A Planned Book About a Heist and 13 Whacks

“Kennedy Airport was the answer to all our problems. Money, I got it at Kennedy Airport. If a fur coat would pacify the wife because she found out about the mistress, I got it at Kennedy Airport. If our girlfriends were gettin’ impatient about wanting a color TV, we went to Kennedy. When the cigarette supply dried up, we’d go to Kennedy and rob a truckload of cartons. The airport was our private bank. But when it all came crashing down, my wardrobe turned from a walk-in closet of silk suits to a cardboard box of cheap jeans and two-dollar T-shirts,” said Henry Hill.

At the end of Hill’s criminal career, everyone privy to his predicament, himself included, would’ve wagered that nothing short of a miracle could’ve prevented his murder.

Hill, a seventh-grade dropout mystified by the expensively garbed, swaggering gangsters that roamed his Brooklyn neighborhood, endeared himself to Lucchese Mafia Family Lieutenant Paul Vario. A comedic type with witty one-liners, Hill nurtured a father-son relationship with the powerful underworld chieftain, who confidently let the eager 13-year-old take charge of menial errands.

Before long, Hill undertook matters of greater importance, such as lucrative felonies—peddling untaxed cigarettes, truck hijackings, loansharking, and bookmaking. But though an incorrigible hoodlum, Hill, good-natured and generous to those in need, wasn’t prone to violence. Ten months ago, Hill and I were collaborating on the manuscript of our upcoming book, The Lufthansa Heist, and during his stay at my Amagansett residence, he reminisced, “I did my best keeping my cohorts from killing one another and harming people that didn’t deserve it. I saved a lot of men from gettin’ whacked.” Hill paused and gazed blankly at the horizon. “It’s ironic. East Hampton was where the federal marshals first relocated me to hide from my enemies.” Nostalgically, he lulled in thought. “And 32 years later, I’m back in the Hamptons to tell you my story.”

In 1978 Hill was the broker of the largest unrecovered cash robbery in history. It was his magnum opus, a $6 million haul that his associates plucked from the Lufthansa cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport, a spectacular crime that fascinated the media. However, fear that someone amongst the robbers might point the authorities to the lead pirate, Jimmy Burke, caused Burke to unleash a slaughter, murdering 13 of his co-conspirators.

Hill had been spared. But months following the Lufthansa ambush, a devastating event crumbled his high life, an arrest for distribution of narcotics that carried 30 years of imprisonment. Hill had betrayed his mentor, Paul Vario, who gravely forbid drug trafficking. Hill’s defiance of Vario’s orders put Hill’s life in jeopardy and that sobering thought drove him to the safe haven of the FBI. Death at his heels, Hill sought shelter in the Witness Protection Program and began his journey to redemption. He emerged as the keystone witness who decapitated the Cosa Nostra by assisting in convicting 46 of its bosses, a triumph that branded him a turncoat equal in infamy to Sammy The Bull Gravano, and Joe Valachi.

Having recounted his services to law enforcement, Hill’s weary eyes seemed to say he’d rather switch to a lighter topic. “After testifying for the prosecutors and puttin’ away the bad guys, Nicholas Pilleggi and I wrote my book titled Wiseguy, the basis of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. You know, Nick lives out here in the Hamptons with his wife—the novelist, Nora Ephron.

“I’m aware of it,” I said.

Hill jabbed the air with his finger and snickered. “By the way, Nora came up with the name ‘Wiseguy.’ I bet you didn’t know that.”

“Actually, I didn’t, Henry.”

Henry Hill, immortalized in the film, Goodfellas, died of natural causes on June12, 2012.

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