Accused in Lufthansa heist found not guilty

Mr Vincent Asaro, 80, seen here with his lawyers, raised his hands in the air and shouted "Free!" outside the court in Brooklyn after a jury found him not guilty on Thursday.
Mr Vincent Asaro, 80, seen here with his lawyers, raised his hands in the air and shouted "Free!" outside the court in Brooklyn after a jury found him not guilty on Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Jury clears man said to be behind 1978 airport robbery that helped inspire movie Goodfellas

NEW YORK • Mr Vincent Asaro, the reputed mobster charged in connection with the notorious 1978 Lufthansa robbery, walked out of federal court in Brooklyn a free man after a jury cleared him of racketeering and other charges.

The verdicts on Thursday, delivered after little more than two days of deliberations, left many in the courtroom stunned, most visibly prosecutors from the United States attorney's office.

The office had spent years building a case against Mr Asaro, 80, with testimony from high-ranking Mafia figures and recordings by an informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

  • The infamous airlines caper

  • The Lufthansa robbery was then the biggest heist on US soil.

    Armed mobsters stole US$5 million in cash and nearly US$1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at John F. Kennedy airport on Dec 11, 1978.

    The value of the booty today is estimated at around US$20 million (S$28.4 million).

    Mr Vincent Asaro was the first, and probably last, alleged member of the mafia to be prosecuted over the heist.

To secure a conviction on the racketeering count - for which Mr Asaro might have faced up to life in prison - prosecutors would have had to prove two or more of the 14 racketeering acts they alleged as part of the charge.

During a three-week trial, prosecutors argued that Mr Asaro, whose father and grandfather were members of the Mafia, had committed murder and robbery and performed shakedowns and other crimes on behalf of his Mafia family, the Bonannos.

The most famous one, depicted in the the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie Goodfellas, was the robbery at the Lufthansa airline terminal at Kennedy Airport.

It was then said to be the largest cash robbery in US history.

Mr Asaro helped plan it, they said, and his accomplices stole US$5 million in cash and US$1 million in jewels from a cargo vault.

The value of the booty today is estimated at around US$20 million (S$28.4 million).

But the case relied heavily on the cooperation of some of those Mafia figures, some of them admitted killers, and the jury rejected the government's accusation that Mr Asaro helped carry out a criminal enterprise engaged in murder and robbery, most infamously the Lufthansa robbery.

After the jury delivered the verdict, Mr Asaro clapped sharply, then hugged his lawyers.

"Your Honour, thank you very much," he said.

As he walked out of the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, Mr Asaro raised his hands in the air and shouted: "Free!"

Flanked by his lawyers, Ms Elizabeth Macedonio and Ms Diane Ferrone, he fielded a flurry of questions from reporters, who asked what he was going to do ("play some paddleball"), where he was heading ("to my friend's restaurant") and what he was going to eat ("anything but a bologna sandwich").

The key to the prosecution's case was an informer named Gaspare Valenti, Mr Asaro's cousin.

Tired of Mr Asaro's berating him, and broke, Mr Valenti testified he approached the FBI in 2008 and began telling them about Mr Asaro's crimes.

In the closing argument, Ms Macedonio, attacked Mr Valenti's credibility. "Gaspar Valenti was an experienced liar," she said, using another name Valenti goes by.

"Once you eliminate Gaspar as a reliable person," she said, "then you won't be able to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with regards to the crimes alleged against Vincent Asaro."

Ms Macedonio also argued that some of the prosecutors' other evidence - surveillance photos in which Mr Asaro was not committing crimes, phone books from other Mafia members that listed him in them - did not prove anything.

The crimes prosecutors accused Mr Asaro of committing as part of the criminal enterprise included murder.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Accused in Lufthansa heist found not guilty'. Print Edition | Subscribe