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Monday, October 19, 2015

Turncoat Bonanno underboss testifies at trial of captain accused in Lufthansa heist

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“Goodfellas” came to life Monday in a Brooklyn courtroom at the trial of an aging Bonanno gangster as prosecutors revisited the “score of all scores” — the infamous 1978 Lufthansa robbery.

They also put the first of several rats on the stand to testify against 80-year-old Vincent Asaro, starting with a former Bonanno underboss and admitted killer named Salvatore Vitale.

But the government’s star witness is mob stick-up man Gaspar Valenti, who could be take the stand as early as Tuesday at Asaro’s racketeering trial.

And like a scene from another famous mob movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II,” Valenti’s hulking son was in the courtroom Monday to stare his 68-year-old father down.

“I’m here for Vinny,” Anthony "Fat Sammy" Valenti, a reputed soldier in the Bonanno crime family, told The Daily News.

Asked about his turncoat father, he said, “I could care less about him.”

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Gerdes told the court Asaro planned the heist at Kennedy Airport with legendary Lucchese mobster James "Jimmy the Gent Burke, who was portrayed in “Goodfellas” by Robert De Niro.

Gerdes said Asaro personally pocketed more than $500,000.

“He knew Burke was someone he could make money with,” Gerdes said. “Jimmy Burke and Vincent Asaro were true partners in crime.”

Asaro was a made man in the Bonanno organized crime family since the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Gerdes said.

“For him, the Mafia was literally the family business,” she said. “The defendant is a gangster through and through.”
In this Dec. 13, 1978, file photo, police cordon off an area around a stolen black van discovered in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Police suspect the van was used by thieves who escaped with more than $6 million in cash and jewels from a John F. Kennedy International Airport hangar.

In the weeks leading up to the robbery, Asaro, Burke and the “robbery team met, they talked, they visited the cargo building to get a lay of the land,” Gerdes said. “On the night of the heist itself, the robbery team brought all the tools they would need — guns, masks, gloves.”

“The defendant and Jimmy Burke waited nearby in a car, ready to act as a crash car if the police happened to stumble upon the crew,” she said.

Gerdes laid out the government’s case against the Asaro ahead of expected testimony from Valenti, who is also the accused mobster’s cousin and will give his account of the robbery immortalized in the Martin Scorsese movie.

Vincent Asaro's trial began on Monday.

New of the Lufthansa heist on Dec. 12, 1978.

Asaro had recruited Valenti as a member of the crew, prosecutors said. But the greedy gangster allegedly kept Valenti’s share.

That cheap move by the old wise guy is now about to haunt him in court. Valenti recorded hundreds of hours of incriminating conversations with Asaro over the years.

Asaro, a once-obscure Bonanno hood, is the latest mobster to be dragged out of the shadows by the crumbling of omertà — the Mafia code of silence by which members of New York’s five Italian crime families lived and died.

Dressed in a gray pullover sweater, Asaro was chewing gum when he came into the courtroom — looking more like a cranky old man than a gangster.

In a nod to his age, the federal marshals agreed to transport Asaro to the courthouse separately from the bus load of other Metropolitan Detention Center prisoners with court date. This was so the oldfella could sleep in a bit longer, sources said.

The spectacular Dec. 11, 1978 Lufthansa robbery, carried out with the inside information provided by crooked airport workers, netted nearly $6 million in cash and jewels.

The robbers clipped a lock on a fence and made their way into the terminal building where they held workers at gunpoint, the prosecutor said.

When they reached the vault: “Jackpot!” Gerdes said. “Boxes upon boxes of money and jewelry. More than they could have ever imagined.”

Asaro plowed his Lufthansa cash into loansharking, but gambled most of it away at the race track, the prosecutor said. He also kicked up $100,000 to the Bonanno family through then-capo Joseph Massino.

Massino, who broke with the mob back in 2011, is expected to tell the jury about getting a piece of the Lufthansa loot.

Burke died of cancer in 1996 while serving a 20-year to life sentence for murder.

When Vitale took the stand, he testified he too only got a pittance from the robbery.

“He was always a big spender,” Vitale cracked, referring to his brother-in-law Massino.

Looking dapper in a navy blue suit and print necktie, Vitale testified that Massino gifted him with a single gold necklace from the briefcase brimming with baubles stolen in the robbery that Asaro gave him to take to a fence on Canal St.

“This is from the Lufthansa score,” Massino said, according to Vitale.

As for Asaro, Vitale told the court he was often a hothead at mafia sitdowns.

“You're supposed to be respectful to people across the table,” Vitale said. “Vinny gets hostile."

Vincent Asaro (l.) and Judge Allyne Ross look on as prosecutor Lindsay Gerdes (r.) makes opening statements in Asaro's trial in this court sketch on Monday.

Vitale also identified a list of mobsters who were proposed for induction into the Bonanno family, a list that included Fat Sammy.

As Vitale testified, Asaro glared at him and appeared to be muttering the F-word under his breath. At one point he complained the court stenographer was blocking his view of the witness.

In a sign of how times have changed, Vitale was asked by a prosecutor to describe what a “pre-cell phone” phone book looks like. Among the names in the yellowing pages of Vitale’s phone book were “Tommy Shot” and “Vinny Green from Las Vegas.”

Vitale, who made his ninth appearance as a government witness, also lamented his life in witness protection and said it was impossible to find legit work, suggesting he’d applied for jobs at Target and Walgreens.

Scenes from the movie " Goodfellas " shot at Neir's Tavern in Woodside, Queens.

"Who's going to hire someone in his 60s who has a Social Security card that was just issued and sounds like a wise guy from Brooklyn?" Vitale said. "I've been turned down by every company."

When Vitale revealed he was given a $250,000 payment from the feds for being a whistleblower, Asaro shook his head.

Living in witness protection is "one lie after another until you find solid ground,” Vitale said. “If I had to do it again, I would have kept it real and gone to jail.”

Judge Allyne Ross ruled earlier that prosecutors cannot tell the jury about the bloodbath that followed the robbery because Burke was responsible for whacking a half-dozen members of the crew, not Asaro.

But every single anonymous juror who filled out a questionnaire for the trial acknowledged they have seen “Goodfellas,” during which a half-dozen accomplices are found whacked while the Derek and The Dominos masterpiece “Layla” plays in the background.

Handcuffed James Burke "Jimmy the Gent" taken to Federal Court.

Asaro is also charged with the murder of a suspected snitch in 1969, extortion, and arson.

In her opening statement, defense attorney Diane Ferrone dismissed the witnesses against Asaro as a bunch of murderers and liars.

Ferrone called Valenti a con artist who became a paid government informant in the late 2000s and agreed to wear a wire to record his conversations with Asaro.

“You shouldn’t believe him because his latest con victim is the United State government,” Ferrone said.

As for Valenti and other government witnesses, Ferrone said, “When necessary, they lie to each other and they lie to save themselves. ... Once a liar, always a liar.”



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