By Sarina Trangle
More than three decades after the largest robbery in New York history, authorities arrested a Howard Beach patriarch they believe helped orchestrate the so-called Lufthansa heist.
Vincent Asaro, 78, of Howard Beach, pleaded not guilty to an array of racketeering charges, including extortion, murder, robbery, arson and bookmaking, when arraigned in Brooklyn federal court Thursday afternoon.
A grand jury charged Asaro, a reputed Bonanno family member and captain, with helping plan and commit the 1978 armed robbery at the Lufthansa Terminal in John F. Kennedy Airport, where more than $5 million in cash and about $1 million in jewelry was stolen, prosecutors said.
FBI agents said the robbery, made infamous by the “Goodfellas” movie, was expected to net Asaro, the late Lucchese crime family associate James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke and others $750,000 apiece plus gold jewelry. Burke is reported to have murdered many heist associates for fear that they would implicate him.
Wearing tinted glasses and dressed in black, Asaro stood beside three others charged with working for the Bonanno family. Asaro’s son, Jerome Asaro, 55, an alleged Bonanno captain, and John Ragano, 52, an alleged associate of the crime family, also entered not-guilty pleas.
Two others were charged in the same indictment — Jack Bonventre, 45, who did not enter a plea because his lawyers was absent, and Thomas Di Fiore, 70, who was not present during the others’ arraignment. The FBI considers Di Fiore the most powerful member of the Bonanno family not behind bars.
After the arraignment, the elder Asaro’s attorney, Gerald McMahon, said he was unsure why agents were after an elderly man, who underwent triple bypass surgery last month. He said Asaro would not be pleading guilty to anything and expected the case to go to trial.
“I think they’re running out of people to indict,” McMahon said, joking that the case emerged as a sequel to the Martin Scorsese movie.
When asked about the defense strategy the attorney said “innocence, pure, actual innocence.”
Authorities describe things differently.
Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and the FBI said Asaro’s criminal career spanned decades.
“Asaro helped pull off the 1978 Lufthansa robbery – still the largest bank robbery in New York history. Neither age nor time dimmed Asaro’s ruthless ways, as he continued to order violence to carry out mob business in recent months,” Lynch said in a statement. “Those suspected of cooperating with law enforcement paid with their lives.”
In 1969, FBI agents said Asaro and Burke used a dog chain to strangle Paul Katz, who they belived was cooperating with authorities, and then buried his body in the basement of a vacant Queens home.
When alerted to a police investigation into Katz’s disappearance in the mid-‘80s, agents said Asaro instructed his son and a colleague to dig up the body and move it.
This summer, the FBI said it dug up Katz’s remains from the basement of an Ozone Park home and used DNA testing to confirm Katz’s identity.
The indictment contends the father and son worked together frequently.
The pair was involved in the robbery of Federal Express in 1984, which amassed $1.25 million in gold salts, as well as the armed robbery of $ 1 million from an armored car business in the 1980s, according to the indictment.
The Asaros weren’t cordial with all their relatives.
Agents said the Asaro men solicited the murder of a cousin between roughly Jan. 1, 1983 and Dec. 31, 1985. The FBI said the Asaros considered the relative a “rat” because he testified against another family member in a federal fraud trail.”
Lawrence Fisher, Jerome Asaro’s attorney, declined to comment.
The elder Asaro is also alleged to have run an illegal gambling business with Jack Bonventre, 45, an acting captain within the crime family, between roughly September 2007 and March 2008. The men earned at least $2,000 daily from the bookmaking business, according to the indictment.
The jury charged all five defendants with using extortionate means to collect an extension of credit from another family associate.
Most recently, the FBI said it recorded Ragano asking Asaro when it would be appropriate to stab a debtor in the neck on April 26, 2013.
“Stab him today,” Asaro said, according to the FBI. “Listen, I sent three guys there to give him a beating already, so it won’t be the first time he got a beating from me.”
Charles Hochbaum. Ragano’s attorney, declined to comment. The other defendants’ lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
If convicted, the elder Asaro faces life in prison and the four other defendants could spend up to 20 years behind bars.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at email@example.com.