Today in history: the Lufthansa heist

JFK Airport ATC Tower
NYC Russ /

On this day, in the early hours of December 11, 1978, six armed men in a stolen Ford van parked up outside Lufthansa Airlines’ cargo depot at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Within hours, the men would flee, having committed one of the largest cash robberies in the United States, prompting an investigation which would span decades and would go on to be called the ‘Lufthansa Heist’.

The men, all members and associates of the American Mafia, cut through the gates to the cargo building and took several Lufthansa employees hostage, handcuffing them in the canteen.

The target was unmarked bank notes and jewels which Lufthansa flew in regularly to the warehouse. On the night, the gang estimated a total heist value of around $2 million.

At gunpoint, the robbers forced an employee to open the vault where they removed 72 cartons of cash. Just over an hour later, they escaped with approximately $5 million in bank notes and $875,000 in jewelry.

Despite the many suspects, only one person, Louis Werner, was convicted for the robbery and very little of the cash and jewels has been retrieved.

Werner, who worked as a cargo agent for Lufthansa, owed thousands of dollars in gambling debts and is believed to have helped plan the raid.

The architect of the heist is thought to have been James ‘Jimmy’ Burke, an associate of the notorious Lucchese Family.

Burke is suspected to have later arranged or personally committed the murder of most of the assailants in the months following the robbery in order to avoid implication.

In today’s money, the value of the heist is estimated to have been worth more than $24 million and later inspired the storyline of the 1990 award-winning film ‘Goodfellas’.

Airport heists over the years have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2005, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was the target of a diamond heist, where a total of $80 million was stolen.

More recently in 2013, at Brussels Airports, eight masked gunmen disguised as policemen stole $50 million worth of diamonds from a Fokker 100 aircraft bound for Zurich.

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