NEW YORK - An 80-year-old alleged gangster went on trial in New York on Monday accused of the spectacular 1978 New York airport heist immortalized in Martin Scorsese's movie "Goodfellas." Vincent Asaro, reputedly a member of the notorious Bonanno crime family, is accused of murder, violence and extortion that allegedly spanned 45 years from the late 1960s to 2013. He pleaded not guilty.
In custody since his arrest in January 2014, the man who had triple bypass surgery the previous year could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted by a jury in federal court in Brooklyn.
In the biggest heist on US soil, armed mobsters stole US$5 million (S$7 million) in cash and nearly US$1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at John F. Kennedy airport on December 11, 1978.
The value of the booty today is estimated at around US$20 million. Ansaro is the first, and probably last, alleged member of the mafia to be prosecuted over the heist.
On the witness stand, a former number two in the Bonanno crime family who turned informant painted Asaro as a hothead with a nasty temper who handed over a case stuffed with jewelry after the holdup.
Salvatore Vitale, who has spent more than a decade testifying against his fellow criminals, said that mob boss, Joseph Massino, collected a case stuffed full of jewelry from Asaro after the heist.
Massino, who is also Vitale's brother-in-law, gave him a solitary necklace from the loot.
"He was always a big spender, he gave me a chain as a gift," said Vitale.
Vitale, 68, was convicted in 2010 to time already served over 11 murders, and is now out of jail in a witness protection programme.
The trial spotlights the secretive workings of the Italian mafia, revenge murders, racketeering, robbery, extortion, arson, illegal gambling, loansharking and assault.
Strangled with dog chain
The US government says Asaro strangled Paul Katz, a presumed informant, with a dog chain in 1969. His body parts were discovered in a New York basement in 2013.
"The man with 'death before dishonor' tattooed on his forearm sits in this courtroom today," said prosecutor Lindsay Gerdes.
"That man is Vincent Asaro." Asaro sat motionless, his hair combed back and his tattoo hidden under a casual gray sweater.
His lawyers say there is a lack of evidence against their client and that the government's star witness wore a wire for five years.
"If Vincent Asaro is truly the dangerous, violent, murdering individual depicted by the government, why did it take so long to arrest him?" asked defence lawyer Diane Ferrone.
Vitale said Asaro rose through the ranks to become a captain in command of "soldiers" - a middling level of seniority - and described him as "hostile" and as a man who yelled and screamed.
Asaro was arrested by the FBI in January 2014 in a series of raids that also netted his middle-aged son Jerome and three other suspects.
The 1978 heist became legendary after its alleged mastermind James Burke - also known as Jimmy the Gent - killed off members of the crew to avoid being shopped to the police.
Federal Judge Allyne Ross has banned those murders from being discussed at trial.
Body dug up
Scorsese immortalized the criminal feat in his Oscar-winning 1990 movie "Goodfellas," long considered one of the best crime films of all time.
Burke, who died of cancer in prison in 1996, was the inspiration for Robert De Niro's character Jimmy Conway in the film.
Asaro was not depicted in the film.
But he is accused, with Burke, of strangling Katz because they suspected he was cooperating with investigators, burying his body under the cement basement floor of an empty home.
In the mid-1980s, Asaro allegedly ordered his son Jerome and another individual to dig up the body and move it to avoid detection.
Nearly 35 years later, the FBI recovered a right hand and wrist, hair, teeth, clothing and human tissue identified by DNA as belonging to Katz from the Burke family home in Queens.
Vitale got the court on tenterhooks with his description of the dos and don'ts of life in the mafia.
The don'ts include fooling around with anyone's wife or daughter, dealing in counterfeit money, putting your "score" or crimes "on the record" with your boss, lying and talking to the FBI.
"The dos are very simple," Vitale said. "Just do what you're told."