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US man denies part in 'Goodfellas' robbery

Alleged gangster among five arrested over 1978 cash and jewellery theft at New York airport made famous by film.

Last updated: 24 Jan 2014 11:00
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An alleged New York gangster has pleaded not guilty after being arrested over a 1978 cash and jewellery robbery from JFK airport immortalised in Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas.

Vincent Asaro, 78, reputedly a senior member of the notorious Bonanno crime family, was among five suspects arrested by FBI agents in separate early morning raids on Thursday in New York.

"These 'goodfellas' thought they had a licence to steal, a licence to kill, and a licence to do whatever they wanted," George Venizelos, FBI assistant director in charge, said.

During a nine-minute appearance in a US federal court, Asaro pleaded not guilty to extortion, murder and violence charges that US prosecutors say spanned a 45-year career in crime.

He was also charged with the 1969 murder of Paul Katz, a presumed informant who was strangled with a dog chain and whose body parts were discovered in a New York basement in June.

Asaro, who had triple bypass surgery in March, faces life in prison if convicted.

He stood slightly stooped, his hair swept back and casually dressed in a sweater as he entered his not-guilty plea before the packed courtroom in Brooklyn.

Detained until notice

US magistrate Judge Marilyn Go ordered Asaro detained until further notice. Asaro's lawyer pledged to apply for bail but US prosecutors call him a flight risk.

"Prosecutors say neither age nor time has diminished Vincent Asaro's ruthless ways," Al Jazeera's Kristen Saloomey, reporting from New York, said.

"The [prosecutors] have assembled a long list of charges against him - from murder to extortion - some allegedly carried out in recent months."

In the biggest robbery on US soil, armed gangsters stole $5m in cash and nearly $1m in jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at New York's JFK airport on December 11, 1978.

The value of the booty today is estimated at around $20m.

The theft became legendary after its alleged mastermind James Burke - also known as Jimmy the Gent - killed off members of the crew to avoid being shopped to the police.

US officials say Asaro, Burke and their co-conspirators each expected to receive approximately $750,000 in cash and large quantities of gold jewelry after the robbery.

Scorsese immortalised the criminal feat in his Oscar-winning 1990 film Goodfellas, long considered one of the best crime films of all time.

Burke, who died of cancer in prison in 1996, was the inspiration for Robert De Niro's character Jimmy Conway in the film.

Asaro appeared alongside his son Jerome, 55, who sported a blue hoodie and shaved head, John Ragano, 52, and Jack Bonventre, 45.

The other three men face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted. They have not been named in connection with the 1978 JFK airport robbery.

Court appearance

A fifth defendant, 70-year-old Thomas Di Fiore, who was previously the highest-ranking member of the Bonanno family to be out of jail, was due to appear in court on Friday.

The charges against the older Asaro date from January 1968 to June 2013.

Asaro is accused of strangling Katz with Burke because they suspected he was cooperating with investigators. They buried his body under a cement basement floor of an empty home.

In the mid-1980s, Asaro allegedly ordered Jerome and another individual to dig up Katz's body and move it to avoid detection by investigators.

Almost 35 years later, the FBI recovered a right hand and wrist, hair, teeth, clothing and human tissue identified by DNA as belonging to Katz from the Burke family home in Queens.

A detailed 63-page detention memo lists the charges as racketeering, acts of murder, robbery, extortion, arson, illegal gambling, loan-sharking and assault.

Prosecutors also accuse Asaro of soliciting the murder of a cousin in the early 1980s until the would-be victim escaped to Florida on a tip-off.

He and his son are charged with participating in additional armed robberies, including about $1m in gold salts.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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