A Goodfellas Sequel: A True-Life Lufthansa Figure Comes to Court
Rats. Botched burials. A burned-out nightclub. A look at the case against Vincent Asaro, now 76—and the feds’ explosive recordings that are straight out of Scorsese.
Right out of the movie Goodfellas, Vincent Asaro strode into Brooklyn federal court along his with son Jerry and two co-defendants on Thursday afternoon.
In earlier days, the elder Asaro was often seen in the company of James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, the model for Robert DeNiro’s character in the seminal gangster movie and the reputed mastermind of the $6 million Lufthansa robbery in 1978.
Asaro and Burke were co-owners of Robert’s Lounge, model for the hangout in Goodfellas and a “personal cemetery” where a number of gangland victims were said to be buried before their bodies were moved elsewhere.
Fans of Goodfellas who remember the scene where the Joe Pesci character shoots a kid named Spider in the foot for refusing to dance might be interested to know that Asaro is said to be the one who took the real-life victim to as neighborhood doctor afterward.
Burke died of cancer in 1996 while serving a 20-year prison term for murder, but Vincent Asaro had survived to now be charged with participating in the legendary heist at Kennedy Airport. Court papers filed on Thursday cite the lead informant in the case—an Asaro cousin identified only as CW-1—in reporting that each participant was supposed to receive $750,000, but “most did not live to receive their share (either because they were killed first or it was never given to them).”
A recording made by CW-1 suggests that Asaro was hardy satisfied with his own cut of the proceeds.
“We never got the right money, what we was supposed to get, we got f----- all around,” Vincent Asaro complained to the informant. “Got f----- all around. That f------ Jimmy (Burke) kept everything.”
Asaro now has all the more cause to curse his onetime sidekick, as he is also charged with helping Burke strangle a suspected informant named Paul Katz with a dog chain in 1969.
Both Asaros are charged with arson in connection with the torching of a Queens nightclub called Afters, which court papers describe as “a known meeting place of many organized-crime members and associates that was named for ‘after Lufthansa.’’’ The documents further report that the owner of an Italian restaurant across the street “was upset that the new owners of Afters were going to replace it with a social club that catered to African Americans.” The elder Asaro allegedly issued instructions to his son and CW-1.
“V. Asaro directed CW-1 and J. Asaro to burn down the club so that the new business could not open,” the paper says. “CW-1 and J. Asaro purchased gasoline and poured it throughout the inside of the social club. They then took a rubber ball, lit it on fire and threw it through a window to ignite the gasoline.”
The two Asaros are also charged with the robbery of a $1.25 million shipment of gold salts from FedEx in 1984. The elder Asaro is said in court papers to have been promoted to the rank of captain, or “skipper,” in the Bonanno crime family before being sent to prison on charges involving a stolen-car ring. The father appointed his son acting captain to fill in until his return.
But, Bonanno family boss Joe Messina is said by the court papers to have subsequently demoted the elder Asaro to soldier “because he was abusing his leadership position by ‘robbing’ the individuals who reported to him.”
The papers add that Massino promoted the younger Asaro from soldier to full captain, placing him in direct command of his father.
“As of the early 2000s, V. Asaro was reporting to his son,” the papers note.
To add to that insult, Massino subsequently became an informant and wiggled free into the witness protection program, even though he at one point faced the death penalty for a string of gangland murders. The Bonanno family was, in the meantime, so decimated that the elder Asaro allegedly was not only reinstated as a captain, but made a member of the ruling “panel” or “committee.” An Aug. 17, 2012, recording by CW-1 suggests that no promotion was likely to soften the father’s lingering feelings regarding his son.
“Fuck Jerry,” the father says. “Fuck him in his ass. Fucking Jerry is for Jerry. Jerry’s for Jerry… Fucking greedy cocksucker. Greedy cocksucker… I lost my son when I made him an acting skipper.”
Not surprisingly, father and son kept the two co-defendants between them as they all stood before Judge Marilyn Go to be arraigned on various crimes in various combinations stemming from their alleged involvement with the Bonanno family.
The elder Asaro is now 76 and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in March and has to take so many medications that his lawyer had a clear plastic bag of prescription-pill bottles for him to take behind bars. But he stood in his black track suit and sneakers looking like he would still be ready to mix it up if he were back on Jerome Avenue in Queens, where he is said to have recently challenged some goons associated with Gambino crime family.
“When they responded that they would not fight an old man, V. Asaro ripped off his shirt, took off his glasses, put up his hands and stated, in substance and in part, ‘Let’s go,’” court papers say.
An Aug. 27, 2012, recording by CW-1 cited in the court papers lends further insight into Vincent Asaro’s senior years. Asaro speaks of an encounter with a Bonanno associate where “I stuck my finger in his fucking eye, in his eyes” and of a “big beef” with a “jerkoff” where “I hit him in the head with a bottle.” He reports he was at Belmont Park racetrack when “I punched a guy in the face” and in another encounter “I kicked that fucking guy… I kicked him twice.” The victim’s response would have been unthinkable back in the time of Goodfellas.
“He says, I’ll have you arrested,” Asaro recalled on the recording, adding, “You fucking rat.”
So, it was entirely appropriate that the elder Asaro’s attorney proved to be combative in the old-school way at the arraignment.
“Mr. Vincent Asaro vigorously pleads not guilty!” the lawyer, Gerald McMahon, told the judge.
As the proceeding came to the question of bail, McMahon said he had not yet had an opportunity to read the government’s detention memo, which he noted was 63 pages. The document contains real-life scenes and dialogue such as might be found in some sequel to Goodfellas and the book that inspired it, Wise Guy.
In the 1980s, Vincent Asaro allegedly asked his son and CW-1 to move the body of the strangled Katz from the basement grave on Liberty Avenue in Queens. Court papers report, “Together, they packaged the remains and then re-cemented the area.”
On June 17 of last year, the FBI began to dig in that same location. CW-1 recorded the elder Asaro’s reaction.
CW-1: The feds are all over Liberty Avenue.
V. Asaro: Who they looking for?
CW-1: I’m talking about Liberty Avenue where....
Asaro was driving at the time. The papers note that he put the car in park and sighed.
CW-1: You know what I mean?
V. Asaro: No, I don’t know what you mean.
CW-1: What, what should I do?
V. Asaro: What should you do what?
V. Asaro: Nothing, what could you do?
CW-1: All right, well get in touch with me, let me know.
V. Asaro: I’ll see you later… Don’t call me!
CW-1: All right, don’t call you!
The papers say the FBI was watching as CW-1 exited the car and Asaro drove to where a Bonanno associate was parked. Asaro climbed into the passenger seat of that car, which then cruised past the FBI dig on Liberty Avenue and made a U-turn. Asaro got back into his own car and drove to a business frequented by his son. Asaro then headed for a Queens towing business owned by one of his present co-defendants, John “Bazoo” Ragano. The elder Asaro was apparently in a tizzy.
“When V. Asaro attempted to depart in his car, agent observed him drive into a metal pole,” the papers note.
The elder Asaro would likely have been apoplectic and all the more displeased with his son had he known what CW-1 must have told the FBI and thereby prompted the search; the younger Asaro and CW-1 had botched the disinterment.
“FBI agents recovered from a hole in the cement basement floor multiple human bones, including an entire right hand and wrist, hair, teeth, possible soft-tissue fragments, and clothing,” court papers report. “The human remains were positively identified via DNA testing… as those of Paul Katz, and a death certificate was issued for Katz, identifying the cause of death as homicidal violence.”
The result was that the elder Asaro now stands charged with murder and the younger one with being an accessory after the fact. The two are further charged with seeking to arrange the murder of a man in the 1980s who was arrested for reporting his boat stolen, when he had actually stashed it behind his mother’s house. The elder Asaro worried that the boat owner had become an informant. CW-1 tipped off the boat owner, who may have saved himself by moving away.
Vincent Asaro is also charged with joining co-defendants Ragano and Jack Bonventre in seeking to collect on loan-shark debts.
V. Asaro: What’s going on? Any news?
Ragano: When do we stab this guy [the debtor] in the neck? That’s what I want to know.
V. Asaro: Stab him today.
Ragano: When? That’s the problem I want to know.
V. Asaro: Today! Today!
CW-1: Take it easy, what are you stabbing, cockroaches?
Ragano: He’s the worst, this guy… He don’t know when to shut his mouth.
V. Asaro: I told you to give him a fucking beating. Give him a fucking beating, I told you that. Listen, I sent three guys there to give him a beating, already, so it won’t be the first time he got a beating from me.”
In another recording made by CW-1, Vincent Asaro and Ragano discuss their different styles of collecting.
Ragano: I try not to abuse him in the office like Vin does.... You know what I mean.… I bring ‘em in the back room at least....
V. Asaro: Oh I abuse him in the fucking office in front of everybody.
CW-1: Well you’re you, and he’s him. (Laughing)
V. Asaro: How come I get results, understand? I... get results right away.
Ragano: Whatever you want me to do, Vin.
The elder Asaro and Bonventre are charged with running a sports betting operation. CW-1 recorded Bonventre lamenting the problems of getting gamblers to make good on their losses in this post-Goodfellas world.
Bonventre: You can’t put pressure on these people because they run to the law.
Bonventre: They run to the law. And then, you know what, it’s a lot cheaper to fucking, take a fucking hit for a few thousand then it is to pay a fucking lawyer. Because that’s what’s gonna happen. The minute you squeeze ‘em a little bit they run to the law.
Bonventre: They run to the fucking law immediately… What the fuck is there? Everybody runs to the law. Everybody’s a fucking rat. Everybody, they’re fucking horrible.
The fifth co-defendant, Thomas Di Fiore, was likely happy enough that the absence of his lawyer caused him not to be arraigned with the others, the elder Asaro in particular. Vincent Asaro was recorded last summer chattering to CW-1 about Di Fiore.
“We got a new boss, some guy from the Island, Tommy,” Vincent Asaro says.
He then adds, “Don’t say nothing to nobody.”
Vincent Asaro was also recorded telling CW-1 about collecting $30,000 on a loan-shark debt only for Di Fiore to demand half.
V. Asaro: I want to kill this motherfucker… I said,”You’re taking 15?’ ‘Yeah, without me,’ he says, ‘you wouldn’t a got nothing.’”
CW-1: He’s that type of guy?
V. Asaro: Oh he’s a cocksucker. Makes (former Bonanno boss) Joey Massino look like St. Anthony, motherfucker.
Massino, described in the detention memo as CW-2, will almost certainly testify at any trial. The defendants, four of whom have pleaded not guilty, with the fifth expected to do the same on Friday, will also face CW-2 and other witnesses, along with the recordings and forensic evidence.
In the meantime, father and son departed the courtroom without giving each other so much as a glance.
The judge ordered that the elder Asaro be given a medication that he required before evening, the guy right out of Goodfellas now of an age where he has outlived his own era and was among the very last of a kind.
The dangerous had become endangered.
But save your sympathy for the giant pandas.