Henry Hill, mobster whose story inspired ‘GoodFellas,’ dies at 69

Henry Hill, a hard-bitten mafioso who became a star witness in the prosecution of several top New York mob figures and whose criminal exploits were glamorized in the 1990 film “GoodFellas,” died June 12 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 69.

His longtime girlfriend, Lisa Caserta, told the Associated Press that he had complications from a heart ailment.

Since age 11, Mr. Hill had thrived in the lawless environs of mafia-run New York, rising to become a trusted “wiseguy” in the Lucchese crime family.

For more than 25 years, Mr. Hill served under the stewardship of mob boss Paul Vario and worked closely with James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. In the name of the Lucchese family, Mr. Hill said he helped engineer a point-shaving scheme involving the Boston College basketball team and he took part in a spectacular heist worth $6 million in cash and jewels from a Lufthansa cargo facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Despite his numerous transgressions, Mr. Hill was adamant that he never committed murder. But he did bury in shallow graves the corpses of the mob’s enemies — more than a dozen of them.


Henry Hill sits in the dining room of the Firefly restaurant in North Platte, Neb., in February 2005 with a portrait of actor Ray Liotta portraying Hill in the movie "Goodfellas" hanging on the wall behind him. (NATI HARNIK/AP)

In 1980, his role in a vast narcotics trafficking operation led to his downfall. Sitting in the Nassau County Jail in New York, he faced a possible lifetime prison sentence unless he cooperated with the authorities.

He decided to talk.

To his onetime mafia colleagues, Mr. Hill was a turncoat with a price on his head. To the Justice Department prosectors who sent such miscreants to prison, Mr. Hill was a prized asset requiring vigilant protection.

He helped secure many convictions, and his testimony led to prison sentences for Vario, his former mentor, and Burke, his closest confidant.

He entered the federal witness protection program and lived in Nebraska, Kentucky and Washington state.

­­He also sold his life story to Simon & Schuster for nearly $100,000. The 1985 book, “Wiseguy,” by New York crime journalist Nicholas Pileggi, became a bestseller.

“The hardest thing for me was leaving the life I was running away from,” Mr. Hill said in the book. “Even at the end, with all the threats I was getting and all the time I was facing behind the wall, I still loved the life.”

Pileggi’s book became the basis of the celebrated 1990 mobster movie, starring Ray Liotta as Mr. Hill and Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as fellow hoods.

Working with director Martin Scorsese, Pileggi helped write the script for the film, tentatively called “Wiseguy.”

The Warner Bros. studio, however, disapproved of the name; a television show already had the same title.

Pileggi told NPR in 2011 that he asked Mr. Hill to help fix the problem.

“What else did they call you?” Pileggi asked.

The veteran gangster replied: “GoodFellas.”

Henry Hill was born June 11, 1943, in the Brownsville-East New York area of Brooklyn. He was of Irish and Sicilian descent. His father was a union electrician with a quick temper.

Partly out of spite, but mostly out of awe, Mr. Hill ingratiated himself with the bulky men in pinstripe suits who used to hang around a cab stand near his home.

“At the age of twelve my ambition was to be a gangster. To be a wiseguy,” Mr. Hill said in the book. “To me being a wiseguy was better than being president of the United States. It meant power among people who had no power. It meant perks in a working-class neighborhood that had no privileges. To be a wiseguy was to own the world.”

Under witness protection, he was arrested at least six times on various charges, including burglary and attempted possession of methamphetamine. He eventually left the program and assumed his old identity.

His marriage to Karen Hill ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors could not be determined.

The state of New York attempted to recover some of Mr. Hill’s earnings from Simon & Schuster through the “Son of Sam” law, which prohibited criminals from profiting from their notoriety. The publisher took the state to court on First Amendment grounds.

The case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Simon & Schuster and struck down the law. The victory brought Mr. Hill money he was owed.

Mr. Hill’s life in the mafia had made him millions, but he lost it all to “slow horses, women, drugs and rock and roll.”

To earn extra money, he sold “GoodFellas” mugs and aprons on his Web site. The Web page also listed his top 10 ways to get rid of a body.

No. 7 was “Cement Boots,” which he called “a classic.”

No. 1 on the list was a technique he knew from experience would do the trick: “Bury at least 4 feet under, cover the body with lime to quickly dissolve the remains and hide the stench.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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