The Lufthansa Heist Revisited
" Jimmy the Gent"
No one that knew James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke ever doubted that it was his upbringing that led to his sociopathic lifestyle. Born on July 5, 1931 to a woman named Conway, Burke never knew his parents. He entered foster care at the age of two and was shuttled from home to home experiencing beatings, sexual abuse and other unspoken horrors from a seemingly endless number of temporary parents.
In 1944, when Burke was 13 years old, he was in the backseat of a car driven by his latest set of foster parents. Burke did something to aggravate his foster father who was driving. The man, who had a short fuse to begin with, turned around to belt Burke and in doing so lost control of the car, crashed and was killed instantly. The man's wife blamed Burke for the loss of her husband and gave him regular beatings until he was removed from her care.
Burke had gotten into so much trouble as a teenager and young adult that between the ages of 16 and 22, he spent a total of 86 days outside reformatories and jails. In 1949 Burke made a name for himself after refusing to rollover on a Brooklyn hood after he was arrested in a check-cashing scheme. Burke was given a savage beating at the hands of the police, but would not cooperate. When he arrived at Auburn Prison to begin a five-year stretch, word had already reached there that Burke was a stand-up guy. While incarcerated Burke was rumored to have committed murders for "mob chieftains" who were in prison with him.
Stories of Burke's murderous reputation became almost legendary. In 1962, when he was planning to get married, Burke found out that an ex-boyfriend of his fiancée, Mickey, was giving her problems. Burke was said to have resolved this by chopping the man to pieces and leaving him "tossed all over the inside of his car." In another tale that showed a bizarre side of Burke's sense of justice, Jimmy gave an elderly woman $5,000 after he found out that her hoodlum son refused to repay her. Burke then was rumored to have murdered the son that same day.
Henry Hill would reveal in the book Wiseguy that "Jimmy was the kind of guy who cheered for the crooks in movies. He named his two sons Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke. Later his daughter Cathy would marry Anthony Indelicato, one of three hitmen who carried out the murder of Carmine Galante in July 1979. Of Burke's ruthlessness Hill claimed, "Jimmy had a reputation for being wild. He'd whack you. There was no question Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn't matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert. He was scary and he scared some very scary fellows."
Burke's claim to fame came for his skill at hijacking shipments from Idlewild Airport (later renamed in honor of John F. Kennedy) in the 1950s and 1960s. Nicholas Pileggi describes Burke's lust for hijacking:
Occasionally a criminal savant finds a particular field in which he excels and in which he delights. For Jimmy Burke it was hijacking. To watch Jimmy tear through the cartons of a newly hijacked trailer was to watch a greedy child at Christmas. He would rip into the first few stolen crates until his passion to possess and touch each of the stolen items abated. Then he would peer inside the crates, pat their sides, sniff the air around them, lift them in his arms, and begin to carry them off the trucks, even though he always hired neighborhood guys for the heavy lifting.
Henry Hill amplified Pileggi's remarks stating, "The thing you had to understand about Jimmy is that he loved to steal. He ate and breathed it. I think if you ever offered Jimmy a billion dollars not to steal, he'd turn you down and then try to figure out how to steal it from you. It was the only thing he enjoyed. It kept him alive."
When Burke appeared at a gambling joint he was hailed as a hero. Everyone got tipped from the man who opened the door to the bartender to whomever brought over sandwiches for him.
Burke developed a system for hijacking and employed it during most of his robberies instilling in his own crew its benefits. In Wiseguy Hill reveals the system:
Most hijackers take the truck driver's license as a warning. The driver knows that you know where he lives, and if he cooperates too much with the cops or the insurance company he's in trouble. Jimmy got his nickname 'Jimmy the Gent' because he used to take the driver's license, just like everybody else, except Jimmy used to stuff a fifty-dollar bill into the guy's wallet before taking off. I can't tell you how many friends he made out at the airport because of that. People loved him. Drivers used to tip off his people about rich loads. At one point things got so bad the cops had to assign a whole army to try to stop him, but it didn't work. It turned out that Jimmy made the cops his partners. Jimmy could corrupt a saint. He said bribing cops was like feeding elephants at the zoo. 'All you need is peanuts.'
In 1972 Burke and Hill traveled to Florida with Casey Rosado, the president of Local 71 of the Waiters & Commissary Workers at Kennedy Airport. Rosado wanted the two men with him while he attempted to collect a gambling debt. When the collection attempt turned ugly Burke and Hill roughed up the victim and held him hostage for several hours until the debt was cleared up. A month after the two returned to New York they were arrested and indicted for kidnapping and attempted murder in Florida. The victim had a sister who worked as a typist for the FBI. Although they beat the state's case, they were indicted by the federal government for extortion. Convicted, both men were given 10-year sentences.
Burke was paroled from the extortion conviction on October 25, 1978. Released from Allenwood prison, Burke was assigned to the Bureau of Prison's Community Treatment Center, described as a "seedy hotel that had been converted to a halfway house." The center was located near Times Square on West 54th Street in Manhattan. Burke, who was soon joined there by Tommy DeSimone, was required to sleep at the center, but was free to be away during the day and evening.
While in prison, the crew he left behind had turned into a shambles.