The Mafia has been active in America since the 19th century. It reached the peak of its power in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with particular influence in construction, sanitation and transport – all tough manual jobs where the ability of workers to disrupt production was high. At the same time, booming global trade and tourism saw large amounts of money and valuables start to flow through airports, making them tempting targets.
In 1978, airport workers Louis Werner and Peter Gruenwald tipped off mobster Jimmy Burke to money coming in from US soldiers in West Germany, delivered by Lufthansa and transported via JFK airport. As a result, Burke and his gang robbed the Lufthansa terminal at JFK. After assaulting Gruenwald’s colleagues, they stole around $6m-worth of cash and jewellery ($21.8m today).
The heist went smoothly, but the aftermath was anything but. One gangster failed to destroy the getaway van, instead parking it illegally. Another began spending big, alerting the police to the culprits.
Paranoid about being discovered and greedy for a bigger share, Burke turned on his “associates”. By the time he was arrested in 1980, all but three of the original robbers were dead. A number of those involved turned informant, including mobster Henry Hill, whose life inspired Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas (which made $47m at the box office), in which the Lufthansa heist forms part of the plot.
Despite being responsible for the conviction of 50 Mafiosi, and having a reported $1m price on his head, Hill died of natural causes in 2012. The Mafia was broken by police action, helped by anti-racketeering laws.