Brutal details of New York Mafia life recalled in 'Goodfellas' heist trial
The man in the black track suit spoke in a voice as deep and gravelly as the pits where the bodies were buried.
He recounted a life of crime, from small-time hustling for neighborhood mobsters to the big stuff: hijackings, murders, beatings and drug trafficking.
From the witness stand in a Brooklyn courtroom, Peter "Bud" Zuccaro was at ease recalling the brutal details, like the time someone raised a hand to Fat Andy's wife and was never seen again, or the time he blew off the head of an attack dog chewing on his arm.
If it sounds like a Hollywood movie, that's because it is: Martin Scorsese's 1990 "Goodfellas," which told the story of the 1978 Lufthansa heist and its bloody aftermath. Nearly 40 years later, Vincent Asaro is on trial on charges that he helped plan the robbery, which netted a record $6 million in cash and jewelry, and that he was a heavy in the Bonanno organized crime family when it held sway on the mob-infested streets of Queens and Brooklyn.
When they unsealed the indictment against Asaro last year, federal prosecutors described him as a onetime Bonanno family captain who used his power to extort money, to stage major heists and to kill those who crossed him, including a man strangled with a dog collar for being a suspected snitch.
Asaro, who has pleaded not guilty, could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
The Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport was the "score of scores," assistant U.S. Atty. Lindsay Gerdes said in her opening statements on Oct. 19, describing Asaro as a "gangster through and through" who lived for money, power and the Mafia.
But times have changed for the old-time capos, captains, skippers and soldiers of the Cosa Nostra, who in Asaro's trial have come across more as whiny old men than wiseguys, griping on secret recordings about gambling debts and the lack of respect from the younger generation.
"I lost my son when I made him a skipper," Asaro, now 80, was heard grousing on a 2012 recording, referring to his son Jerry's promotion in the mob. In an obscenity-laced rant, Asaro went on to disparage his son, now in prison, as greedy, lazy and nowhere near the tough guy that his dad is.
"I feel like killing everybody," Asaro, in a particularly bad mood, snarled at one point on another 2012 recording.
As the recordings played in the courtroom, Asaro sat at the defense table looking more professorial than predatory in a gray V-neck sweater, button-down shirt, glasses and combed-back gray hair. But signs of temper flared as witnesses testified for the prosecution.
They included Asaro's cousin, Gaspare Valenti, who started wearing a wire in November 2008 after gambling away his take of the Lufthansa loot and other illegally acquired funds. Destitute, the 68-year-old Valenti testified that he struck a deal with the FBI to become an informant for $3,000 a month.
During Valenti's testimony, Asaro furiously scribbled notes on yellow Post-its and handed them to members of his defense team. He whispered loudly to his lawyers and at one point shook his head back and forth and mouthed "not true."
Asaro appeared so enraged that Judge Allyne R. Ross later warned him that his demeanor could affect the jury. "It's not in your best interest to draw attention to yourself," she said after jurors had been dismissed for the day.
Valenti violated the Cosa Nostra's code of silence and loyalty. So did Zuccaro, now 60, who began cooperating with the FBI five years before Valenti.
Both men's reasons for turning underscored the hardships of life in organized crime, where one misstep can turn a man into a pariah with a target on his back.
Zuccaro, who was associated first with the Bonanno family and later the Gambinos, described planning his first hit. He didn't know the man, who was ordered killed after calling a Bonanno family member a cornuto, or cuckold.
"It's probably one of the worst insults you can call an Italian — an Italian man, anyway," Zuccaro said. He "clocked" the target — studying his schedule and figuring out when he would come home — and then watched from across the street as another gangster shot him dead outside his house.
His victims weren't limited to human beings. Zuccaro testified that he once shot dead an attack dog that turned on him when he entered his Queens auto repair shop, in which Asaro also had a business interest. Zuccaro was in disguise after having just committed a robbery and said he suspected the dog did not recognize him.
Later that night, Zuccaro testified that Asaro showed up at his home with some fellow thugs, enraged over the dog's death and insisting that it was not Zuccaro's dog to kill.
"I paid for half the dog," said Zuccaro, who testified that he turned to his boss in the Bonanno family to settle the dispute.
Valenti and Zuccaro testified that over the years, they gambled away whatever money they had collected from hijackings, drugs, extortion and other crooked activities. Both admitted to a litany of crimes.
Asaro's defense attorneys say their client is being framed by turncoats who hope to get leniency in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.
Valenti and Zuccaro insisted that wasn't their chief reason for testifying. Rather, they said, they were tired after decades of crime — so tired that Zuccaro wasn't interested when the Gambino family invited him into its fold 15 years ago.
"A lot of years of watching what was going on, a lot of years of ups and downs," Zuccaro said. "I didn't need it."
Not long after that, facing a possible 20 years in prison on drug charges, he broke the first rule of the mob and became an informant.
"Loyalty is A Number 1," he said. "The family comes first, before your own family."
Asked about the other rules, Zuccaro said: "You gotta be a good earner. And a killer."
Zuccaro said he was both.
Mafia turncoat: ‘Goodfellas’ were livid after I killed guard dog
By Selim Algar
Killing mobsters who got out of line was routine for these “Goodfellas” gangsters — but dogs enjoyed a status more like “made” men, and whacking one could get your own ticket punched, a Gambino goon told jurors Wednesday.
Mafia enforcer turned canary Peter Zuccaro, testifying in the trial of Vincent Asaro for the $6 million 1978 Lufthansa heist, said the Bonanno wiseguy showed up to his home with three menacing pals — all featured prominently in the 1990 Martin Scorsese flick — because he’d killed a guard dog that attacked him.
Asaro brought with him a criminal All-Star team including characters immortalized by Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in the film, Zuccaro testified Wednesday.
The trained attack dog guarded an auto body shop owned by Zuccaro’s friend, he told jurors, but it didn’t recognize him because he was wearing a disguise after another robbery.
“The dog zeroed in on me, jumped over the desk, didn’t recognize me and started chewing my arm,” he said. “I shot him in the head.”
Enraged by the mutt slay, Asaro brought his “Goodfellas” pals to confront him. “He showed up at my house that night with Jimmy Burke, Tommy DeSimone, Stacks Edwards, Frankie Burke [Jimmy’s son], and started threatening me,” Zuccaro testified.
The dispute grew so heated that then capo and future Bonanno family boss Joey Massino called sitdown to hear both sides of the canine controversy. He ordered them to settle the beef peacefully.
Zuccaro, who famously blamed former Gambino boss John Gotti’s extravagance for the mob’s eventual downfall, also told jurors that he gabbed about the Lufthansa heist with Frankie Burke soon after the score.
“He stole the van,” Zuccaro recalled. “He drove the van and went and did the robbery. He told me Gaspare Valenti was there in Vinny’s capacity.”
In prior testimony, Valenti, Asaro’s turncoat cousin, told jurors that he and his relative both took part in the theft of more than $6 million in cash and jewels from Kennedy Airport. Asaro involved his cousin, Zuccaro said, to increase his cut of the loot.
Asaro, 80, the first person ever brought to trial for the Dec. 11, 1978 Lufthansa job, faces life in prison if convicted for that and a raft of mob crimes, including the 1969 killing of a suspected rat.
Trial highlights struggles of aging wise guys
By Lorenzo Ferrigno and Ray Sanchez CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) —In 2008, a lifelong Mafia associate picked up the phone and dialed a random number at the FBI in New York.
"I'd like to cooperate," Gaspare Valenti, now 68, recalled saying on the phone to a woman named Nora. She happened to head a federal law enforcement squad investigating the Bonanno crime family.
"I have remorse in me and need ways to support my family," Valenti said in the call.
For the next five years, Valenti arranged to receive about $3,000 a month to record conversations, including some with his first cousin, Vincent Asaro, an alleged Bonanno family captain.
The recordings were critical in bringing federal charges, more than 30 years after the crime, against five alleged Bonanno crime family members in the infamous Lufthansa heist that helped inspire part of the 1990 film "Goodfellas."The hours of wire and telephone recordings have been played in Asaro's federal trial in Brooklyn on a string of charges that include murder, racketeering and the 1978 airport heist.
With the tapes, prosecutors have sought to portray Asaro, 80, as an aging and broke wise guy, insecure of his position within the family and nostalgic for the days when an illegal and lucrative ecosystem controlled large swaths of New York with a degree of impunity.
Asaro's plight highlights the struggles of many aging wise guys, desperate to eke out a living while trying to remain relevant in a rapidly changing underworld, according to experts.
"It's no longer like it used to be," said Anthony DeStefano, a journalist who has covered organized crime for more than three decades and wrote "Gangland New York: The Places and Faces of Mob History."
"Somebody once told me the best job category you could have now is to be a government witness. ... You get some security from jail. You get some money. And you may get relocated and get a new life altogether."
'Down but not out'
Government crackdowns have thinned the Mafia ranks in recent decades.
Major arrests and convictions in the 1980s and 1990s crippled the mob. If they didn't get whacked first, top bosses faced multiple prosecutions and long prison terms. Among the big names to take perp walks over the years were John Gotti, Joseph Massino and Vincent Gigante.
The prosecutions "made a significant dent in the mob activity," said Kelly Langmesser, an FBI spokeswoman in New York. "The mob can be down, but not out. They always keep coming back."
Former Gambino family boss Gotti died of cancer in federal prison in 2002 while serving a life sentence for murder and racketeering. Gotti became the godfather of the Gambino family in 1985 and, shortly after, survived three criminal cases on charges ranging from assault to racketeering, before the feds finally convicted him of five murders in 1992.The testimony of a former friend and Gambino hitman, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, helped bring Gotti down.
Massino, a member of the Bonanno family, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and received two life sentences in 2005 after pleading guilty to involvement in eight mob murders. He later testified against multiple mob bosses.
Vincent Gigante, a boss in the Genovese crime family, died in prison in 2005 after his 1997 conviction for several crimes including racketeering and conspiring to murder in aid of racketeering.
"They're either dead like Gotti, or they turned government witness like Joe Massino, or they're in prison," DeStefano said.
'The old-time stuff' is gone
For those who remain on the street, the old-time rackets began to shrink.
"I'm not saying the mob can't do anything or can't hurt you," DeStefano said. "But the big rackets have been sort of tied up by the feds and the police. They don't exist. The big labor racketeering rackets, the big concrete syndicates, the big garment industry rackets don't exist anymore. You have local businesses, like the restaurants, maybe an auto body shop, that could be muscled by the mob. That's where it still works. But the old-time stuff, forget it."
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, some FBI squad personnel were shifted from organized crime to Asian and Russian syndicates. Counterterrorism and cybercrime units were created and beefed up with agents who previously worked in the organized crime division, Langmesser said.
"Even though our priorities changed after September 11 and more ethnic crime groups grew in the city ... our arrest records show that we are still making cases against them," Langmesser said.
In 2011, for instance, the FBI arrested 120 mobsters, she said.
No mob retirement plan
Valenti was one former mobster who apparently found some security as -- in the vernacular of the mob -- a rat.
Back when he rolled with Mafia big shots, Valenti testified in federal district court, he was at John F. Kennedy Airport one night 37 years ago during the Lufthansa heist.
Valenti admitted to cutting open a gate so a van could pass through and enable associates to steal more than $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry, according to testimony.
At the time of Valenti's call to the FBI, no charges had been filed against anyone for what was then the biggest heist in American history.
Like many aging mobsters, Valenti was broke. The mob has no retirement plan. He had spent years borrowing money, gambling it away and rarely paying it back. Now, he had a new baby girl to support.
"They are basically living sort of scheme to scheme," DeStefano said of the old mobsters.
'We did it to ourselves'
The recordings played at Asaro's trial picked up multiple instances in which the defendant and Valenti speak about earning money and then gambling away large sums.
"What a shame. Look what we came down to," Valenti told Asaro in one recorded conversation.
"It's life. We did it to ourselves," Asaro replied. "It's a curse with this f*****g gambling."
A few months later, Asaro told Valenti that he had just played Texas Hold 'em poker for the first time and was happy with his wins.
"I won $200. $280, the pot was, uh, $280 -- I had to pay $80, I had to buy in again."
The cousins reminisced about a card game years earlier when Asaro won a $37,000 pot.
"Those were the games, man. That's when money was loose," Valenti said.
"I gave the kid a thousand-dollar tip that night," Asaro said. "We used to play that at John's club, $1,000 a hand." Valenti testified that the reference was to Gotti.
Michael Franzese, who describes himself as a former boss with the Colombo organized crime family, called Asaro "a dinosaur," part of a legion of "made guys" who were not real earners in their day and were now forced to scrounge around for scores.
"Things you were able to make money on aren't available anymore," Franzese told CNN. "They don't have the same unions. There aren't the same card games and runners. Neighborhoods have dried up with a lot of the Italian dominance we once had."
'They're gonna take my badge away'
In the taped conversations, Asaro appears to reveal his insecurity with his place in the family ranks. In September 2011, he told Valenti he was worried about his "badge," or status, being knocked down because he had lashed out against associates.
"They're gonna throw me outta the place ... they're gonna take my badge away, you're gonna see. It's gonna happen. I know it's gonna happen," Asaro said.
"Cause I had a big beef last week," he continued. "Screaming at them. 'I want my f*****g money.' I'm broke, I'm getting like a f*****g animal. Two wise guys -- I know they're gonna be talking."
In November 2011, the cousins spoke about a New York boss who was killed in Canada. Asaro suggested to Valenti that he might be losing power and influence.
"I don't know what the f**k is going on in Canada. I don't even know what's going on in Ozone Park," Asaro told Valenti.
On cross-examination, Valenti told Asaro attorney Elizabeth Macedonio he had met with "six or seven" FBI agents "more than 150 times" since he began cooperating.
Asaro, a tattoo of the Mafia mantra "Death before dishonor" tucked beneath his shirt, sat in court and gasped in disbelief.
"More than 150?" he repeated to himself, shaking his head.
Asaro's lawyers have said the government's case against him is built on the testimony of criminals who cut deals with the prosecution.
In opening statements, Asaro attorney Diane Ferrone called the government's witnesses "criminal cooperators" with a motive to lie. She noted Valenti's history of borrowing money he couldn't pay back and accused him of cooperating "to make a buck. ... His latest con victim is the U.S. government."
Many old-line gangsters remain adrift and unmoored from the old life, "a life that doesn't exist anymore," said DeStefano, the mob expert.