The December 11, 1978 Lufthansa heist was the most infamous caper in U.S. history. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, associates of New York City’s Lucchese crime family netted nearly $6 million (or $22.5 million today) in cash and jewels; almost none of the take was recovered, and only one person served time.
But for many of those behind the audacious theft—which was popularized in movies such as Goodfellas and The Big Heist—dreams of a fat payday gave way to the brutality of an early grave. The reputed head of the operation, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, allegedly started killing his collaborators almost immediately, starting with Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, shot in his Queens apartment just a week after the robbery took place.
The killings were particularly cold when one considers that the criminals had spent years working together. Reporter Anthony DeStefano, whose book The Big Heist details the event and its aftermath, tells A&E Real Crime this was but the latest in the team’s many burglaries. “They did a lot of hijackings… I would say [they’d committed] easily dozens.”
“[Burke] was very paranoid,” DeStefano says. “And a bit of a psychotic.”
That paranoia served him well. Louis Werner, a Lufthansa employee, was the only person ever convicted in connection to the crime, and Burke’s alleged double-cross killings were a big reason why: Each death meant one less hypothetical witness.
Burke was never officially charged for anything in connection to the heist, and died in prison from cancer on April 13, 1996.
A&E Real Crime looks at the trail of blood most directly linked to the Lufthansa heist.
Name: Parnell “Stacks” Edwards
Who he was: According to the book The Lufthansa Heist by Lucchese mafioso-turned-FBI informant Henry Hill, Edwards was an aspiring blues guitarist with a lengthy rap sheet who had been working with Burke for more than a decade at the time of the robbery.
Role in the heist: Although he wasn’t present for the airport robbery itself, Stacks had an integral job—to get rid of the black Ford Econoline cargo van that had been used. Hill says Stacks took the van from the men in Queens in the early morning with the intention of bringing it to a Brooklyn auto-wrecking yard soon after.
Why Burke would have had him killed: Rather than destroy the van, Stacks drove it to his girlfriend’s apartment, where he did cocaine and fell asleep. Two days later, an officer ran plates on the vehicle when he spotted it parked too close to a fire hydrant. The plates came back stolen and the van was impounded. Police quickly connected it—and Stacks’ fingerprints—to the robbery.
According to DeStefano, Stacks, who was African American, accused the Italian mafioso he was working with of being a cheat who wanted to keep him from getting his money. “You’re not supposed to do that,” DeStefano says. “And then he screwed up the van.”
How he was killed: Hill says Stacks was visited by mobsters Tommy DeSimone and Angelo Sepe at his apartment, where DeSimone shot Stacks five times point blank with a .25-caliber revolver.
Name: Marty Krugman
Who he was: Krugman was a businessman in East New York who ran a men’s wig store and an illegal lottery. He became involved with the Lucchese family through Henry Hill.
Role in the heist: Krugman was a liaison between those working at JFK who knew about the massive potential score and the mafiosos who would ultimately muscle their way to the cash. One Lufthansa worker in the cargo terminal (Peter Gruenewald) informed another (Louis Werner) who went to Krugman. Krugman, in turn, went to Burke via Hill.
“[Burke and his associates] were very lucky that the inside man who worked for Lufthansa was looking to make some quick cash and talked to the right people to let it be known that he’d be able to assist them,” says DeStefano. “It was like knee bone to thigh bone to Burke.”
Why Burke would have needed him gone: Krugman’s flaw was tactlessness: He was too pushy in asking for his money. Burke was already wary of him before the heist, and so quickly justified ending Krugman’s life.
“It was the most trivial of things,” says DeStefano. “He was making a pest of himself.”
How he was killed: According to Hill, Krugman was killed at a mob-run bar on Rockaway Boulevard in Queens. His body was never found.
Names: Louis and Joanna Cafora
Who they were: Louis “Roast Beef” Cafora was an associate of the Lucchese crime family who befriended Burke when the two were cellmates in prison, according to DeStefano. Joanna Cafora was his wife.
Role in the heist: Louis Cafora was one of the stick-up men on the job, but he also helped in planning the operation. Hill claims Cafora subdued an armed guard at the Lufthansa cargo hangar.
Why Burke would have needed them gone: In the aftermath of the robbery, Burke told the robbers not to make any big purchases. Cafora ignored that advice and purchased a custom pink Cadillac for Joanna, allegedly drawing Burke’s ire. Fearing for his life, “Roast Beef” attempted to become an FBI informant.
How they were killed: Hill claims the couple was killed and then compacted together with their car at an auto-wreck yard. Their bodies were never found.
Names: Robert McMahon and Joseph Manri
Who they were: Robert “Frenchy” McMahon worked in cargo operations for Air France at JFK, which is where he met Joseph “Buddha” Manri. McMahon became friends with Hill, who in turn introduced him to Burke. McMahon had helped plan an earlier heist targeting Air France, further endearing himself to Burke and his crew.
Roles in the heist: Both men helped stick up the cargo terminal. According to Hill’s account, Manri was responsible for locating the nine Lufthansa employees who would be taken hostage.
Why Burke would have needed them gone: According to DeStefano’s book: because of Burke’s fear they’d become FBI informants. Manri, in particular, seemed vulnerable to flip because he had a trial pending for an unrelated murder charge.
How they were killed: Execution style, with bullets to the back of the head. Their bodies were found in the front seat of a Buick in Brooklyn approximately five months after the heist.