Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lufthansa Heist Revisited

The Plot Begins

Lufthansa Cargo logo (AP)
Lufthansa Cargo logo (AP)

Louis Werner, an employee of Lufthansa Airlines, was the walking definition of a degenerate gambler. Nicholas Pileggi described Werner as "one of these long-shot bettors who had spent the past 11 years trying to support an estranged wife, a girl friend, a loan shark, three children, and a $300-a-day gambling habit on a $15,000-a-year salary." His friend and co-worker, Peter Gruenwald, had been with the German airline company at Kennedy International Airport for eight years and handled out-going shipments. In 1978 Werner's gambling habits had him in the hole some $18,000 to the bookies. Under pressure, he was looking for a quick way out.

This was not the first time Werner planned to rob his employer. On October 8, 1976, $22,000 in foreign currency disappeared from the cargo building. The following day Werner took the money in a cardboard box to Gruenwald's Levittown, Long Island home to hide it. Gruenwald hid the money at a local garbage dump then retrieved it the following morning. Later that day Gruenwald met Werner at a gas station where they transferred the money into shopping bags. They then tore the cardboard box to pieces and drove around town depositing the portions into various trash containers. That night Gruenwald buried the money in his backyard.

Werner made some inquiries to discover how the money could be converted into American dollars. As long as the transactions were less than $500 they would not have to be reported to the U. S. Treasury. A week later Werner retrieved the money and gave it to a friend to swap at several of the foreign exchange banks in Manhattan. It was an interesting friend that Werner chose to handle the exchange. William Fischetti was married and currently having an affair with Werner's estranged wife, Beverly, who was hounding her husband for back support payments. Although Werner was considered the main suspect in the theft, he was never arrested, and the airline overlooked the allegations since he was never charged.

Less than two years later, Werner was again looking to make a score to settle his gambling debts. Gruenwald, who figured his $5,000 take from the first robbery was not worth the anguish of losing his job, was willing to help as long as it was "something big." By August 1978 the two novice thieves were in cahoots again. Gruenwald's responsibility was to develop a robbery plan and recruit the men to pull it off. Werner, as a company supervisor, would provide a detailed sketch of the building's layout and elaborate alarm system.

As summer dragged into fall Werner was getting anxious to pull off the robbery. However, Gruenwald's efforts to organize a group to carry out the theft had failed. As pressure from the bookies continued Werner felt compelled to formulate his own plan.

One of the people Werner placed his bets through was Frank Menna, described as a "runner," a go-between for bookmakers or bettors. Martin Krugman was one of the bookmakers Werner had run up a huge tally with through Menna and he was now demanding payment. Krugman had allowed Werner to bury himself in debt in the hope that one day it might pay off in the form of a tip on a hijacking possibility. In early November 1978, after Werner had received a threatening phone call at work from Krugman, he sat down with Menna and explained his and Gruenwald's plan and the need for experienced men to carry it out. Menna told Krugman of this discussion, who in turn relayed it to Henry Hill, who quickly contacted James Burke.