Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Goodfella Henry Hill still living in hiding 20 years after film release

In a familiar wiseguy drawl Hill shakes his head and admits: "I did a lot of bad things back then. I shot at people, I busted a lot of heads, and I buried a lot of bodies.
"You can try to justify it by saying they deserved it, that they had it coming, but some just got whacked for absolutely no reason at all."
The former mobster, who is still in hiding 30 years after becoming an FBI supergrass, is reminiscing about his life of crime over tacos in a fish restaurant near Los Angeles.
He is back in the spotlight as the 20th anniversary of the release of Martin Scorsese's seminal gangster movie Goodfellas approaches this year.
The film was the story of Hill's wild life in the Mafia and featured an assorted bunch of real life capos, hitmen and psychopaths, most of whom now lie in unmarked shallow graves, or died of old age in prison cells.
By contrast Hill, 67, who was played by a young Ray Liotta, is alive and seems as surprised as anyone that he wasn't himself "whacked". The Mafia has a notoriously long memory for betrayal and the price on his head was reputedly more than £1 million.
When he set up a website only a few years ago it was inundated with so much abuse he established a section called Threat of the Week. A typical winner read: "Regarding your corpse goodbye rat."
While he no longer wears a fake beard in public Hill still does his best not to draw attention. His designer suits are gone and now he's wearing anonymous looking combat trousers, a pink short sleeve shirt, and a cloth cap pulled low over his forehead.
He nervously chain smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, his eyes darting around and clocking anyone who walks in. At the sound of a chair scraping on the floor he instinctively spins around to look.
"There's nobody from my era alive today," Hill says. "But there's always that chance that some young buck wants to make a name for themselves.
"It's surreal, totally surreal, to be here. I never thought I'd reach this wonderful age. I'm just grateful for being alive."
Hill was born to an Irish father and Sicilian mother in New York in 1943 and joined the Lucchese crime family, one of the city's Five Families. He excelled at his chosen profession, hijacking trucks, fixing basketball games, collecting gambling debts, dealing drugs and "breaking heads".
Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguy", details how following the 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK airport, then the largest cash robbery on US soil, he "turned rat" and sent a string of Mafia figures to jail.
It meant Hill had to give up everything he had ever known.
"The money," he laughs ruefully. "The money was ------- unbelievable. We never robbed nothing small or that was not a major score.
"The government said a couple of hundred million dollars went through my hands. But I just blew it on slow horses, women, drugs and rock n' roll.
"We partied five, six nights a week and I was making $15,000 to $40,000 a week. That was just my end. But I was a degenerate gambler. I could lose $40,000 in a week."
Despite the wealth and status his Mafia connections brought Hill says he was constantly on edge as people were killed all around him.
He describes his friends Jimmy "the Gent" Burke, and Tommy DeSimone, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as murdering psychopaths.
"The whole ------- crew were homicidal maniacs," Hill says. "Just about every guy was a cold blooded ------ murderer. It was tough for me. I showed up with them when I had to but I was walking between rain drops. Every day I was scared.
"I never killed nobody – at least not on purpose. I shot at people but we didn't stick around to find out what happened."
Hill doesn't like to talk about the bodies he helped bury but admits there were at least a dozen of them. By 1980 he was in fear of his own life.
He says: "I knew I was going to get whacked and it came pretty close. So it was either me or them. I knew it, and they knew it. Initially, I had a lot of remorse and it took me a long time to forgive myself for what I did, for being a rat. But I knew I saved a lot of lives by putting a lot of horrible people away. You live by the sword, you die by the sword."
Those he put away included Burke, a ruthless villain believed to have been involved in at least 50 murders. His name was changed to Jimmy Conway in the film for legal reasons.
Hill coached De Niro on how to play Jimmy and the actor, legendary for his attention to detail, was on the phone five or six times a day during filming.
"He would call and ask 'How would Jimmy hold a cigarette? How would Jimmy hold a shot glass? I thought that was kind of weird at the time but he did a great job," said Hill. He even taught De Niro the correct technique for pistol whipping a victim.
Goodfellas ends with Hill going into the government's witness protection programme. A final scene has him standing outside a modest house, saying: "Now I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." Hill explains that, in reality, he was unable to fully break with the past and kept in contact with people back home. Details of his location leaked, and the Mob nearly got to him again.
He was moved 10 times to areas including Nebraska and Kentucky, living under aliases such as Martin Lewis and Peter Haines.
In 1987 he was arrested on drugs charges and he was released from witness protection in the early 1990s, re-assuming his own name.
These days he is a reformed character - most of the time. Last year he was arrested for a drunken scuffle at a hotel in Illinois. He still goes to Las Vegas every six weeks to gamble but he's no longer a high roller. While he used to throw away hundred dollar bills at the craps table, now he just plays the slots.
At home he spends a lot of time painting, which acts as a catharsis. A typical scene shows a man being shot and falling off a building. Ever the entrepreneur, he sells his work on eBay, and also uses the internet to market his own spaghetti sauce.
He still likes watching Goodfellas, which he describes as "95 per cent accurate," and speaks with genuine warmth about Liotta, who he saw just a month ago.
Hill is less enamoured with Hollywood executives and claims that, while he made $550,000 from Goodfellas, he is still owed millions of dollars.
He is still in contact with the FBI and delivers occasional talks at which he tells "knucklehead kids" to stay on the straight and narrow.
His message to any aspiring young hoodlums among them is simple.
"Forget about it. Stay in school."



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