The Lufthansa heist, a daring and ambitious robbery, took place on December 11, 1978 at JFK International Airport in New York City. It was one of the largest cash heists in American history, with thieves making off with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, a total of $24.4 million in today’s dollars.
Despite being a well-planned operation, the mastermind behind the crime, Jimmy Burke, a notorious associate of the Lucchese crime family, was never officially charged. However, allegations suggest that Burke may have ordered the murder of many of the participants to cover his tracks. The only person who faced consequences was Louis Werner, an airport worker who was involved in the planning. Sadly, the stolen loot was never recovered and the investigation, which spanned several decades, resulted in only one arrest, in 2014, which ultimately ended in acquittal. The Lufthansa heist remains one of the most intriguing and elusive unsolved crimes in US history.
The mastermind behind the legendary Lufthansa heist was rumored to be Jimmy Burke, a member of the notorious Lucchese crime family. The scheme was put into motion when a bookmaker passed on information to Henry Hill, a Burke associate, that Lufthansa was flying a large sum of money into JFK airport. The tip-off was provided by Louis Werner, an airport worker who owed a substantial amount in gambling debts, and his colleague Peter Gruenwald. The two had previously pulled off a successful theft from Lufthansa in 1976.
Burke handpicked a group of accomplices, including Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Paolo LiCastri, and Robert McMahon, to carry out the heist. Frank Burke, Jimmy’s son, was one of the drivers and Parnell “Stacks” Edwards was in charge of disposing the getaway vehicle. Each participant was promised a cut of the spoils, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, based on their role. However, the actual haul was much larger than expected, and Werner was promised a flat 10% of the take.
On the early hours of Monday, December 11, 1978, a group of six masked men arrived at Lufthansa cargo building 261 in a black Ford Econoline van. They swiftly cut through the padlock with bolt cutters and made their way up the east tower’s stairs, dressed in ski masks and gloves. Meanwhile, a late-model Buick waited in the terminal parking lot, its lights turned off.
As they entered the building, they took senior cargo agent, John Murray, hostage, marching him into the lunchroom where five other employees were taking a break. The hostages were ordered to lie on the floor with their eyes closed, and Murray was questioned about the whereabouts of Rudi Eirich, the night shift cargo traffic manager, and Kerry Whalen, a cargo transfer agent. Murray was then forced to bring Eirich to the lunchroom, where he joined the rest of the captives.
Whalen, on the other hand, spotted two men without masks sitting in a black van parked at the Lufthansa ramp as he drove by. When he approached them, he was told to get in the van, but he ran and screamed for help. Unfortunately, he was pistol-whipped and thrown into the van, joining the other hostages in the lunchroom. Meanwhile, employee Rolf Rebmann, who heard a noise near the loading ramp, went to check and was also captured and brought to the lunchroom.
The robbers then took Eirich at gunpoint to the double-door vault, where they made off with 72 cartons of untraceable money, loaded into the van. At 4:21 a.m., the van and the crash car arrived at the front of the building, and the robbers split into two groups. Two of them climbed into the van, while the rest got into the Buick. The employees were told not to call the police until 4:30 a.m., when the first call was made.
The robbers met Burke at an auto repair shop in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where the boxes of money were transferred to the trunks of two cars. Burke and his son drove off in one car, while Manri, McMahon, DeSimone, and Sepe drove away in the other. This daring heist remains one of the largest cash thefts in American history.
The Lufthansa heist was a notorious robbery that took place in 1978. Parnell “Stacks” Edwards was supposed to dispose of the van used in the heist, but instead parked it in front of his girlfriend’s apartment, where the police found it two days later. This led to Paul Vario ordering DeSimone to kill Edwards. The FBI quickly identified the Burke crew as the likely perpetrators, largely due to Edwards’ connections to the gang and the discovery of the van. The FBI conducted heavy surveillance on the gang, including bugging their vehicles and phones, but the recorded conversations were not enough to definitively connect them to the heist.
Jimmy Burke became paranoid and agitated once he realized how much attention the failed disposal of the van had drawn, and resolved to kill anyone who could implicate him in the heist. With the murders of most of the heist associates and planners, little evidence and few witnesses remained connecting Burke or his crew to the heist. However, authorities were eventually able to gather enough evidence to prosecute Louis Werner, the inside man, for helping to plan the heist. Werner was the only person convicted of the robbery, in 1979, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Later, an informant positively identified one of the robbers as Angelo Sepe, and it was reported that the robbers were well-informed and knew all about the safety systems in the vault. Vincent Asaro, a high-ranking member of the Bonanno crime family, was arrested in 2014 and charged with involvement in the heist, but was acquitted of all charges in 2015. The stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.
The Lufthansa heist remains one of the most intriguing and unsolved crimes in American history. It took place on December 11, 1978 at JFK International Airport in New York City and involved the theft of over $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, worth a total of more than $24 million today. Jimmy Burke, a notorious member of the Lucchese crime family, is believed to be the mastermind behind the crime, however, he was never officially charged. Only Louis Werner, an airport worker involved in the planning, faced any consequences. The stolen loot was never recovered, and despite a decades-long investigation, only one arrest was made, which resulted in acquittal. With the murders of most of the participants, little evidence remains connecting Burke or his crew to the heist, making the Lufthansa heist one of the most elusive unsolved crimes in US history.