|Was||Restorer Painter Restaurateur Mobster Criminal Gangster Drug trafficker|
|From||United States of America|
|Type||Arts Business Crime|
|Birth||11 June 1943, Brooklyn, USA|
|Death||12 June 2012, Los Angeles, USA (aged 69 years)|
Henry Hill Jr. (June 11, 1943 – June 12, 2012) was an American mobster who was associated with the Lucchese crime family of New York City between 1955 and 1980. In 1980, Hill was arrested on narcotics charges and became an FBI informant. He testified against his former mafia associates, resulting in 50 convictions, including those of caporegime (captain) Paul Vario and James Burke on multiple charges. He had entered the Witness Protection Program in 1980, but was removed from the program in the early 1990s.
Hill's life story was documented in the true crime book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi, which was subsequently adapted by Martin Scorsese into the critically acclaimed film Goodfellas in 1990. Hill was portrayed by Ray Liotta in the film.
Henry Hill Jr. was born on June 11, 1943, in Manhattan, New York to Henry Hill Sr., an immigrant Irish electrician, and Carmela Costa Hill, a Sicilian-American. The working-class family, consisting of Henry and his eight siblings, grew up in Brownsville, a working class neighborhood of Brooklyn. From an early age, Hill admired the local mobsters who socialized at a dispatch cabstand across the street from his home, including Paul Vario, a caporegime in the Lucchese crime family.
In 1955, when Hill was 11 years old, he wandered into the cabstand looking for a part-time after-school job. In his early teens, Hill began running errands for patrons of Vario's storefront shoeshine, pizzeria, and cabstand. He first met the notorious hijacker and Lucchese family associate James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke in 1956. The 13-year-old Hill served drinks and sandwiches at a card game and was dazzled by Burke's openhanded tipping: "He was sawbucking me to death. Twenty here. Twenty there. He wasn't like anyone else I had ever met." Hill was dyslexic.
The following year, Vario's younger brother, Vito "Tuddy" Vario, and older brother, Lenny Vario, presented Hill with a highly sought-after union card in the bricklayers' local. Hill would be a "no show" and put on a building contractor's construction payroll, guaranteeing him a weekly salary of $190 (equivalent to $1,730 in 2019). This didn't mean Hill would be getting or keeping all that money every week, however; he received a portion of it, and the rest was kept and divided among the Varios. The card also allowed Hill to facilitate the pickup of daily policy bets and loan payments to Vario from local construction sites. Once Hill had this "legitimate" job, he dropped out of high school, working exclusively for the Vario gangsters.
Hill's first encounter with arson occurred when a rival cabstand opened just around the corner from Vario's business. The competing company's owner was from Alabama, new to New York City. Sometime after midnight, Tuddy and Hill drove to the rival cabstand with a drum full of gasoline in the back seat of Tuddy's car. Hill smashed the cab windows and filled them with gasoline-soaked newspapers, then tossed in lit match books.
Hill was first arrested when he was 16; his arrest record is one of the few official documents that prove his existence. Hill and Lenny, Vario's equally underage son, attempted to use a stolen credit card to buy snow tires for Tuddy's wife's car. When Hill and Lenny returned to Tuddy's, two police detectives apprehended Hill. During a rough interrogation, Hill gave his name and nothing else; Vario's attorney later facilitated his release on bail. While a suspended sentence resulted, Hill's refusal to talk earned him the respect of both Vario and Burke. Burke, in particular, saw great potential in Hill. Like Burke, he was of Irish ancestry and therefore ineligible to become a "made man". The Vario Crew, however, were happy to have associates of any ethnicity, so long as they made money and refused to cooperate with the authorities.
In June 1960, at around 17 years old, Hill joined the United States Army, serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Hill claimed the timing was deliberate; the FBI investigation into the 1957 Apalachin mob summit meeting had prompted a Senate investigation into organized crime, and its links with businesses and unions. This resulted in the publication of a list of nearly 5,000 names of members and associates of the five major crime families. Hill searched through a partial list but could not find Vario listed among the Lucchese family.
Throughout his three-year enlistment, Hill maintained his mob contacts. He also continued to hustle: in charge of kitchen detail, he sold surplus food, loan sharked pay advances to fellow soldiers, and sold tax-free cigarettes. Before his discharge, Hill spent two months in the stockade for stealing a local sheriff's car, and brawling in a bar with a civilian and Marines. In 1963, Hill returned to New York and began the most notorious phase of his criminal career: arson, intimidation, running an organized stolen car ring, and hijacking trucks.
In 1965, Hill met his future wife, Karen Friedman, through Paul Vario, who insisted that Hill accompany him on a double date at Frank "Frankie the Wop" Manzo's restaurant, Villa Capra. According to Friedman, the date was disastrous, and Hill stood her up at the next dinner date. Afterward, the two began going on dates at the Copacabana and other nightclubs, where Friedman was introduced to Hill's outwardly impressive lifestyle. The two later got married in a large North Carolina wedding, attended by most of Hill's gangster friends. In 1994, Hill, in his book Gangsters and Goodfellas, stated that Tommy DeSimone tried to rape Karen.
Air France robbery
Robert McMahon received notice that between $400,000 and $700,000 would be delivered on Friday, April 7, 1967. He said the best time for the actual robbery would be just before midnight, when the security guard would be on his meal break.
On the day of the robbery, Hill and Tommy DeSimone drove to the Air France cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport with an empty suitcase, the largest Hill could find. At 11:40 p.m, they entered the Air France cargo terminal. McMahon said that they should just walk in, as people often came to the terminal to pick up lost baggage. DeSimone and Hill entered the unsecured area unchallenged. They unlocked the door with the duplicate key. Using a small flashlight, they found seven of the bags, which they loaded into the suitcase and left; $420,000 was taken. No alarm was raised, no shots fired, and no one was injured. The theft was not discovered until the following Monday, when a Wells Fargo truck arrived to pick up the cash to be delivered to the French American Banking Corporation.
Hill believed it was the Air France robbery that endeared him to the Mafia.
Restaurant ownership and murder of William "Billy Batts" Bentvena
Hill used his share of the robbery proceeds to purchase a restaurant on Queens Boulevard, The Suite, initially aiming to run it as a legitimate business and provide "distance" between himself and his mob associates. However, within several months, the nightclub had become another mob hangout. Hill later said that members of Lucchese and Gambino crews moved into the club en masse, including high-ranking Gambino family members who "were always there".
After William "Billy Batts" Bentvena was released from prison in 1970, in the book Wiseguy, Hill said that they threw a "welcome home" party for Bentvena at Robert's Lounge, which was owned by Jimmy Burke. Hill stated that Bentvena saw Tommy DeSimone and jokingly asked him if he still shined shoes and DeSimone perceived it as an insult. DeSimone leaned over to Hill and Burke and said "I'm gonna kill that fuck." Two weeks later, on June 11, 1970, Bentvena was at The Suite, a nightclub owned by Hill in Jamaica, Queens. Late in the night, with the bar club nearly empty, DeSimone pistol-whipped Bentvena. Hill said that before DeSimone started to beat Bentvena, DeSimone yelled, "Shine these fucking shoes!".
After Bentvena was beaten and presumed killed, DeSimone, Burke, and Hill placed his body in the trunk of Hill's car for transport. They stopped at DeSimone's mother's house to get a shovel and lime. They started to hear sounds from the trunk, and when they realized that Bentvena was still alive, DeSimone and Burke stopped the car and beat him to death with the shovel and a tire iron. Burke had a friend who owned a dog kennel in Upstate New York, and Bentvena was buried there.
About three months after Bentvena's murder, Burke's friend sold the dog kennel to housing developers, and Burke ordered Hill and DeSimone to exhume Bentvena's corpse and dispose of it elsewhere. In Wiseguy, Hill said the body was eventually crushed in a mechanical compactor at a New Jersey junkyard, which was owned by Clyde Brooks. However, on the commentary for the film Goodfellas, he states that Bentvena's body was buried in the basement of Robert's Lounge, a bar and restaurant owned by Burke, and only later was put into the car crusher.
In November 1972, Burke and Hill were arrested for beating Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida. Ciaccio allegedly owed a large gambling debt to their friend, union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg. He was imprisoned with Vario, who was serving a sentence for tax evasion, and several Gotti crew members. In Lewisburg, Hill met a man from Pittsburgh who, for a fee, taught Hill how to smuggle drugs into the prison. On July 12, 1978, Hill was paroled after four years and resumed his criminal career. Hill began trafficking in drugs, and Burke was soon involved with this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family, with whom they were associated, did not authorize any of its members to deal drugs. This Lucchese ban was enacted because the prison sentences imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking were so lengthy that the accused would often become informants in exchange for a lesser sentence. This is exactly what Hill eventually did, becoming an informant against Burke after several years selling drugs.
Hill began wholesaling marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and quaaludes based on connections he made in prison; he earned enormous amounts of money. A young kid who was a "mule" of Hill's "ratted" Hill out to Narcotics Detectives Daniel Mann and William Broder. "The Youngster" (so named by the detectives) informed them that the supplier [Henry Hill] was connected to the Lucchese crime family and was a close friend to Paul Vario and to Jimmy Burke and "had probably been in on the Lufthansa robbery". Knowing who Hill was and what he did, they put surveillance on him, taking pictures. They found out that Hill's old prison friend from Pittsburgh ran a dog-grooming salon as a front. Mann and Broder had "thousands" of wiretaps of Hill. But Hill and his crew used coded language in the conversations. Hill's wiretap on March 29 is an example of the bizarre vocabulary:
Pittsburgh Connection: You know the golf club and the dogs you gave me in return?
Pittsburgh Connection: Can you still do that?
Hill: Same kind of golf clubs?
Pittsburgh Connection: No. No golf clubs. Can you still give me the dogs if I can pay for the golf clubs?
Hill: Yeah. Sure.
[portion of conversation omitted]
Pittsburgh Connection: You front me the shampoo and I'll front you the dog pills. ... what time tomorrow?
Hill: Anytime after twelve.
Pittsburgh Connection: You won't hold my lady friend up?
Pittsburgh Connection: Somebody will just exchange dogs.
The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5.875 million (equivalent to $23 million in 2019) was stolen from the German airline Lufthansa, with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, making it the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time. The plot had begun when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Hill Lufthansa flew in currency to its cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport; Jimmy Burke set the plan in motion, although Hill did not directly take part in the heist.
Hill and two Pittsburgh gamblers set up the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scheme by convincing Boston College center Rick Kuhn to participate. Kuhn, who was a high school friend of one of the gamblers, encouraged teammates to participate in the scheme.
Hill also claimed to have an NBA referee in his pocket who worked games at Madison Square Garden during the 1970s. The referee had incurred gambling debts on horse races.
In 1980, Hill was arrested on a narcotics-trafficking charge. He became convinced that his former associates planned to have him killed: Vario, for dealing drugs; and Burke, to prevent Hill from implicating him in the Lufthansa Heist. Hill heard on a wiretap that his associates Angelo Sepe and Anthony Stabile were anxious to have him killed, and that they were telling Burke that Hill "is no good", and that he "is a junkie". Burke told them "not to worry about it". Hill was more convinced by a surveillance tape played to him by federal investigators, in which Burke tells Vario of their need to have Hill "whacked."
When Hill was finally released on bail, Burke told Hill they should meet at a bar, which Hill had never heard of or seen before, owned by "Charlie the Jap.” However, Hill never met Burke there; instead they met at Burke's sweatshop with Karen and asked for the address in Florida where Hill was to kill Bobby Germaine's son with Anthony Stabile. Hill knew he would be murdered if he went to Florida.
Head of the Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, Edward McDonald arrested Hill as a material witness in the Lufthansa robbery. With a long sentence hanging over him, Hill agreed to become an informant and signed an agreement with the Strike Force on May 27, 1980.
Informant and the witness protection program
Hill testified against his former associates to avoid impending prosecution and being murdered by his crew. His testimony led to 50 convictions. Hill, his wife Karen, and their two children (Gregg and Gina) entered the U.S. Marshals' Witness Protection Program in 1980, changed their names, and moved to undisclosed locations in Omaha, Nebraska; Independence, Kentucky; Redmond, Washington; Sarasota, Florida; and Seattle, Washington.
Jimmy Burke was given 12 years in prison for the 1978–79 Boston College point shaving scandal, involving fixing Boston College basketball games. Burke was also later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of scam artist Richard Eaton. Burke died of cancer while serving his life sentence, on April 13, 1996, at the age of 64.
Paul Vario received four years for helping Henry Hill obtain a no-show job to get him paroled from prison. Vario was also later sentenced to ten years in prison for the extortion of air freight companies at JFK Airport. He died of respiratory failure on November 22, 1988, at age 73 while incarcerated in the FCI Federal Prison in Fort Worth.
Hill's subsequent arrests and divorce
Hill was arrested in 2001 on narcotics-related charges in Seattle, where he was living in the Wedgwood neighborhood under the name of Alex Canclini. In 1990, his wife Karen had filed for divorce after 23 years of marriage. The divorce was finalized in 2002. Due to his numerous crimes while in witness protection, Hill (along with his wife) was expelled from the program in the early 1990s.
After his 2001 arrest, Hill claimed to be clean until he was arrested again in North Platte, Nebraska, in August 2004. Hill had left his luggage at Lee Bird Field Airport in North Platte, Nebraska, containing drug paraphernalia, glass tubes with cocaine and methamphetamine residue. In September 2005, he was sentenced to 180 days imprisonment for attempted methamphetamine possession. Hill was sentenced to four years of probation on March 26. On December 14, 2009, he was arrested in Fairview Heights, Illinois, for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, which Hill attributed to his drinking problems.
In his later years, Hill lived in Topanga Canyon, approximately four miles from Malibu, California, with his fiancée, Lisa Caserta. Both appeared in several documentaries and made public appearances on various media programs including The Howard Stern Show.
Goodfellas, the 1990 Martin Scorsese-directed crime film adaptation of the 1985 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, follows the 1955 to 1980 rise and fall of Hill and his Lucchese crime family associates. Hill was portrayed by Ray Liotta. Scorsese initially named the film Wise Guy but subsequently, with Pileggi's agreement, changed the name to Goodfellas to avoid confusion with the unrelated television crime drama Wiseguy. Two weeks in advance of the filming, Hill was paid $480,000. Robert De Niro, who portrayed Jimmy Burke, often called Hill several times a day to ask how Burke walked, held his cigarette, and so on. Driving to and from the set, Liotta listened to FBI audio cassette tapes of Hill, so he could practice speaking like his real-life counterpart. The cast did not meet Hill until a few weeks before the film's premiere. Liotta met him in an undisclosed city; Hill had seen the film and told the actor that he loved it.
Other media appearances and activity
The 1990 film My Blue Heaven was based on Hill's life, with the screenplay written by Pileggi's wife Nora Ephron.
The 2001 TV film The Big Heist was based on the Lufthansa heist, and Hill was portrayed by Nick Sandow.
In 2004, Hill was interviewed by Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes. July 24, 2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of the release of Goodfellas. This milestone was celebrated with a private screening hosted by Hill for a select group of invitees at the Museum of the American Gangster. On June 8, 2011, a show about Hill's life aired on the National Geographic Channel's Locked up Abroad.
In 2006, Hill and Ray Liotta appeared in a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly. At Liotta's urging, Hill entered alcohol rehabilitation two days after the session shoot.
In reference to his many victims, Hill stated in an interview in March 2008, with BBC's Heather Alexander: "I don't give a heck what those people think; I'm doing the right thing now", addressing the reporter's question about how his victims might think of his commercialization of his story through self-written books and advising on Goodfellas.
In 2008, Hill was featured in episode three of the crime documentary series The Irish Mob. In the episode, Hill recounts his life of crime, as well as his close relationship with Jimmy Burke and the illegal activity the two engaged in together. A large portion of the segment focuses on Burke's and Hill's involvements in the famous Lufthansa Heist.
In August 2011, Hill appeared in the special "Mob Week" on AMC; he and other former mob members talked about The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other such mob films.
In 2014, the ESPN-produced 30 for 30 series debuted Playing for the Mob, the story about how Hill and his Pittsburgh associates, and several Boston College basketball players, committed the point shaving scandal during the 1978–79 season, an episode briefly mentioned in the movie. The documentary, narrated by Liotta, was set up so that the viewer needed to watch the film beforehand, to understand many of the references in the story.
In October 2002, Hill published The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As a Goodfella To Cooking On the Run. In it, Hill shared some stories throughout his childhood, life in the mob, and running from the law. He also presents recipes he learned from his family, during his years in the mob, and some that he came up with himself. For example, Hill claimed his last meal the day he was busted for drugs consisted of rolled veal cutlets, sauce with pork butt, veal shanks, ziti, and green beans with olive oil and garlic.
In 2012, Henry Hill collaborated with the author, Daniel Simone, in writing and developing a non-fiction book titled, The Lufthansa Heist, a portrayal of the famous 1978 Lufthansa Airline robbery at Kennedy Airport. The book was published in August 2015.
Other books by Hill include:
- Hill, Henry; Bryon Schreckengost (2003). A Goodfella's Guide to New York: Your Personal Tour Through the Mob's Notorious Haunts, Hair-Raising Crime Scenes, and Infamous Hot Spots. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-7615-1538-0.
- Hill, Henry; Gus Russo (2004). Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run. M. Evans and Company, Inc. ISBN 1-56731-757-X.
Hill worked for a time as a chef at an Italian restaurant in North Platte, Nebraska, and his spaghetti sauce, Sunday Gravy, was marketed over the internet. Hill opened another restaurant, Wiseguys, in West Haven, Connecticut, in October 2007, which closed the following month after a fire.
Hill died of complications related to heart disease in a Los Angeles hospital, on June 12, 2012, after a long battle with his illness, a day after his 69th birthday. His girlfriend for the last six years of his life, Lisa Caserta, said, "He had been sick for a long time. ... his heart gave out". CBS News aired Caserta's report of Hill's death, during which she stated: "he went out pretty peacefully, for a goodfella." She said Hill had recently suffered a heart attack before his death and died of complications after a long history of heart problems associated with smoking. Hill's family was present when he died.
Ray Liotta, who portrayed Hill in Goodfellas, stated on Hill's death: "Although I played Henry Hill in the movie Goodfellas, I only met him a few short times so I can't say I knew him but I do know he lived a complicated life." Hill was cremated the day after his death.