James Burke (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), also known as "Jimmy the Gent", was an Irish American gangster and Lucchese crime family associate who is believed to have organized the 1978 Lufthansa heist, at the time the largest cash robbery in American history, and is also alleged to have either committed or ordered the murders of many of those involved in the months following the robbery.
Following the testimony of Henry Hill, Burke was convicted in 1982, of conspiracy charges related to his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was also convicted of murder while in prison, and was sentenced to a further 20 years in prison. He died of cancer at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, eight years before he would have become eligible for parole.
Burke inspired the character Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, one of the main characters of the 1990 film Goodfellas, played by Robert De Niro.
At the age of two, Burke was placed in a foster home, and was exposed to violence and sexual abuse while being in the care of dozens of foster parents. At the age of 13, an altercation with his latest foster parents while riding in a car resulted in a crash and the death of his foster father.
In 1962, Burke married Mickey, but discovered that she was being bothered by an ex-boyfriend. On Burke and Mickey's wedding day, police found the ex-boyfriend's remains. He had been cut into more than a dozen pieces and tossed all over the inside of his car. He is the father of Lufthansa heist aide Frank James Burke, who was murdered by drug dealer Tito Ortiz in 1987, Jesse James Burke, and Catherine Burke (who married Bonanno crime family member Anthony Indelicato).
Burke was of Irish descent and, because he was not Italian, he was not eligible to become a made man. He was an associate and had one made name as friend and associate, Paul Vario. During the 1950s, Burke was involved with various illegal activities, such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor.
Burke was a mentor to Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and Angelo Sepe, all of whom were young men during the 1960s. They performed jobs for Burke, such as selling stolen merchandise. They eventually became part of Jimmy's crew and were based in South Ozone Park, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn. The pair helped Burke with the hijacking of delivery trucks. According to Hill, Burke would take the drivers' licenses and would usually give fifty dollars to the drivers of the trucks that they stole, as if he were tipping them for the inconvenience, which resulted in his nickname "Jimmy the Gent."
Corrupt law enforcement officers bribed by Burke would tell him about any potential witnesses or informants. Burke told Henry Hill that bribing cops was like feeding elephants at the zoo: "All you need is peanuts." Hill said about Burke: "Jimmy could plant [bury] you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn't matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert."
Burke owned a tavern in South Ozone Park, Queens named Robert's Lounge. It was a favorite venue of Burke and his crew, and many other assorted criminals. Henry Hill claimed that the tavern was also Burke's private cemetery, and more than a dozen people were buried in and around it. Burke managed a loan sharking and bookmaking operation that was based at the tavern, and high-stakes poker games in the basement, of which he would receive a percentage. When Burke had a problem collecting money that he was owed, and the unfortunate debtor had children, he would pick up the child in his huge arm, open the refrigerator with the other, and say, "If you don't do whatcha supposed to, I'm gonna lock your kid inside the fuckin' refrigerator." Burke also owned a dress factory in South Ozone Park, Queens, named Moo Moo Vedda's, which kept him supplied with "laundered" money.
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. Burke was paroled after six years and resumed his criminal career, as did Hill, who was released about two years prior. 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 Henry Hill eventually did, becoming an informant against Burke after several years selling drugs.
Burke is alleged to have committed a number of murders, but no victims were ever named. He supposedly killed nine people after the Lufthansa Heist. Jimmy's crew were responsible for a large number of murders. Henry Hill said in an interview "60-70 murders that I know of, there have been more..." He did, however, order the murder of Dominick "Remo" Cersani, who became an informant and was going to set up Burke in a cigarette hijack. Burke became suspicious about Cersani and later found out from one of his friends in the Queens, New York DA's office that Cersani was talking to the New York City Police Department and that they were going to arrest Burke on a truck hijacking charge. Remo was killed within a week. Tommy DeSimone strangled Remo with a piano wire.
Murder of William "Billy Batts" Bentvena
After William "Billy Batts" Bentvena was released from prison in 1970, in the book Wiseguy, Henry Hill said that they threw a "welcome home" party for Bentvena at Robert's Lounge, which was owned by 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.
The Lufthansa heist was planned by Burke, and carried out by several associates. The plot began when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Burke's associate Henry Hill that Lufthansa flew in currency to its cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The information had originally come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 for gambling debts (equivalent to $84,000 in 2019) and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald.
Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Paolo LiCastri and Robert McMahon as the robbers. Burke's son Frank would drive one of the back up vehicles and Parnell "Stacks" Edwards' job was to dispose of the van afterwards. Depending on their role in the robbery, each participant was to receive $10,000 to $50,000. However, those amounts were based on the estimated haul, which was only $2 million compared to the actual take of $5.875 million. Werner was to receive a flat 10% of the take.
On December 11, 1978, an estimated $5.875 million (equivalent to $23 million in 2019) was stolen, with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, making it the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time.
Burke is also alleged to have either committed or ordered the murders of many of those involved in the months following the robbery to avoid his implication in the heist, the first of which was Edwards, on December 18, after he failed to get rid of the van which had been used in the heist. Burke was never implicated or charged in the robbery, and the stolen cash and jewelry were never recovered.
Boston College point shaving scandal
In 1980, Burke was arrested for a parole violation. In 1982, Burke was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 12 years in prison for his involvement with the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal, based primarily on the testimony of former mob associate Henry Hill. Hill's testimony in federal court resulted in a total of fifty convictions in this and other cases, including those of Burke and their boss, capo Paul Vario. While in prison, Hill also testified that Burke had murdered drug dealer Richard Eaton in 1979, and was sentenced to a further 20 years in prison in 1985.
Burke was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed cancer. He died on April 13, 1996, while being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Had he lived, he would have been eligible for parole on March 11, 2004. Burke was buried at Saint Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale, New York.
In popular culture
Burke was played by John Mahoney in the 1991 television film The 10 Million Dollar Getaway, which details the events of the Lufthansa Heist. Donald Sutherland also portrayed Burke for the 2001 television film The Big Heist.
During October 2014, Burke's involvement in the Boston College Point Shaving Scandal was discussed in the ESPN 30 for 30 episode "Playing for the Mob." Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas, is the narrator of the documentary.
In 2015, author Robert Sberna self-published the book The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist with collaborator Dominick Cicale, a former member of the Bonanno crime family. According to Cicale, between $2 million and $4 million of the Lufthansa loot was stashed in a safe deposit box by Jimmy Burke. The keys were given to his daughters, Cathy and Robin. Cicale reported that Cathy Burke's husband Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, a Bonanno capo, gained access to the box with Vincent Basciano, also a Bonanno capo. Cicale said that Basciano spent $250,000 of the money on a film that was never produced. The remainder was lost at casinos by Basciano.