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Mob boss in 1978 Lufthansa heist arrested

Five members of the Bonanno crime family are taken into custody, charged in connection to 1978 Lufthansa heist, which was made famous by the 1990 film "Goodfellas".

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Federal agents in the United States arrested the alleged mobster who inspired Martin Scorsese's heist film Goodfellas on Thursday.

Vincent Asaro, 78, was charged with taking part in an infamous heist at a Lufthansa terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in 1978, a crime that netted the thieves about $US6 million ($6.7 million) in cash and jewels. 

He was one of five alleged mobsters taken into custody, but is the only one accused of participating in the Lufthansa thefts.

Alleged mobster Vincent Asaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York.

Alleged mobster Vincent Asaro is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York. Photo: Reuters

The men, all alleged members of the Bonanno crime family, were expected to appear in federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday afternoon on a variety of charges.

Mr Asaro is charged with racketeering in connection with the heist, and with the unrelated 1969 murder of Paul Katz, according to court documents. Mr Katz's remains were not discovered until last June.

The heist was legendary for the amount plundered - a record at the time - and for the fact that most of it was never recovered. Most of those suspected of involvement met violent ends, including several allegedly killed by the heist's suspected mastermind, James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke.

Burke - the inspiration for the character played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas - went on a killing rampage after the hold-up as he sought to eliminate anyone who might tie him to the case.

He died in prison in 1996 while serving a sentence for an unrelated case.

Burke was also suspected of ordering the killing of Mr Katz, years before the heist, when he apparently suspected him of being a police informant. Investigators, acting on a tip, dug up Mr Katz's remains beneath the Queens home still owned by Burke's family last June.

The airport hold-up took place on December 11, 1978, after Burke learned that untraceable cash flown into New York from West Germany was to be stashed in a vault at JFK. The thieves took a little more than an hour to toss about $US5 million in cash and $US1 million in jewellery into their getaway car.

Today, the cash would amount to nearly $US18 million.

Mr Asaro was arrested at his home in Queens and walked with his head bowed, his hands cuffed in front of him, as he was led to a van for his first court appearance.

MCT