Vincent Asaro, the reputed mobster charged in connection with the notorious 1978 Lufthansa robbery, walked out of federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday a free man after a jury cleared him of racketeering and other charges.
The verdicts, delivered after little more than two days of deliberations, left many in the courtroom stunned, most visibly prosecutors from the United States attorney’s office, which had spent years building a case against Mr. Asaro, 80, with testimony from high-ranking Mafia figures and recordings by an informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the case relied heavily on the cooperation of some of those Mafia figures, some of them admitted killers, and the jury rejected the government’s accusation that Mr. Asaro helped carry out a criminal enterprise engaged in murder and robbery, most infamously the Lufthansa robbery, which figured prominently in the plot of the 1990 Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas.”
When the juror chosen to deliver the verdict said “Not guilty” on the first count — the racketeering charge, by far the most complicated and serious of the charges — there was a startled silence in the courtroom.
After the “not guilty” verdict on the second and third counts, for extortion, Mr. Asaro pumped his right fist in the air three times. Once the jury left, he clapped sharply, then hugged his lawyers. “Your Honor, thank you very much,” he said to the judge, Allyne R. Ross.
As he walked out of the courthouse on Cadman Plaza, Mr. Asaro, who had been jailed since January 2014, raised his hands in the air and shouted, “Free!”
Flanked by his lawyers, Elizabeth Macedonio and Diane Ferrone, he fielded a flurry of questions from reporters, who asked what he was going to do (“play some paddleball”), where he was heading (“to have a good meal and see my family”) and what he was going to eat (“anything but a bologna sandwich”). Indeed, he appeared delighted by the commotion his acquittal had created. “John Gotti didn’t get this much attention,” he said of the Gambino boss, who was notoriously hard to convict.
The jury, in Federal District Court, had begun deliberations late on Monday and continued through the week, with a break on Wednesday for Veterans Day. The jurors, whom the judge granted anonymity, did not appear to depart through any public areas or exits in the court.
To secure a conviction on the racketeering count — for which Mr. Asaro might have faced up to life in prison — prosecutors would have had to prove two or more of the 14 racketeering acts they alleged.
During a three-week trial, prosecutors argued that Mr. Asaro, whose father and grandfather were members of the Mafia, had committed murder and robbery and performed shakedowns and other crimes on behalf of his Mafia family, the Bonannos.
The most famous one was the robbery at the Lufthansa terminal at Kennedy International Airport. It was then said to be the largest cash robbery in United States history. Mr. Asaro helped plan it, prosecutors said, and his accomplices stole $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewels from a cargo vault.
Although investigators had long suspected the Mafia’s involvement, they had not brought charges against any reputed Mafia member until the case against Mr. Asaro, leaving the matter officially unsolved for decades.
Prosecutors brought a queue of informers who testified about Mr. Asaro’s role in the Mafia and in various crimes. Evidence also included surveillance photos from the 1970s on, and the testimony of several F.B.I. agents who detailed the man’s comings and goings for several decades. But the key to the prosecution’s case was an informer named Gaspare Valenti, Mr. Asaro’s cousin. Tired of Mr. Asaro’s berating him, and broke, Mr. Valenti testified he approached the F.B.I. in 2008 and began telling them about Mr. Asaro’s crimes. That had helped prosecutors link the Lufthansa crime, and many others, to Mr. Asaro. Mr. Valenti also recorded Mr. Asaro from 2010 to 2013.
In her closing argument, Ms. Macedonio attacked Mr. Valenti’s credibility. “Gaspare Valenti was an experienced liar,” she said. “Once you eliminate Gaspare as a reliable person,” she said, “then you won’t be able to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with regards to the crimes alleged against Vincent Asaro.”
Ms. Macedonio also argued that some other prosecution evidence — surveillance photos in which Mr. Asaro was not committing crimes, phone books from other Mafia members that listed him in them — proved nothing.
The crimes prosecutors accused Mr. Asaro of committing as part of the criminal enterprise included murder. They said he killed a man in 1969, Paul Katz, who owned a Queens warehouse where Mr. Asaro and James Burke, a Mafia associate known as Jimmy the Gent, would unload their goods. After Mr. Asaro and Mr. Burke were arrested at the warehouse, Mr. Valenti testified, they began to suspect Mr. Katz of working with the police.
One morning in 1969, Mr. Burke and Mr. Asaro arranged to meet Mr. Valenti at a house his father was building in Queens. Mr. Valenti said they brought materials for cracking into concrete, and brought Mr. Katz’s body. Mr. Valenti said Mr. Asaro revealed that they had strangled Mr. Katz with a dog chain and that they then buried him underneath the basement concrete.
In the 1980s, Mr. Valenti said, he and Mr. Asaro’s son, Jerome, moved the body after Mr. Burke, who was in prison at the time, “caught a delusion” and worried that the body would be found.
In 2013, federal agents cracked open the Queens basement and found traces of clothing and bones from Mr. Katz, according to trial testimony. Mr. Katz’s son testified at the trial, describing how his father said just before his disappearance that he was going to move the family to the country. His father was, in fact, cooperating with the police, according to trial testimony and records.
Mr. Valenti described the Lufthansa robbery in his testimony, giving what seemed to be a remarkable firsthand view of how one of the Mafia’s most noted robberies unfolded.
Mr. Burke had organized the robbery, he said, with Mr. Asaro helping. In the dark early-morning hours, a group of Mafia members and associates drove up to the Lufthansa terminal at Kennedy Airport. Several went around the front to subdue the employees, while Mr. Valenti and another man forced a guard to open the overhead door to the terminal. They went upstairs, where they burst into the vault. They thought there would be only a couple million dollars in cash; instead, there was $5 million, along with emeralds, diamonds and gold chains.
The robbery was front page news, and barely a decade later found its way onto the big screen, in “Goodfellas.”
As Mr. Asaro packed into the passenger seat of a white Mercedes outside the courthouse, he offered some words of caution: “Don’t believe everything you see in the movies,” he said.
Still, Mr. Asaro could not help taking a last jab at the prosecution. “Don’t let them see the body in the trunk.”
Thanks to Stephanie Clifford.
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