The Lufthansa Heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $6 million in cash and $2.8 million in jewels were stolen, at the time making it the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil, and one of the largest robberies of all time.
As investigators later determined, the crime was planned, organized and masterminded by Jimmy Burke, a prominent associate of the Lucchese crime family, and carried out by several of his associates. The plot began when bookmaker Martin Krugman told Henry Hill (an associate of Jimmy Burke's) about millions of dollars in untraceable money: American currency flown in once a month from monetary exchanges for servicemen and tourists in West Germany. After arriving via Lufthansa Airlines, the currency was then stored in a vault at Kennedy Airport. The information had come from Louis Werner, a worker at the airport who owed Krugman $20,000 in gambling debts, and from his co-worker Peter Gruenwald. Werner and Gruenwald had previously been successful in stealing $22,000 in foreign currency from the employer, Lufthansa, in 1976. Louis Werner helped Krugman throughout the planning, even telling him where the robbers should park. A Ford Econoline 150 van would be used to transport the cash, and a "crash car" would accompany the van to run vehicular interference should the plot be interrupted and a chase ensue. Burke decided on Tommy DeSimone, Joe Manri, Louis Cafora, and Angelo Sepe and Sepe's ex-brother-in-law, Tony Rodriguez, as inside gunmen. Paolo LiCastri, a Sicilian shooter, was later included as a representative of the Gambino crime family, which had been promised a tribute payment to sanction the crime. Parnell 'Stacks' Edwards an African-American Black Panther Party member and a member of Burke's gang who served as a "gofer" and chauffeur was also included to dispose of the van used in the heist.
Once everyone was together, Jimmy needed permission from his criminal mentor Lucchese crime family Underboss Paul Vario, who sent his son, Peter, to collect his enormous 'end' of the loot which was $2.5 million. Vinne Asaro, who was a captain in the Gambino crime family and was the crew chief at the airport, would also be owed money because Burke, a Lucchese associate, was performing the robbery on territory belonging to the Gambino crime family. On December 11, at 3:12 a.m., a guard named Kelly Whalen, patrolling the cargo terminal, spotted a black Ford Econoline van pulling into a bay near a loading platform for vaults. When Whalen walked toward the loading bay to investigate in the Airport, he was struck over the head with a .45 pistol. Whalen saw a series of armed men running into the cargo terminal and then another man took his wallet and said that they knew where his family was and that they had men ready to visit them. Whalen nodded to indicate that he would co-operate with the robbers. Another guard, Rolf Rebmann, heard a noise by the loading ramp and when he went to investigate, sixteen heavily-armed, masked men with machine guns and wearing bulletproof vests forced their way in and handcuffed him. They then used a one-of-a-kind key from Werner and walked through a maze of corridors to where the two other employees would be. Once these two had been rounded up two gunmen ventured downstairs to look for unexpected visitors and then the other men marched the employees to a lunch room, where the other employees were on a 3 a.m. break.
The gunmen burst into the lunch room and brandishing their machine guns they showed a bloodied Whalen as an indication of their intentions if anyone got out of line. They knew each employee by name and forced them onto the ground. They made John Murray, the terminal's senior cargo agent, call Rudi Eirich on the intercom. The robbers knew that Eirich was the only guard that night who knew the right combination to open the double door vault. Murray was made to pretend to Eirich that there was a problem with a load from Frankfurt and told Eirich to meet him in the cafeteria. As Eirich approached the cafe he was met by two shotguns and he saw the other employees bound and gagged on the cafeteria floor. One gunman kept watch over the ten employees and the other three took Eirich at gun point down two flights of stairs to the double door vault. He later reported that the men were informed and knew all about the safety systems in the vault and they knew about the double door system, whereby one door must be shut or the other one can't be opened without activating the alarm. The men ordered Eirich to open up the first door, to a 10-by-20 foot room. They knew that if he opened up the second door he would activate an alarm to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Once inside they ordered Eirich to lie on the ground and they then began sifting through invoices and freight manifests to determine which parcels they wanted of the many similarly wrapped ones. Finally they began hurling parcels of cash through the door. Around 40 parcels were removed and Eirich was made to lock the inner door before unlocking the outer door. Two of the gunmen were assigned to load the parcels into the vans while the others tied up Eirich. A man, without a ski mask on, burst into the cafeteria and was euphoric. He said to the other gunmen that they had the money in the vans. He was quickly told to put on his ski mask by the other thieves, however some of the employees caught a glimpse of his face. They were told not to call the Port Authority until 4:30 a.m. When the men left it was 4:16 a.m. According to the cafeteria clock no calls were made until 4:30, when a report of $6 million in cash and $2.8 million in jewels being stolen was made. The robbery took only 64 minutes and was the largest cash robbery in American history, at the time.