensuing murders and disappearances, here is a more accurate picture of the infamous Lufthansa robbery.

 

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