They came in the darkness before the dawn of Dec. 11, 1978. There were six or seven of them, with ski masks over their heads and guns in their hands, and they knew what was supposed to be in the Lufthansa cargo terminal that morning.
And it was there. The case was in 50s and 100s, in bundles, enough to fill a trunk, as well as maybe $1 million in jewels. The figure police officials announced later was $5.8 million, total, though now sources say the actual amount the men in ski masks made off with that morning was closer to $9 million.
It was apparent almost immediately that it was an inside job. Brinks was to have come three days before, but had been delayed. That much would not be difficult to trace. Then, within hours, police received a major break on the story: an informant gave them the names of four possible suspects. Wiretaps were requested immediately. Boom microphones were lowered. The informant's names, it turned out, put police on the right track.
Yet, as promising as the investigation began, two years later federal authorities have recovered $20,000, and only two men, both of whom had bit parts, have been sentenced. That's it, though that is certainly not to say that Lufthansa has been forgotten.
FBI supervisor Steve Carbone has been permanently assigned to the case. He described it to the New York Times as "a case that won't die." An ironic choice of words. Six people thought to be connected with the case are dead and two more are presumed to be.
It was into this scenario of bodies washing ashore that the case of the Boston College basketball team was introduced this week, with allegations of point-shaving during the 1978-79 season. No one has been charged in the alleged fixing matter.
The Lufthansa holdup began with a man named Peter Gruenawald, who worked in the Lufthansa cargo terminal. Carbone has said it was Gruenawald who first saw the possibilities. Gruenawald was only a bit actor and he knew it. But he knew the way these things worked, and he went to Louis Werner, a Lufthansa agent who plays no lead role himself. But Gruenawald knew Werner was better connected than he and that is the way these things work.
Werner had an idea of the value of the plan, and he went to his bookie and mentioned that he had an idea to sell, if the bookie knew someone who might be interested. Eventually, Werner was promised $300,000, because, of course, the bookie knew someone. He went to another bookie, an acquaintance named Martin Krugman, who was connected to a man on the inside of an organized crime group that police call the Robert's Lounge circle. The man's name is Henry Hill.
U.S. attorneys with the Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn describe Hill as the right hand of Jimmy Burke, ostensibly a dress manufacturer in Brooklyn, now in prison on a parole violation. Robert's Lounge was a tavern next door to Burke's dress factory. Burke and Hill were convicted of extortion together in 1972 in Florida in connection with threats that were made on two men who welched on sizable bets on baseball games.
Both of them, apparently, are associated with a reputed organized crime figure, Paul Vario Sr., who, according to the delineation of the family tree, is a descendant of the Lucchese family, one of five Mafia families who have long controlled New York.
John F. Kennedy International Airport is in Paul Vario's reputed territory, so the FBI speculates that Vario may have received a suitcase of 50s and 100s sometime after Dec. 11, 1978. It was Burke and Hill, though, according to the strike force, who mastermided the holdup at Lufthansa that morning, the largest single robbery in the history of the United States.
Louis Werner had received $80,000 o the $300,000, and paid Gruenawald $10,000 before they were arrested. The federal prosecutors wanted them as witnesses. The rest of the leads in the Lufthansa case were dying fast.
Martin Krugman was the first. He disappeared one month after the holdup. Then Thomas DeSimone, one of the original four whose names police received, disappeared. Another of the original four, Angelo Sepe, had been seen with Anthony Rodriguez a few days before the holdup in a white, late-model Ford. Rodriguez was murdered and Sepe was jailed in connection with a parole violation (charges against Sepe for the Lufthansa holdup were dropped).
Two others, whose faces probably were hidden by ski masks that December morning inside the Lufthansa terminal, Joseph Manri and Robert McMahon, were found in the front seat of a car, bullet holes in the backs of their heads. Paolo Li Castri, also presumably in a ski mask, was found face down on a pile of garbage in Brooklyn, his body riddled with bullets. Richard Eaton who was considered a genius wheeler-dealer, con man and suspected by police of involvement in the laundering of the money, was found in a trailer truck, his body frozen. Still another, Theresa Ferrara, a part owner of a beauty shop on Long Island who was living with an associate of Jimmy Burke's, was identified from X-rays after her dismembered body washed ashore in New Jersey.
Last year, when Henry Hill believed it was down to just him and Jimmy Burke, he turned himself in.
After two years of tracking Lufthansa, Organized Crime Strike Force officials think they know what happened. They believe Vario, Burke and Hill received money. They had no idea where that money was. And they had no case. So it was a break when Hill walked in the door last summer. They have had him in protective custody 24 hours a day since. Neither Vario nor Burke has been charged in the Lufthansa holdup.
There's one problem with Henry Hill, though: he's not likely to be the most credible witness in view of his criminal record.And, with the suspected hierachy of the Lufthansa heist down to Hill and Burke, sources say that the U.S. attorneys with the strike force fear that they may never be able to convict Burke of the Lufthansa crimes.
That's why the alleged fixing of games at Boston College looms so significantly in Brooklyn. Hill has told prosecutors that Burke was behind the reputed fixing, and just as important, that Hill's story can be corroborated by a man from Pittsburgh, Paul Mazzei. Hill has told investigators that Mazzei was the one who began the alleged Boston College fix.
Henry Hill and Paul Mazzei first met in the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. Hill was there for extortion, Mazzei for dealing drugs. When they got out, according to Nassau County authorities, they began operating a drug exchange, swapping heroin for cocaine and Quaaludes. Then Mazzei came to New York with his fixing scheme, according to Hill's story, and Mazzei said he had a player on the Boston College basketball team whom he controlled. As a result of Hill's statement, federal authorities have been investigating the alleged fixes. Two former Boston College players under investigation are Rick Kuhn and Ernie Cobb, the team's leading scorer from Stamford, Conn.
Kuhn was a star athlete in high school in Swissvale, Pa., a small working class town 15 miles outside of Pittsburgh.
Kuhn grew up to be 6-foot-8, and signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds right after finishing high school. Kuhn told people at Boston College later that he had reached the Reds' Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League, the last step before the big leagues, when he hurt his arm and had to give up the game.
The director of the Reds' farm system, Sheldon Bender, says Kuhn was released outright in the spring of 1975, had never hurt his arm that Bender knew of, never got out of Class A ball, and never did throw hard. His signing bonus was $2,500.
According to sources, prosecutors are investigating Hill's claims that five to seven Boston College games were fixed during the 1978-79 season, and that there also were a couple of games in which unsuccessful attempts were made to shave enough points to fix the outcome.
According to sources, prosecutors are investigating Hill's allegations that in at least one game, against Harvard Dec. 16, 1978, just five days after the Lufthansa holdup, his associates spread an extremely large amount of money across the country with bookies. They kept the amount with each bookie small enough so the bookies would not suspect something was up.
The problem for the U.S. attorneys with the Organized Crime Strike Force is that, once again, Hill's testimony alone is probably not credible. They need corroboration. The players might not be enough, because it is doubtful that the players -- even if Hill's allegations are true -- had any contact with Burke during the alleged scheme.
According to sources, Hill has told the prosecutors that only he and Mazzei contacted players. So, prosecutors believe Paul Mazzei is the key. If his testimony supported Hill's, U.S. attorneys might be able to keep Burke in prison, where they have had him for the past six months on a parole violation, and where they want to keep him, in the aftermath of Lufthansa.