James Burke, also known as "Jimmy the Gent", "The Big Irishman", and "The Irish Guinea", (July 5, 1931 New York City, New York – April 13, 1996 Alden, New York), was an Irish-American gangster, criminal mastermind, hitman, contract killer, mass murderer, mob enforcer, loan shark, extortionist, racketeer, businessman, hijacker, drug trafficker, and associate of the Lucchese Crime Family. Burke was a very powerful and well-respected associate of the Lucchese Crime Family. Burke is most famous for masterminding the Lufthansa heist in 1978, which was at the time, the largest robbery in American history. He is the father of small-time mobster and Lufthansa heist suspect, Frankie Burke, Jesse James Burke, Catherine Burke and another unidentified daughter. Catherine married Bonanno crime family member Anthony Indelicato in 1992. Jimmy Conway, a character in the movie Goodfellas played by Robert DeNiro, is based on Burke. For over two decades, Burke was the wealthiest and most powerful Irish gangster in America. He is considered by the FBI to be the most powerful and dangerous Irish gangster of all time. By 1977, Burke became a billionaire, and his extraordinary wealth and power continued to rapidly and endlessly grow to the point where he became one of the richest and most powerful gangsters in America. and by 1978, he built his wealth up to an astonishing extent. He had a staggering net worth of a whopping $2 billion. Over the years, Burke has had cops, judges and politicians in his pocket throughout New York. Although there were a lot of Italian mobsters that were billionaires, and even though there were a lot of Italian mobsters that were wealthier and far more powerful than Burke, he became the first non-Italian that was just as resected if not more respected than a "Made" man or high-ranking members of the American Mafia, such as captains and lieutenants. The Five Families of New York respected and admired Burke and looked at him as an equal to all made men within the American Mafia. Burke has been highly respected by law enforcement for being a criminal genius, and his ingenious abilities to make enormous amounts of money in such small period's of time. Burke has made billions of dollars for the bosses of the Five Families, and has made a lot of high-ranking mobsters such as Captains, Consigliere's and Underbosses billionaires. Burke once gave $10 million to each boss of the Five Families for a christmas present. He was widely feared all over the United States, he has even been incredibly respected as a legend by Italian mobsters and even by Mafia bosses all over the country. He has been described by mobsters all over New York as a "True Gangster".
James Burke was born in Bronx, New York as the illegitimate son to Jane Conway, a prostitute who was an immigrant from Dublin, Ireland. The father of James has never been identified. At age two he was placed in a foster home by his mother, where he spent most of his early years in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns, never to see his birth parents again. He was shuttled around various homes and orphanages, where he suffered physical abuse and sexual abuse at the hands of various foster fathers and foster brothers. When he was 13 years old, Burke's foster father died in a car crash—he lost control of the car when he turned around to hit Burke, who was riding in the back seat. The deceased man's widow, who was in the car as well but survived, blamed Burke for the accident and gave him regular beatings until he was taken back into care.
He was finally adopted by the "Burke" family and he took the family name of Burke during this time. Jimmy lived with them in a large wooden boarding house located on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Ocean Promenade in Rockaway, Queens. His time spent there during the beginning of his adolescence was a time of peace and calm. He remained close to the Burke family and visited his adoptive mother and father each Mother's Day, Christmas and on their birthdays. On a monthly basis he would send them several thousand dollars in an unmarked envelope as appreciation for their attempt at raising him. It is rumored that he buried a portion of the loot from the 1978 Lufthansa heist which he orchestrated and helped carry out, on the site of his childhood foster home. Except for a quarter of the estimated millions taken in the heist the rest of the gold, silver and currency has never been recovered.
As he approached his teens, Burke began to get in trouble with the law and spent considerable time in jail. In 1949, aged eighteen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for forgery. He passed counterfeit checks for Dominick Cersani. Burke did not act as an informant for the authorities and that helped him gain favor amongst his Mafia contemporaries. Behind bars, he mixed with a number of Mafia members and other criminals of all nationalities in New York area.
Burke was a massive man, and had an immense and fearsome presence: very big, burly, tall, and with extremely large, tattooed, muscular arms as result of earlier work as a bricklayer for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, along with a temper to match. His job as a union bricklayer during the New York City construction boom was short-lived, and he gave it up to pursue a life of crime. He stood 6' 5" and weighed over 270 pounds he petrified men due to his monstrous size. He was known to be very polite and charming, but was a stone-cold killer. Said Henry Hill, "He was a big man and knew how to handle himself. He looked like a fighter and a warrior, you could see it in his eyes. He had a broken nose and he had a lot of hands. If there was just the littlest amount of trouble, he'd be all over you in a second. He'd grab a guy's tie and slam his chin into the table before the guy knew he was in a war.... Jimmy had a reputation for being wild. He'd whack anybody in a heartbeat."
"Jimmy the Gent"
It is alleged that Burke committed a number of murders, but no victims were ever named. During the 1950s in addition to other crimes, he was involved in other illegal activity such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor. He married in 1962 and fathered two daughters, one of whom was Catherine Burke and two sons: Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke, (named after the famous outlaw brothers of the Old West). Jesse James suffered from a stutter speech impediment and was widely ignored by Jimmy, and left to play in their home's basement filled with stolen toys. Burke is rumored to have murdered and dismembered an ex-boyfriend of his bride because he was being a nuisance. The police found his body cut up in pieces all over the inside of his car.
Burke was a mentor of Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill and Angelo Sepe, who were all young men in the 1960s. They carried out jobs for Burke, such as selling stolen merchandise. They eventually became part of Jimmy's crew and worked out of South Ozone Park, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn. The pair helped Burke with the hijacking of delivery trucks. According to Hill, Burke would usually give $50 to the drivers of the trucks they stole, as if he were tipping them for the inconvenience, which led to his nickname "Jimmy the Gent".
Corrupt law enforcement officers, bribed by Burke, would tell him about any potential witnesses or informants. As many as 12 or 13 bodies a year would be found tied up, strangled, and shot in the trunks of stolen vehicles abandoned in the parking lots surrounding JFK Airport. Said Henry Hill about Burke: "Jimmy could plant 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."
He owned a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens called Robert's Lounge. It was a favorite hangout of Burke and his crew, and many other mobsters, bookmakers, loan sharks, and other assorted criminals. Burke ran a loan shark and bookmaking operation that was based at the bar, and high stakes poker games in the basement, of which he would receive a cut. Burke also owned a dress factory, also in South Ozone Park, Queens, called Moo Moo Vedda's, which kept him awash in laundered money. While not a Mafia member, Burke had one Mob member as friend and associate, Capo Paul Vario. In 1972, Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill were arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida who allegedly owed a large gambling debt to their friend the union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in federal prison.
Burke was paroled after six years, then went straight back to crime, as did Hill, who got out around the same time. Henry Hill shortly began trafficking in drugs; Burke was soon involved in this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family — with whom they were associated — did not authorize any of its members to deal in drugs. This Lucchese ban was made 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 lighter sentence. This is exactly what Henry Hill would eventually do. It is claimed by some that he was involved in at least 50 murders during his career.
He supposedly killed nine people following the Lufthansa Heist. After Jimmy Breslin had written a disparaging and accusative article on Paul Vario, Burke strangled the journalist almost to death in front of a bar full of witnesses. He ordered the murder of his best friend, Dominick "Remo" Cersani, who became an informant and helped the New York City Police Department (NYPD) arrest Burke on a truck hijacking charge. Burke had Remo's body buried next to the bocce court behind Robert's Lounge. It was said that whenever Burke played bocce there with friends, he would jokingly say "Hey Remo, how're you doing?"
Burke frequently liked to lock his victims, notably the young children of his victims, in refrigerators. When Burke had a problem collecting money he was owed, and the unfortunate debtor had children, he would pick the child up 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".
Much later, Burke allegedly attempted to kidnap and possibly hold to ransom, or kill Henry Hill's wife, Karen, and their two children when he suspected Henry of being an informant. This is what Hill claims, no second source ever backed up the story, and many believe Hill became an informer primarily to save himself from prison.
The Lufthansa Heist
Burke's fame was the result of the Lufthansa Heist, the theft of approximately $6 million in cash and $2.5 million in jewelry from Building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. This was the largest robbery in American history, at the time. Based on inside information from a Lufthansa Cargo Supervisor Louis Werner who owed a large gambling debt to Burke-controlled bookmaker Martin Krugman, Burke planned and recruited a crew of criminal acquaintances that included Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis "The Whale" Cafora, Joseph "Joe Buddha" Manri, Robert "Frenchy" McMahon and Paolo LiCastri. Burke's son, Frank James Burke, drove a "crash car" whose function was to ram all police cars in pursuit of the getaway vehicle. Parnell Edwards did not directly participate in the robbery but was ordered to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a junk yard compactor in New Jersey.
The robbery took place during the early morning hours on December 11, 1978. Because JFK Airport was divided between the Gambino crime family and the Lucchese Family, permission was asked and granted by the Gambino capo who controlled the airport: John Gotti. John Gotti's crew expected $300,000 from the proceeds of the robbery and Paolo LiCastri, an associate under John Gotti in the Gambino Family became the sixth gunman to ensure the Gambinos' interests were looked after.
A van containing the robbers and a "crash car" arrived at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at 3:00 a.m. The crash car, driven by Frank Burke, remained in the parking lot. Three men got out of the van and entered the front door of the cargo terminal. The two men left in the van drove to the rear of the building, cut the lock on the security fence and replaced it with one of their own. The robbers, all armed, wore dark clothing and ski masks. The three robbers entered the building and rounded up all ten employees at gunpoint. Since 3am was 'lunch hour' for the shift, most personnel were already in the cafeteria. When the two robbers in the van returned to the front of the building, they encountered a security guard who was pistol whipped and handcuffed. One of the robbers led the security guard inside the building where he was forced to the floor.
Since the robbers had inside information, all the employees were accounted for, handcuffed, and forced down on the floor. At gunpoint the shift supervisor was forced to deactivate the general alarm system as well as all additional silent alarms within the vault and escort the robbers inside the vault. The supervisor was forced to open the cargo bay door. The robbers drove the van inside the loading bay and packed it with every bag of untraceable currency and jewelry they found in the vault.
After the van was loaded, the supervisor was taken back to the lunchroom, handcuffed, and forced to the floor next to the other employees. The robbers ordered the employees not to make a move for at least 15 minutes. To ensure compliance, the robbers confiscated the wallets of every employee and threatened the lives of their families if instructions were not followed. This 15-minute buffer was crucial because Werner's inside information made the robbers aware that the Port Authority Police could seal off the entire airport within 90 seconds, preventing any vehicle or person from coming in or going out.
At 4:21 a.m., the van containing the robbers and the stolen cash pulled out of the cargo terminal and left JFK, followed by the crash car, and drove to a garage in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where Jimmy Burke was waiting. There, the money was switched to a third vehicle that was driven away by Jimmy Burke and his son Frank. The rest of the robbers left and drove home, except Paolo LiCastri, who insisted on taking the subway home. Parnell Edwards put stolen license plates on the van and was supposed to drive it to an auto junk yard in New Jersey where it would be compacted to scrap metal, but got high instead and left the van for the police to find.
Burke and his son Frank drove the third car with all the stolen money to a safehouse to be counted. This is when James Burke realized the true scope of the robbery. Over the course of time, shares were distributed to the robbers and to others who played a supporting part in the robbery. Burke's take of the robbery money was believed to have been a little over $2 million. Another $2 million went to Lucchese crime family captain Paul Vario. The remainder was disbursed among people who supported the robbery, and to the six actual robbers themselves, who received the smallest share, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on their role in the robbery. Besides Paul Vario and James Burke few participants in the robbery received more than $50,000 and few lived more than six months.
Murders that followed the Lufthansa Heist
U.S. Marshals' mugshot of James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke taken on April 12, 1979 not long after the Lufthansa heist. Burke never expected the robbery to bring in more than $1 million and was shocked by combined with the cash and jewelry $8.5 million haul and became paranoid about all the publicity. He was aware that a robbery of this magnitude would attract the intense attention of local, state and federal authorities, causing a lot of problems for everyone involved as well as organized crime in New York in general. There were a number of murders and disappearances following the Lufthansa robbery, as Burke became increasingly concerned that there were too many witnesses who knew his involvement who became greedy once learning the true amount of money stolen in the heist. Burke was being pressured for more money by the participants of the Lufthansa robbery, so he decided to murder everyone connected to it.
Parnell Edwards was found shot to death in his apartment in South Ozone Park, Queens on December 18, 1978, only one week after the robbery. Henry Hill, who was not involved in the robbery, recounts that "Stacks" forgot to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a New Jersey compactor, instead getting high and passing out at a girlfriend's house, leaving the truck outside in a no parking zone. The next day the van was discovered by police with his fingerprints all over it.
Louis Cafora, known as Fat Louie, and his newlywed wife Joanna were reported missing in March 1979 by her parents. They were never seen again. It was alleged that Cafora agreed to become a police informant and either Burke or Angelo Sepe murdered them and disposed of the bodies.
Robert McMahon and his close friend Joe Manri were found shot dead in a Buick Electra parked on a Brooklyn street on May 16, 1979.
Paolo LiCastri a gambino soldier was found shot to death, his half-naked body smoldering in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn on June 13, 1979.
A cosmetologist and part-time cocaine dealer named Theresa Ferrara, who often frequented Robert's Lounge and who was a sometime mistress of Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, was murdered on February 10, 1979, when it was discovered that she was an informant. Her dismembered torso was found floating in the waters off Barnegat Inlet near Toms River, New Jersey, on May 18, 1979. She had met with the FBI, and was informed that members of the Vario Crew wanted her murdered. She listened patiently, then asked them politely if she could leave. Several months later her dismembered body was found.
Thomas Monteleone, an Italian-Canadian mobster, used $250,000 of Lufthansa Heist money to become involved in a drug deal with Burke and Richard Eaton (a noted hustler and con-man). The drug deal didn't work out as planned. Monteleone was found dead in Connecticut in March 1979. Not directly related to the Lufthansa Heist, Monteleone's murder is appears to have been collateral damage.
Martin Krugman, the bookmaker who provided the tip to Henry Hill and Burke's Robert's Lounge crew, vanished on January 6, 1979. Henry Hill stated that Krugman was killed on the orders of Burke, who did not want to pay Krugman his $500,000 share of the stolen money. Said Hill, "It was a matter of half a million bucks. No way Jimmy was going to deny himself half a million dollars because of Marty Krugman. If Jimmy killed Marty, Jimmy would get Marty’s half a mill. So Jimmy murdered him, and kept the half-a-million dollars.”
The only robbers that survived Burke's murderous rampage following the Lufthansa Heist were Burke's son, Frank James Burke, Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and Angelo Sepe (a protege of Burke). Burke knew that Sepe would never cooperate with the authorities under any circumstances, and he never pressed Burke for a bigger share of the robbery proceeds. Sepe had been brought in for questioning by the police about the Lufthansa Heist, and the only thing he told them was "I don't know whatcha talking about". Sepe was later murdered, in 1984, shot in the head when he answered the door one morning at his Brooklyn apartment. This was in retaliation for having robbed a mafia-connected drug dealer. Frank James Burke was found shot to death on a Brooklyn street on May 18, 1987, over a drug deal gone bad.
Downfall and death
In 1980, Henry Hill was arrested for drug trafficking. He became an FBI informant in order to avoid a long prison sentence, and entered the witness protection program. Hill had been drawn into the cocaine business despite warnings by Burke to stay out of drug business. Hill set up a network and soon was earning an average of $3,000 per week. Also that year, the Lufthansa supervisor (Louis Werner) who supplied all of the inside information about how to rob the Lufthansa cargo terminal and the only person to have actually been prosecuted for the Lufthansa Heist, became an informant after serving just one year of a 15-year prison sentence, in the hope of getting an early release.
According to Hill, a search warrant for Robert's Lounge was granted by a judge. But by the time the police arrived, Burke had already relocated the bodies he'd buried there, such as those of Dominick "Remo" Cersani (under the bocce court), and Michael "Spider" Gianco -- a Robert's Lounge bartender who was shot to death by Tommy DeSimone for an insult (previously buried under the basement floor).
Partially as a result of the testimony of Hill and Werner, Jimmy Burke was taken into custody on April 1, 1980, on suspicion of a number of crimes. In 1982, he was convicted of fixing Boston College basketball games as part of a point shaving gambling scam in 1978, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Burke protested "I gave the little bastard (Hill) some bucks to bet on games, that's all!" Authorities knew he had planned and organized the Lufthansa Heist, but they did not have enough evidence to prove it in a court of law.
Although Burke was suspected of committing more than 50 murders, he was only convicted of one: the murder of Richard Eaton, a hustler and confidence man. If he had disposed of Eaton the same way he disposed of most of his victims, Burke could have been out of jail before he died. Instead, he beat and strangled Eaton to death and dumped the body, hog-tied and gagged on the floor of an abandoned tractor trailer in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn. It was winter at the time, and his frozen body wasn't discovered until days later by children playing there. Detectives found a small address book sewn into the lining of Eaton's clothing with the name, address, and telephone number of James Burke listed in the book.
Burke was later charged with the murder of Eaton, based on evidence Henry Hill gave to authorities. At the trial, Hill took the stand and testified against his former friend. Hill testified Eaton had convinced Burke to invest $250,000 in a cocaine deal that promised immense profit. Eaton, however, kept the money for his own use. When, at one point, Hill asked Burke about Eaton's whereabouts, observing that he hadn't been around in a while, Hill said Burke replied "Don't worry about him. I whacked the fucking swindler out." Burke also told Hill that this would be a lesson to two other drug purchasers who had not yet paid Burke. Based on the evidence of Burke's name, address, and phone number found in Eaton's coat lining when his body was found and Hill's testimony, Burke was convicted, and on February 19, 1985, he was given a life sentence, protesting "the bastard died of hypothermia!" When he was leaving New York on an airplane, he looked down at JFK airport and said to an officer, "[Once upon a time] that was all mine".There was an attempt by Henry Hill and Eastern District of New York Special Assistant US Attorney Ed McDonald to convict Burke of taking part in the 1970 murder of Gambino crime family soldier William Devino; but Hill was the sole living witness, so the charge was dropped due to a probable inability to convict based on a lack of evidence.
Burke was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed lung cancer. He died from this disease on April 13, 1996, aged 64, while being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Had he lived he would have been eligible for parole in 2004, aged 73.
Frank James Burke (1960 - May 18, 1987) was one of two sons born to James and Michelle "Mickey" Burke in Brooklyn. Like his father, he was a career criminal and a suspect in the Lufthansa Heist. He was a well known heroin addict in mob circles and had been arrested several times for possession of the drug. He spent time at Robert's Lounge and The Linen Suite Lounge, which was a hangout for hijackers, burglars, thieves and scam artists. One of his father's proteges, Tommy DeSimone, took Frank out on his first "hit" or contract killing at age 16 or 17.
Frank James Burke was found by police, shot to death on 1043 Liberty Avenue in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn, New York, at 2:30 a.m. May 18, 1987. He was 27 years old. There is no record of any remorse or grief from Jimmy Burke about the death of his son.
A second son, Jesse James Burke, is not involved in organized crime.
"There's only one Irishman in here."
--Jimmy Conway, Goodfellas
Jimmy Burke was depicted by Robert DeNiro in the 1990 film Goodfellas as "Jimmy Conway." It was claimed that at the time the real life gangster Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert DeNiro play him that he phoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying DeNiro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.
Burke was portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the television film The Big Heist.