Who’s Here: Daniel Simone, Author

Who’s Here: Daniel Simone, Author

Amagansett resident Daniel Simone has spent the last five years researching and writing the account of a very famous robbery, known as The Lufthansa Heist, in which $6 million was stolen from an airport warehouse cargo building owned by that airline at JFK Airport in 1979.

The heist was accomplished by six armed men wearing ski masks in the middle of the night at that facility, the money was never found, and how they went about it and what happened that night was told to Simone by one of those involved with the heist, a man named Henry Hill, who Simone partnered with in writing this book. Henry Hill is immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster film, Goodfellas. In this movie, Ray Liotta portrays Hill. Interestingly, Alec Baldwin had auditioned for this role, but the part ultimately went to Liotta. Among other things, the man who masterminded this robbery, Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, an associate of the mafia at the time, subsequently arranged for the killing of 13 people involved in the heist—including wives and friends—in order to keep people’s mouths shut. The $6 million has never been found. And no one has been convicted of the crime, except a Lufthansa shipping agent, Louis Werner, who was the insider who provided vital information to the robbers.

The book, called The Lufthansa Heist, came out last week, published by Rowman & Littlefield, who has paid a large advance to Simone for his work and who, for the occasion of its publication has arranged for “a promotional table” space on every Barnes & Noble bookstore in America for the month of August. You are going to hear about this book. My wife started reading an advance copy yesterday, just to get a taste of it. I asked if I could read it. She says she wants to finish it first.

I interviewed Simone at the home where he lives near Further Lane with his wife Brenda. He was born and spent the first six years of his life in Bari, a small port town on the Adriatic Coast of Italy. At age six, his parents brought him to America. Simone’s father was a barber. He was a barber in Bari and after a severe recession occurred in Italy, he emigrated to New York City and was a barber here.

“My father’s shop was on Seventh Avenue,” Simone told me. “This was across from the Ed Sullivan Theater. And so he would come home and tell stories about cutting the hair of Mitch Miller, Frankie Valli, Alan King, William B. Williams, Larry Storch and Jackie Mason. On Saturdays, when I was a boy, he’d take me to the barbershop to brush off the customers. I remember Alan King was a big tipper. He always gave me a silver dollar tip.”

The Simones settled in an apartment in Flushing, Queens. Simone was an only child. Raised in this Italian-American household and knowing he was born in Italy, Simone always thought of himself as an Italian.

When he was about 15 years old and in high school, the Vietnam War started up. He didn’t worry about being drafted though. He was Italian. Or so he thought. When at age 18 his number came up for the draft, he was surprised so went to the draft board and told them he was not an American citizen. They told him he was in fact a citizen.

“The law was that if my mother became a citizen before I was 14, then I was automatically a citizen too. I knew she had done that. But nobody told me that made me an American. Well it did.”

Simone could have become a fulltime soldier, but another option was to stay in school and join the reserves. He thus joined the Air Naval Reserve at Floyd Bennett Field where he was trained for six months to become an aircraft mechanic on the aircraft carrier Intrepid. He then remained in the reserves for five years, reporting several times a year for weekend service. Meanwhile, he went off to Farmingdale University and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace and Aircraft Engineering.

“I worked at Grumman in Bethpage for a while on some of the later Apollo lunar modules that landed the Astronauts on the moon surface,” he said. He had mastered the technique of Electron Beam Welding, which was then innovative. It is a highly efficient method of fusing two metals with dissimilar properties by using a beam of high-velocity electrons. This facilitated the welding of certain components of the lunar modules that were made of exotic alloys such as titanium.

He was, and still is, a voracious reader. And after his attendance at Farmingdale, and the brief stint at Grumman, he became fascinated with the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Nelson DeMille, and the early works of John Grisham. He was particularly enamored with Truman Capote’s technique involving what Capote called “narrative nonfiction.” So he continued his education at Long Island University Brooklyn campus where he got a second Bachelor’s Degree, this one in English Literature. A semester of law courses followed at St. Johns University in Queens, NY. He thought all things being equal, he would like to make a living as a writer.

Meanwhile, however, Simone had to deal with the present. He left home then and took a job with Boeing. His formal training in aerodynamics and hydraulics qualified him for this position. Boeing was looking for a troubleshooter who could be dispatched to airports around the world to diagnose mechanical malfunctions of airliners made by Boeing that couldn’t be resolved by the airline mechanics alone. He spent two years based in Seattle, getting further training and working domestically. Then he was posted to JFK Airport so he could be available for flights to the Caribbean and Europe troubleshooting Boeing aircrafts. This was a dream job. Simone did this for 10 years.

“I was single. I loved it. I would be housed in the hotels where the airline pilots and stewardesses stayed. We were in Barbados, in Paris, Amsterdam, the Bahamas. We’d hang out in the hotel bars. I’d date the stewardesses. I was the guy who had to approve repairs on the planes. Nothing took off until I gave the okay. What this meant, or might have meant, was that a crew could spend two or three more days lounging on a warm beach. What a job.”

Simone told me he’d been married three times, the first two times to airline stewardesses, and even the last time, to Brenda, his wife of seven years, who also was a stewardess.

In the interim, he became the father of two boys. He took an apartment on the Upper West Side for a while, left Boeing and went into business for himself becoming, in the 1990s, a real estate speculator, buying land and building luxury homes. He moved to Fort Meyers, Florida for a while, and developed a shopping center and a 55-unit motel. Then he returned to Long Island where he built several houses in the Baxter Estates, adjacent to Sands Point, and several out east, most notably in the Bell Estate in Amagansett. Seeing this beautiful place, he thought he would like to settle out east. This is where he could write.

Simone began to devote himself fully to writing. He wrote for magazines, wrote a column for Pulse called “Between the Lines” where he interviewed authors such as Nelson DeMille, Tom Clavin, Amy Bloom, Walter Mosley, and John Irving, then embarked on writing a book.

It was not the Lufthansa book, however, and in the end, after three years of work between 2003 and 2006, it crashed and burned.

“I felt ready to write a full-length book. My idea was to write true stories in the form of a novel, where I could dramatize scenes, much in the way Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I also decided that I should be able to write such a story by interviewing the people involved and by collaborating with one of them. I chose as my subject Martin Tankleff. As a 17-year-old, he was convicted in 1988 of murdering his parents. It was a sensational story because he was raised in very well to do circumstances in Port Jefferson. He spent 17 years in jail. After exhaustively reinvestigating Tankleff’s case, I came to the conclusion he had been wrongly convicted. And in the end, I was right.”

Simone’s collaborator was Jay Salpeter, a Private Investigator who had worked on the case and who now would help Simone find out the facts. Salpeter also collaborated with Bruce Barkett, the attorney for Tankleff. In 2004, Simone began to write. And then, just as Simone was finishing his book, Andrew Cuomo, who was then State Attorney General, ordered the case reopened. He thought there had been a terrible mistake.

“This was now 17 years later. Tankleff was now in his 30s, and he told Salpeter—who was practically responsible for having the murder conviction against Tankleff dismissed—that he didn’t want to let us use his name in our book.”

“We were astonished,” Simone said. “We had just assumed he would want this. Why wouldn’t he? The book was dead.”

Simone was undeterred. He now thought he should try writing about something more nationally well known. The Lufthansa Heist fit that bill. It involved the mafia, which was in his neighborhood when he was a boy, and it involved JFK, which was still in the news about this famous heist five years after it happened, when Simone first went to work there for Boeing.

Simone also knew who would be the perfect collaborator. His name was Henry Hill, a former mafia associate (he and Jimmy Burke could not be formally inducted into the Mafia because they were not of Italian heritage, hence they were merely associates), who after having been busted for drug dealing, turned informant and agreed to tell what he knew about Lufthansa. He wore a wire. He allowed a microphone to be secreted in his car, in his house. In the end, after telling all he knew, he was sponsored by the FBI into the Witness Protection Program so the Mafia would not kill him.

“After that, though, he was expelled from the Witness Protection,” Simone told me. “He might have been the only person ever to have that happen to him. He was in there with his wife and kids, but he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. In his new identity he’d host a barbeque with neighbors and tell them all about what his previous life of criminalities. After the second time, the FBI said ‘Henry, you’re on your own.’ Henry did an amazing thing. On his own, with his own money and using his real name, he went on tour around the country talking to students in high schools and colleges and warning them not to go down the wrong path as he did. And nobody shot him. He died peacefully three years ago at the age of 68.”

Simone told me a remarkable story about Hill.

“With his wire and microphone recording his conversations with some of the underworld people Hill talked to frequently, he kept making reference to the ‘the Big Irishman in Albany.’ At the time, the Governor of New York was Hugh Carey, and the media had dubbed him “the Big Irishman in Albany.”

“The State Investigators became excited at the prospect of ensnaring and prosecuting a governor. Governor Carey was apparently in on this Lufthansa Heist! Without checking further, the District Attorney eagerly offered Hill immunity in exchange for him to identify his cohorts in the narcotics operation. They signed an agreement. Hill would tell all he knew. The District Attorney would drop the state charges against him. And so, the first thing the investigators did when they began debriefing Hill was to ask him who was “the Big Irishman in Albany.”

“‘Who?’

“He’s on your wire. The Big Irishman in Albany.”

“That’s Jimmy Burke.”

“It wasn’t Governor Carey?!”

“What about the Governor?”

“You mean to tell us that the governor is not the Big Irishman?!”

“The Investigators tried to get the agreement rescinded. A judge refused. It stayed.” Simone said.

“But you said he went to jail,” I said.

“He did years earlier. For extortion. He had been imprisoned in a federal penitentiary for five years.”

The Lufthansa Heist came about because a guy from Long Island named Lewis Werner owed his bookmaker $22,000 for bets he lost. He didn’t have the money. The bookie he owed it to was Marty Krugman, an associate of Henry Hill who told Werner to straighten out his debt, or else he’d call in the goons and break his legs.

Werner didn’t know what to do. He had a full-time job but it didn’t pay much. He was the supervisor of the shipping clerks in the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK. And then he got an idea. He could settle this debt big time. He told Krugman he could show them a way to get $5 million dollars out of a vault room in the warehouse where he worked. If he showed him this plan, and Krugman liked it, then he would want the debt forgiven.

The plan he showed was detailed and amazing. On Friday, every week, a plane arrived from Germany filled with millions of dollars in small untraceable bills, all from the American Express Travelers Cheques used by Americans in Europe that week. It would pull up to the Lufthansa cargo building in the afternoon. The money would be taken in canvas bags into the ‘high-value vault.’ Werner would sign it in. He’d lock it up with a key and a sophisticated alarm system. Then, later that afternoon, a Brinks truck would arrive, and he’d sign out the money to Brinks who would take the money to American Express.

Lewis Werner assured Krugman he would make himself unavailable to sign out this money when the Brinks truck arrived. After waiting around, maybe even until 5 p.m., the Brinks people would leave and they’d come back on Monday for the cash. That left the weekend. It left a whole weekend to make the heist happen with men in ski masks carrying guns, raiding the place. Best time to do it would be Sunday morning at 3 a.m. when the night manager supervisor with the key to the high-value vault could be overpowered. That’s how it would happen.

Marty Krugman, the bookie, told Henry Hill, that he had this plan that couldn’t miss. Hill said he didn’t want to know any details of it. But he was certain that Jimmy “the Gent” Burke, would be very interested in it. That was Hill’s entire connection to this whole thing. He put Marty Krugman in touch with Jimmy “the Gent” Burke.

The Heist went off just as Lewis Werner said it would. There were minor glitches. Nobody got hurt. Everyone was in ski masks, the money, $5 million together with $1 million worth of jewelry, was loaded into a black van, and driven off to a warehouse owned by John Gotti in Maspeth, Queens. There, a white Toyota was waiting. Everything was taken from the black van to the white Toyota. With that done, the van was to be driven to an auto wrecking yard in Queens where, before dawn, people would be waiting to flatten the van.

That went badly. The job of driving the van to the wrecking yard was given to a guy named Stacks Edwards. Stacks saw no reason to go straight there. First, he decided to go to his girlfriend’s house in Brooklyn. It was 5 a.m. Filled with excitement and anticipation, he parked in front of a fire hydrant, went upstairs to his beloved, and in the morning was still fast asleep in his girlfriend’s bed when the cops came and saw that the black van matched the description of the van used in the heist and furthermore, there were black ski masks on the front seat. They took fingerprints. They matched those of Stacks Edwards, who had a record. But by the time they did all that, Stacks was dead, having been shot three times in the back of his head by the Mafia.

And so, quietly, the shootings began. Burke engineered them all. And the investigators never got any further than the fire hydrant. In the end, when Hill offered to tell what he knew to keep from going to jail for 30 years on drug charges, it was all a big nothing. Hill knew John Gotti got $200,000 for the use of his warehouse. He knew that Paul Vario, the head of the Lucchese Family, got a half million dollar tribute, and he knew that Marty Krugman got shot in the head for demanding to be paid $500,000 for thinking it all up. Other than that he knew nothing. He did not know how the 11 other people got shot. All he did know was what he read in the papers.

There is one other interesting aspect to this story. Although Jim “the Gent” Burke organized this heist and did all the subsequent killing, he also eventually got put away. But it was not because of the Lufthansa Heist. Burke was convicted in a basketball scandal. Burke and Hill had arranged to pay three Boston College basketball stars to make sure that the Boston Eagles either didn’t win or won by so little it was under the spread.

“At one point,” Simone told me, “when the bookies on the East Coast were suspecting something was going on, Burke and Hill gave $250,000 in cash to a driver and sent him to Las Vegas, with instructions to place the bets with the Vegas unwitting bookies and wager on the low probability that Boston would not meet the spread.

“So the driver goes to Las Vegas, and when he gets there he calls Hill with bad news. He said he was delayed getting there. The game is already underway. Posting time is over. He can’t make the bets. He’d come back to New York now and return the $250,000 to Jimmy the Gent.

“What the driver did, of course, was place the bets in his own name. He’d won five times that and nobody would ever know. But when he got back, Burke had him on the hit list.”

I asked Simone what he was now working on.

“In 1972, eight armed bandits took, under siege, the Pierre Hotel in New York City late at night on New Year’s Eve, rounded up the staff and held everybody hostage while they ransacked the hotel’s safe deposit boxes. They got away with $28 million. One of the bandits, who’s currently in the Witness Protection Program for an unrelated matter, is still alive and I am collaborating with him.”

The kids are grown. One is 24 and living in Florida, the other is 21 and living in San Francisco. Brenda Simone now owns and runs an Allstate Insurance Agency. The couple summers in Amagansett and winters in Port Washington.

And Dan gets to do what he loves.

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