How Did The Lufthansa Heist Get Pulled Off Without A Hitch?

The black van pulled up to the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, and six men wearing ski masks came pouring out. They were well-armed, and all had Brooklyn accents, according to the Associated Press. It was just after 3 a.m. on a freezing cold morning on December 11, 1978 when the infamous Lufthansa heist went down.

Within minutes, the robbers had rounded up the nighttime employees and handcuffed them in the lunchroom, per Britannica. Meanwhile, the gunmen forced a supervisor to open a large "high-value" concrete vault without tripping the alarm. Inside, the thieves hauled out more than $5.8 million (more than $26 million today) in cash and jewels, loaded it into the van that had been parked out back, and made their getaway a little more than an hour after they had arrived. At the time, the Lufthansa heist was the biggest single robbery in U.S. history, per the AP.

From idea to execution 

Two Lufthansa employees, Peter Gruenwald and Louis Werner, dreamed up the heist. "We knew Lufthansa always stored ... $3 million in the valuables room, and was for us pretty attractive," Gruenwald would later recount, per The New York Times. "We talked frequently about a big heist. And by August 1978, we had a plan." Unbeknownst to Gruenwald, his friend and coworker iced him out of that very plan and instead worked with a team of mobsters, including Henry Hill, according to History. Hill, famously portrayed by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," was part of James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke's gang that had ties to the Lucchese crime family. The two men assembled the crew that pulled off the heist, although Hill didn't take part in the actual robbery, per The Mob Museum.

The two main factors Hill, Burke, and their team had going for them were the simplicity of the plan and more importantly, their inside man. Werner clued them into the exact time to pull off the caper and provided all the details they needed for a smooth operation, per Britannica. While their robbery plan worked flawlessly, the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist was anything but smooth. And as it would turn out, it quickly became deadly for many of its participants.

A perfect heist ends with backstabbing, bullets, and bodies 

The first misstep following the heist involved Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards, the getaway driver, who instead of taking the van to be crushed in a mob-run junkyard, got drunk and left the vehicle illegally parked in Brooklyn, according to History. The police soon found the van, along with Edwards' fingerprints inside. A week later, he would pay for this mistake with his life. James Burke got both greedy and paranoid, a deadly combination that would leave a trail of bodies in the heist's wake. Burke had six people allegedly involved in the caper murdered following the heist, per A&E. Hill later flipped on Burke who died in prison in 1996 of cancer while serving time on unrelated charges. Hill died in 2012. 

The only person to ever be convicted of the crime was Louis Werner. Peter Greunwald, who turned state's evidence, was the prosecution's star witness against his old friend, per The New York Times, and got a modicum of revenge on Werner for betraying him. Werner ended up getting five years in prison and then went into witness protection, per the UVA Special Collections. The last attempt to implicate anyone in the Lufthansa heist came in 2015, when federal prosecutors charged Vincent Asaro with crimes related to the 1978 caper, per The Mob Museum. A jury found him not guilty. Nearly none of the stolen money has ever been recovered.