In a decision that shocked even the defendant, a jury on Thursday cleared an old-school mobster of charges he helped carry out a record-setting heist nearly 40 years ago that inspired the movie “Goodfellas.”
It was a Hollywood ending for Vincent Asaro, 80, who could have spent the rest of his life in prison if convicted of racketeering charges, which included allegations of murder, solicitation of murder, extortion and robbery.
“Free!” Asaro exclaimed with his hands thrust into the air as he left the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. “I’m dying to get home.”
Asked what he planned to do once he got there, Asaro said, “Have a good meal and see my family.”
Asaro had been in custody since January 2014, when prosecutors announced that they finally had nailed someone in the infamous December 1978 holdup of Lufthansa employees at John F. Kennedy International Airport. There was no statute of limitations on charges in the indictment because of the rules of federal racketeering laws.
At the time it occurred, the heist was the biggest in U.S. history, and it inspired Martin Scorsese’s film “Goodfellas.” The perpetrators got away with about $6 million in cash and jewels, most of which never was recovered.
The prosecution’s case hinged on whether jurors believed the testimony of witnesses who linked Asaro to the holdup and other crimes but who were longtime mobsters with criminal histories.
They included Asaro’s cousin Gaspare Valenti and Peter “Bud” Zuccaro, who had cooperated with federal authorities in exchange for money and possible leniency from prosecutors. Valenti and Zuccaro are in a witness protection program.
Their years of secret recordings helped investigators charge Asaro, a member of New York’s Bonanno crime family. The 26-page indictment alleged a litany of crimes, including the strangulation of a suspected snitch whose body was buried beneath the floor of another mobster’s home, use of threats to squeeze money from debtors and involvement in the Lufthansa robbery.
When the jury, whose first full day of deliberations was Tuesday, announced its verdict, Asaro appeared not to hear, and he looked briefly confused. But the hawk-nosed, usually sour-faced defendant broke into a broad grin when a member of his defense team told him he was acquitted, and he slapped his hands on the table in triumph.
Asaro was not portrayed in “Goodfellas,” but prosecutors said he helped organize the Lufthansa holdup and was in a decoy car that was to be used to divert police if officers arrived on the scene.
Asaro, who seethed with anger during some prosecution witnesses’ testimony, was only the second person to be charged in the heist. The first was a Lufthansa employee who was convicted in 1979 of providing the robbers with inside information.
Valenti testified that Asaro was friends with the crime’s chief organizer, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke of the Lucchese crime family. Burke, the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character in “Goodfellas,” died of lung cancer while in prison in 1996 for murder and other crimes, which did not include the Lufthansa holdup. Valenti and Zuccaro were not depicted in the film.
In his testimony, Valenti said Asaro told him that Burke “had a big score” coming up and that Valenti could be part of the gang.
The defense accused Valenti, Zuccaro and other government informants of lying to save their own skins. Valenti and Zuccaro both admitted to being longtime organized crime members who had gambled away their fortunes.
Their testimony was packed with colorful descriptions and recollections of life in the mob, and it was supplemented by profanity-filled conversations secretly recorded.
Zuccaro described placing pruning shears around one man’s fingers to pressure him to sign away his business to someone else. “He signed right away,” Zuccaro testified. He described hijacking armored trucks and seizing the drivers’ and guards’ licenses so they would know that he knew where they lived.
Zuccaro was a member of the Bonanno crime family from 1976 until 1986, when he became an associate of the Gambino family. Despite making hundreds of thousands of dollars from criminal activities, including a marijuana business and robberies, Zuccaro testified that he fell on hard times and suffered a number of setbacks as he grew older.
The setbacks included being injured in the 1990s when his girlfriend ran him over with a car.
Asked by the prosecution if it was an accident, Zuccaro replied, “Semi.”
He also described setting up the 1996 murder of a Queens drug dealer for taking business from the Gambino family.
Zuccaro said he assembled a team and directed them to wear identical hooded sweatshirts, baggy sweatpants, gloves and masks to make them harder to identify. The killers drove a stolen van to the bar where the target was and shot him dead as he cowered under a pool table. Then they burned the van to destroy possible evidence and got into another car. They drove the second vehicle to the beach, burned their clothes and threw their weapons and torched clothing into the ocean.
Then, Zuccaro said, they all went out to eat.