Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lufthansa Heist Revisited

The Biggest Robbery Ever

When the New York Times reported the robbery on December 12, 1978, the initial estimate was $3.0 million in cash, and jewelry worth about $2.0 million. Two days later, the total was revised to $5.0 million in cash and $850,000 in jewelry. At $5.8 million, the FBI announced that it was the largest cash robbery in the history of the United States.

A pile of money (AP)
A pile of money (AP)

The robbery pulled in four law enforcement agencies the FBI, the New York Port Authority Police, the Queens District Attorney's Detective Squad, and detectives from the New York Police Department's 113th Precinct, in whose jurisdiction the crime took place. The agencies quickly came to one conclusion it was an inside job. Each of the agencies canvassed their snitches and the results were quite remarkable. The names that were turned over to them were Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Frank Burke and Anthony Rodriquez.

Witnesses who had seen the two men in the van with their ski masks off provided details to a police sketch artist and composite drawings appeared in the newspaper two days after the theft. In addition, a description of the Ford Econoline van was released.

One of the immediate concerns involved the serial numbers of the stolen currency. The money shipped to Chase Manhattan by Commerzbank consisted of dollars exchanged abroad by American tourists, military personnel, and businessmen. To the chagrin of law enforcement, and to the unexpected delight of the thieves, the money was impossible to trace.

Henry Hill (AP)
Henry Hill (AP)

In Wiseguy, Hill talks about meeting with Burke the Monday night of the robbery and again the following morning. Burke's demeanor revealed nothing of his new found riches. Then while the two men were driving Hill remembers:

We were on the expressway, getting close to the tunnel, when Jimmy let go of the steering wheel, turned toward me, and gave me a big, one-armed hug around the shoulders. 'We got it!' he said. 'We got it!' Then he started driving again like he hadn't said a word. I was so surprised by his sudden move that he almost broke my neck, but I knew it was his way of telling me that we had taken Lufthansa.

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