Jimmy Burke in the Movies
A listener named Paul Blackwood from Edinburgh Scotland emailed me with some great compliments on the show and suggested I do a story that focuses on “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. I looked around and he is mentioned in several podcasts but only as part of the famous Lufthansa heist. James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke is one of the most famous Mob associates of all time. We use the word “associate” because he was not Sicilian or even Italian or 1/2 Italian. We know about him mainly because another mob associate, Henry Hill, turned on Burke and became a government witness. Jimmy Burke led a crew of professional thieves and this was documented in the book titled Wiseguys by Nicholas Pileggi. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese produced and directed a film from Pileggi’s book titled GoodFellas When Robert DeNiro took the part of Jimmy Burke, his place in mob history was cemented. In my humble opinion, this book and film were arguably the best and most accurate depictions of the day-to-day life of a mob crew.
The screenwriters in the 1990 film Goodfellas changed the name of Jimmy the Gent Burke to “Jimmy Conway.” Some claim that the real-life gangster Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert DeNiro play him that he phoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying DeNiro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well. In another Hollywood depiction of this crew, Burke was played by Donald Sutherland in the television film The Big Heist.
Jimmy Burke History
He was born in Bronx, New York. He was the illegitimate son of Jane Conway, a prostitute who was an immigrant from Dublin, Ireland. The name of his father was never known. At age two the social services placed little Jimmy Conway in the first of many foster homes. A large part of his early years was spent in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns. They say he never saw his mother again and never knew who his father was. As with many of these throw-away kids, he was in many different foster homes and other institutions for orphans. he would suffer physical and sexual abuse in these places. A pivotal event shaped his future life at age 13. He got into an argument with a foster father while the car was moving. The man turned to smack Burke in the back seat and crashed the car. The foster father died in that crash. The deceased man’s widow blamed Burke gave him regular beatings until he was taken back into foster care.
Sometime after this incident, a family named Burke took him in as a foster child. He finally got lucky and they created a clean, comfortable and safe environment for the teenage Jimmy Burke. He lived out his teenage years on Rockaway Beach close to Ocean Promenade. Burke never forgot their kindness and for the rest of his life, he visited these foster parents and when he started making money he would leave unmarked envelopes of cash for them periodically. The “Burke” family adopted him and he took the family name. Some folks believe that he buried part of the 1978 Lufthansa heist loot at the Burke house. It is a fact that the majority of the take from this Caper has never been found.
As he approached his later teen years, Burke’s trouble with the law became more serious. At age eighteen in 1949, authorities sentenced him to five years in prison for forgery. He was passing counterfeit checks for a Colombo family member named Dominick “Remo” Cersani. The police made him for passing $3,000 dollars of these counterfeit checks at an Ozone Park bank. After his arrest and Burke refused to inform after being offered a free ride because they wanted the mobster Remo, not an 18-year-old underling like Burke. He refused and earned Remo’s eternal gratitude. Remo nicknamed Jimmy “the Irish Guinea” When he went to prison, Remo arranged for his protection from other mob members already incarcerated.
The Early Years
As an adult, when he left prison Burke was a trusted young thief. He was a large guy with huge tattooed, muscular arms. He worked as a bricklayer for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers for a short time. The other mob guys saw him as a leader who was known to be very polite and charming but turned on a dime to become a stone-cold killer. Henry Hill described him as a guy who looked like a fighter with large hands and a broken nose. He said that if a fight started, Burke would be all over you in a second. He’d grab a guy’s tie and slam his chin into the table before the guy knew he was in a war, not just a barroom brawl. During this time, he became the leader of a small crew of trusted thieves.
During the 1960s, Burke married a woman named Mickey. One of the more well-known stories illustrating Burke’s temperament is about a former boyfriend of Mickey who had been bothering her. She complained to Jimmy. The day they were married in 1962, the police found this man’s body cut up into many pieces. jimmy Burke and Mickey had two sons, Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke, and a daughter named, Catherine. This was a true mafia family because Cathrine will later marry a Bonanno family member Anthony Indelicato, the son of Sonny Red Indelicato. During the Commission trial, the prosecutor charged Anthony Indelicato with the murder of Carmine Galente and after conviction, he is incarcerated on Mafia Row in Lewisburg. That is where he meets Catherine Burke when she is visiting another inmate. They marry and Indelicato is later released with a promotion to Capo. He will eventually go down on another mafia-related murder and is presently in federal prison.
Jimmy Burke and the Lucchese Family
A Lucchese Family member named Paul Vario (Paul Sorvino character in GoodFellas) took notice of Jimmy Burke’s crew. By this time Burke bossed men like Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Tommy DeSimone (Joe Pesci character), and a guy named Angelo Sepe. They used Robert’s Lounge in South Ozone Park, Queens as headquarters. This joint was the hangout for Burke and his crew, as well as many other mobsters, tipsters, bookmakers, loan sharks, and other assorted criminals. Burke was the quintessential mobster because he ran a loan sharking, bookmaking, and a high-stakes poker game in the basement out of that bar. This was in addition to the burglary scores the crew took down.
Burke knew how to make money and he was a real earner for Paul Vario. Burke owned a dress factory in South Ozone Park, Queens, called Moo Moo Vedda’s. This business allowed him to clean up his cash money from his illegitimate enterprises. The ability to launder cash became even more important when he and Henry Hill got into the narcotics business. In 1972, Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill were arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio. He was a Tampa, Florida gambler who owed a large gambling debt to their friend, the union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in federal prison. Neither was tempted to talk at that time.
Jimmy Burke and the Lufthansa Heist
Burke and Hill got paroled after about six years in the joint. Both men went right back to the South Ozone Park, East New York, Canarsie, and Howard Beach area. South Ozone Park borders on New York’s JFK. Burke and his crew robbed many trucks delivering goods over the years. They had informants inside the JFK freight yards and other freight hauling businesses. They knew the truck drivers. Whenever they actually stopped a driver and hijacked his truck at gunpoint, Jimmy Burke always gave them a $50.00 “tip” even though they had no part in the robbery. Based on his gentlemanly demeanor and this tip, his fellow gangsters labeled him Jimmy the Gent. This was during the time when Burke and Henry Hill got into the drug business. The Lucchese family like the rest of the 5 Families banned members from narcotics trafficking because of the government attention and draconian sentencing by the feds. Henry Hill proved that to be a legitimate concern when he eventually faced a long sentence for cocaine trafficking.
The famous Lufthansa heist happened on December 11, 1978. Of course, Jimmy the Gent is most famous for the multimillion-dollar Lufthansa robbery. The Lucchese family through Paul Vario granted permission for them to do this heist. Burke had his inside man in the shipping area tipping him off about the amount of gold, silver, and cash available and how the airport worked, The Bonanno Family claimed rights to all criminal activity inside the airport and they required a cut of any take. After the robbery, Lucchese member Paul Vario sent his son Peter to pick up his end of the take which may have amounted to as much as 2- 3 million. Burke paid a piece of this action to a Bonanno Capo named Vinnie Asaro because this was on territory claimed by the Bonanno family.
Most famously after the robbery went down, Jimmy Burke becomes paranoid and wants to cut people out of their share. The one person he did not murder was his eldest son Frank James Burke who drove the van that was to be used as a crash car if any cops started chasing them. The film depicts Henry Hill not going on the robbery. Paul Vario was never charged but he ends up in prison for racketeering. Henry Hill and JFK Airport employees Louis Werner and Peter Gruenwald all testify and end up in Witness protection.
Jimmy the Gent’s dead crew
Parnell Stacks Edwards/Associate and Getaway Driver/Didn’t get rid of the van in Jersey Scrapyard after the heist, Got high instead/December 18th, 1978 Killed By DeSimone 7 days after the heist.
Martin Krugman/Associate and Planned the heist/Kept harassing Burke for his money/January 6th, 1979 less than a month after the heist. killed by DeSimone and his body was never found.
Tommy DeSimone/Associate and was one of the robbers/Was identified by one of the guards because of the well-polished shoes he wore/January 14th, 1979. He was killed a year after the heist.
Louis Cafora/Associate and was one of the robbers/Bought a Pink Cadillac Coupe DeVille with his share of the loot and this brought the heat on Burke. In March 1979, the cops found his body in his Cadillac along with the body of his wife.
Joe Manri/Associate and was one of the robbers. He brought the heat on Burke by talking about the robbery. On May 16th, 1979 a passerby found him dead in a car with his friend Robert McMahon.
Robert McMahon/Associate and one of the robbers
Theresa Ferrara/Mistress of Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario. She had no role in the actual robbery itself but was suspected of informing. she went missing and the cops found her murdered on February 10th, 1979. The killer dismembered her body and dumped it in a new jersey river on May 18th, 1979
Paolo LiCastri/Gambino Soldier and associate of Burke. LiCastri was an observer for the Gambinos because the heist took place at JFK airport. Burke didn’t want to give LiCastri the Gambino’s share of the loot/June 13th, 1979 found naked and on fire in a Brooklyn landfill site.
Angelo Sepe/Associate and one of the robbers. He was identified as one of the robbers and he bought expensive bling after the robbery. On July 18th, 1984 he was killed by the Gambinos unrelated to the robbery.
Jimmy Burke and the Boston Point- Shaving case
In 1982, Burke was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This conviction was for his involvement with the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal. Henry Hill was part of that scam and he testified against Burke. Hill also testified against Burke about the 1979 murder of drug dealer Richard Eaton. The jury believed Hill and they convicted him and the judge later sentenced Burke in 1985 to another 20 years in prison.
The prison doctors diagnosed Jimmy the Gent with cancer and in April 1996, James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke died. He would have been eligible for parole in 2004 had he lived.
Show notes by Gary Jenkins
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