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James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke

New York State Department of Correctional Services mugshot of James Burke taken on January 31, 1995.
Born July 5, 1931(1931-07-05)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died April 13, 1996 (aged 64)
Buffalo, New York, U.S.

James Burke, also known as Jimmy the Gent, The Big Irishman, and The Irish Guinea (July 5, 1931 – April 13, 1996), was an Irish-American gangster and Lucchese crime family associate who is believed to have organized the Lufthansa heist in 1978 and believed to have orchestrated the murder or murdered many of those involved in the months following. He is the father of small-time mobster and Lufthansa heist suspect, Frankie Burke, Jesse James Burke, Catherine Burke and another unidentified daughter. Catherine married Bonanno crime family member Anthony Indelicato in 1992. Jimmy Conway, a character in the movie Goodfellas played by Robert De Niro, is based on Burke.


Early life

James Burke was born in Bronx, New York as the illegitimate son to Jane Conway, a prostitute who was an immigrant of Anglo-Irish lineage from Dublin, Ireland. The father of James has never been identified. At age two he was placed in a foster home by his mother, where he spent most of his early years in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns, never to see his birth parents again. He was shuttled around various homes and orphanages, where he suffered physical abuse and sexual abuse at the hands of various foster fathers and foster brothers. When he was 13 years old, Burke's foster father died in a car crash—he lost control of the car when he turned around to hit Burke, who was riding in the back seat. The deceased man's widow, who was in the car as well but survived, blamed Burke for the accident and gave him regular beatings until he was taken back into care.

He was finally adopted by the "Burke" family and he took the family name of Burke during this time. Jimmy lived with them in a large wooden boarding house located on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Ocean Promenade in Rockaway, Queens. His time spent there during the beginning of his adolescence was a time of peace and calm. He remained close to the Burke family visiting his adoptive mother and father each Mother's Day, Christmas and on his adoptive parent's birthdays. On a monthly basis he would send them several thousand dollars in an unmarked envelope as appreciation for their attempt at raising him. It is rumored that he buried a portion of the loot from the 1978 Lufthansa heist which he orchestrated and helped carry out, on the site of his childhood foster home. Except for a quarter of the estimated millions taken in the heist the rest of the gold, silver and currency has never been recovered.

As he approached his teens, Burke began to get in trouble with the law and spent considerable time in jail. In 1949, aged eighteen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for forgery. He passed counterfeit checks for Dominick Cersani. Burke did not act as an informant for the authorities and that helped him gain favor amongst his Mafia contemporaries. Behind bars, he mixed with a number of Mafia members and made many contacts. Being of Irish descent, Burke could not become a full-fledged member of the Mafia, as only Italians are allowed to join. However, the Italian Mafia has 'associates' of many ethnic background who are valued as long as they make money. Italian-American mobsters dubbed him "the Irish guinea."

Burke was an immense presence: burly, tall, and with large muscular arms as result of earlier work as a bricklayer for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, along with a temper to match. His job as a union bricklayer during the New York City construction boom was short lived and he gave it up to pursue a life of crime. He was known to be very polite and charming, but was a stone-cold killer. Said Henry Hill, "He was a big guy and knew how to handle himself. He looked like a fighter. He had a broken nose and he had a lot of hands. If there was just the littlest amount of trouble, he'd 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.... Jimmy had a reputation for being wild. He'd whack you."

"Jimmy the Gent"

It is alleged that Burke committed a number of murders for the Mafia during the 1950s in addition to other illegal activity such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor. He married in 1962 and fathered two daughters, one of whom was Catherine Burke and two sons: Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke, (named after the famous outlaw brothers of the Old West). Jesse James suffered from a stutter speech impediment and was widely ignored by Jimmy, and left to play in their home's basement filled with stolen toys. Burke is rumored to have murdered and dismembered an ex-boyfriend of his bride because he was being a nuisance. The police found his body cut up in pieces all over the inside of his car.

Burke was a mentor of Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill and Angelo Sepe, who were all young men in the 1960s. They carried out jobs for Burke, such as selling stolen merchandise. They eventually became part of Jimmy's crew and worked out of South Ozone Park, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn. The pair helped Burke with the hijacking of delivery trucks. According to Hill, Burke would usually give $50 to the drivers of the trucks they stole, as if he were tipping them for the inconvenience, which led to his nickname "Jimmy the Gent".

Corrupt law enforcement officers, bribed by Burke, would tell him about any potential witnesses or informants. As many as 12 or 13 bodies a year would be found tied up, strangled, and shot in the trunks of stolen vehicles abandoned in the parking lots surrounding JFK Airport. Said Henry Hill about Burke: "Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn’t matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert."

He owned a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens called Robert's Lounge. It was a favorite hangout of Burke and his crew, and many other mobsters, bookmakers, loan sharks, and other assorted criminals. Burke ran a loan shark and bookmaking operation that was based at the bar, and high stakes poker games in the basement, of which he would receive a cut. Burke also owned a dress factory, also in South Ozone Park, Queens, called Moo Moo Vedda's, which kept him awash in laundered money. Though Burke was not a made member of the mafia, he nonetheless had the respect of a capo in mob circles.

In 1972, Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill were arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida who allegedly 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.

Burke was paroled after six years, then went straight back to crime, as did Hill, who got out around the same time. Hill shortly began trafficking in drugs; Burke was soon involved in this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family — with whom they were associated — did not authorize any of its members to deal in drugs. This Lucchese ban was made because the prison sentences imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking were so lengthy that the accused would often become informants in exchange for a lighter sentence. This is exactly what Henry Hill would eventually do.

From a very young age, his mid teens, Burke was a willing hitman for the mafia and would kill anyone who stood in his way. His victims included the children, spouses, and other relatives of his enemies. The FBI believes he was involved in at least 50 murders during his career.

He notably slew nine people following the Lufthansa Heist. After Jimmy Breslin had written a disparaging and accusative article on Paul Vario, Burke strangled the journalist almost to death in front of a bar full of witnesses. He ordered the murder of his best friend, Dominick "Remo" Cersani, who became an informant and helped the New York City Police Department (NYPD) arrest Burke on a truck hijacking charge. Burke had Remo's body buried next to the bocce court behind Robert's Lounge. It was said that whenever Burke played bocce there with friends, he would jokingly say "Hey Remo, how're you doing?"

Burke frequently liked to lock his victims, notably the young children of his victims, in refrigerators. When Burke had a problem collecting money he was owed, and the unfortunate debtor had children, he would pick the child up in his huge arm, open the refrigerator with the other, and say "if you don't do whatcha supposed to, I'm gonna lock your kid inside the fuckin' refrigerator".

Much later, Burke allegedly attempted to kidnap and possibly hold to ransom, or kill Henry Hill's wife, Karen, and their two children when he suspected Henry of being an informant.

The Lufthansa heist

Burke is most famous for the Lufthansa heist, the theft of approximately $6 million in cash and jewels from building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. This was the largest robbery in American history at the time. Based on inside information from a Lufthansa Cargo Supervisor Louis Werner who owed a large gambling debt to Burke-controlled bookmaker Martin Krugman, he planned it and had it carried out by a crew of accomplices he put together that included Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis "The Whale" Cafora, Joseph "Joe Buddha" Manri, Robert "Frenchy" McMahon and Paolo LiCastri. Burke's son, Frank James Burke, drove a "crash car" to ward off any possible chase of the robbery van by police. Another man who did not participate in the actual robbery, Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards, was to dispose of the van used in the robbery at an auto junk yard in New Jersey where it was to be compacted.

The robbery took place during the early morning hours on December 11, 1978. Because it took place in the territory of the Gambino crime family, Burke had to get their permission—his contact in the Gambinos was then capo John Gotti — and agree to pay them a portion of the stolen money, $250,000. This included having Gambino soldier Paolo LiCastri as the sixth gunman for the robbery to ensure the Gambinos' interests were kept.

A van containing the robbers and a "crash car" arrived at the Lufthansa cargo terminal in the early morning hour of 3:00 a.m. As the crash car, driven by Frank Burke, waited in the parking lot, three men got out of the van and entered the front door of the cargo terminal. The two men left in the van drove to the rear of the building, cut the lock on the security fence and replaced it with one of their own. The robbers, all armed, were all dressed in dark clothing and had on black ski masks. The three robbers who entered the building rounded up at gunpoint ten employees who were working. Since it was lunch hour at the time for that shift, many were already in the lunchroom. When the two men in the van returned to the front of the building, they encountered a security guard, whom they pistol whipped and handcuffed. One of the men led the security guard inside the building where he was forced down to the floor.

All the employees were accounted for, handcuffed and forced down to the floor face down. With inside information provided by Louis Werner, the supervisor on duty in charge was forced at gunpoint to use his alarm codes to deactivate the alarm system and show the robbers into the vault, and forced to deactivate additional silent alarms in the vault where the money was kept. The robbers then forced the supervisor to open the cargo bay door to let the van in. The van was loaded with numerous bags containing packages of untraceable cash totaling millions of dollars.

After the van was loaded, the supervisor was taken back to the lunchroom, handcuffed, and forced to the floor with the others. The robbers told all the employees not to make a move for at least fifteen minutes. To ensure they didn't, the robbers took all the employees' wallets and told them that they now knew where they lived and had men ready to visit their homes and do their families harm if they did not comply. The few minutes were important because Werner's inside information revealed that the Port Authority Police could seal off the entire airport within 90 seconds, preventing any vehicle or person from coming in or going out.

The van containing the robbers and the stolen cash pulled out of the cargo terminal and left the airport at 4:21 a.m., followed by the crash car driven by Frank Burke, to interfere with any possible police chase, and drove to a garage in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where Jimmy Burke was waiting. There, the money was switched to a third vehicle that was driven away by Jimmy Burke and his son Frank. The rest of the robbers left and drove home, except Paolo LiCastri, who insisted on taking the subway home. Stacks Edwards put stolen license plates on the van and was supposed to drive it to an auto junk yard in New Jersey where it would be compacted to scrap metal.

Burke and his son, Frank James Burke drove the third car with all of the stolen money to a mob safe house where they counted and divided it up, and then over the course of time, distributed shares to the robbers and to others who played a supporting part in the robbery. Burke's take of the robbery money was believed to have been a little over $2 million. Another $2 million went to capo Paul Vario. The remaining $2 million was disbursed among people who supported the robbery, and to the six actual robbers themselves, who received the smallest share, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on what their role in the robbery was.

The Lufthansa slaughter

U.S. Marshals' mugshot of James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke taken on April 12, 1979 not long after the Lufthansa heist.

Burke never expected the robbery to yield so much cash; his initial estimate was that it would be only about $2 million. He realized that a robbery of this magnitude would attract the intense attention of local, state and federal authorities, causing a lot of problems for everyone involved. There were a number of murders and disappearances following the Lufthansa robbery, as Burke became increasingly concerned that the others involved would lead the police to him, and because the robbers, having found out the amount of money they stole was much larger than first thought, kept pressing Burke for bigger shares than were originally agreed upon. Burke decided to murder everyone connected to the Lufthansa robbery.

Parnell Edwards was found shot to death in his apartment in South Ozone Park, Queens on December 18, 1978, only one week after the robbery, because of his failure to dispose of the van used in the robbery, instead of driving it to New Jersey and having it compacted, he drove the van to a girlfriend's house, left it in a no parking zone, got high and spent the rest of the night partying, then went to sleep. The next day the van was discovered by the police with his fingerprints all over it.

Louis Cafora and his newly wed wife Joanna were reported missing in March, 1979 and never seen again. It was alleged that Cafora agreed to become an informant, but then disappeared with his wife. Robert McMahon and his close friend Joe Manri were found shot dead in a Buick Electra parked on a Brooklyn street on May 16, 1979. Paolo LiCastri was found shot to death, his half-naked body smoldering in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn on June 13, 1979.

A cosmetologist and part time cocaine dealer named Theresa Ferrara, who often frequented Robert's Lounge who was at one time or another the mistress of Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, was murdered on February 10, 1979 when it was found out she was an informant. Her dismembered torso was found floating in the waters off Barnegat Inlet near Toms River, New Jersey on May 18, 1979. She had met with FBI, and was informed that members of the Vario Crew wanted her murdered. She listened patiently, then asked them politely if she could leave. Several months later her dismembered body was found.

Tom Monteleone, an Italian-Canadian mobster who was involved in a drug deal gone bad with Burke and Richard Eaton, a hustler and con-man, using $250,000 of Lufthansa robbery money, was found dead in Connecticut in March, 1979. Tom's murder was suspected of not being related directly to the Lufthansa heist, but had a parallel involvement.

Martin Krugman, the bookmaker who provided the tip to Henry Hill and Burke's Robert's Lounge crew, vanished on January 6, 1979 and was never seen again. Henry Hill stated Krugman was killed on the orders of Burke who did not want to pay Krugman his $500,000 share of the stolen money. Said Hill, "It was a matter of half a million bucks. No way Jimmy was going to deny himself half a million dollars because of Marty Krugman. If Jimmy killed Marty, Jimmy would get Marty’s half a mill.”

The only robbers that survived Burke's murderous rampage following the Lufthansa Heist were Burke's son, Frank James Burke, Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and Angelo Sepe, a protege of Burke. Burke knew that Sepe would never cooperate with the authorities under any circumstances, and he never pressed Burke for a bigger share of the robbery proceeds. Sepe had been brought in for questioning by the police about the Lufthansa robbery and the only thing he told them was "I don't know whatcha talking about". Sepe was murdered years later in 1984, shot in the head when he answered the door one morning at his Brooklyn apartment, in retaliation for having robbed a mafia-connected drug dealer. Frank James Burke was found shot to death on a Brooklyn street on May 18, 1987, over a drug deal gone bad.

Downfall and death

In 1980, Henry Hill was arrested for drug trafficking. He became an FBI informant in order to avoid a long prison sentence. Hill had been drawn into the cocaine business by Burke in early 1979. When Hill was over at Burke's home one day, Burke had tossed him a large bag of heroin and told him "See what you can do with it. It's pure." Hill set up a network and soon was earning an average of $35,000 per week. Also that year, Louis Werner, the Lufthansa supervisor who supplied all of the inside information about how to rob the Lufthansa cargo terminal to Jimmy Burke's crew and the only person to have actually been prosecuted for the Lufthansa robbery became an informant after serving just one year of a fifteen-year prison sentence in the hope of getting an early release.

According to Hill, a search warrant for Robert's Lounge was granted by a Judge. But by the time the police arrived, Burke had already re-located the bodies he'd buried there, such as those of Remo, under the bocce court, and Michael "Spider" Gianco, a Robert's Lounge bartender who was shot to death by Tommy DeSimone for an insult, under the basement floor.

Partly as a result of the testimony of Hill and Werner, Jimmy Burke was taken into custody on April 1, 1980, on suspicion of a number of crimes. In 1982, he was subsequently convicted of fixing Boston College basketball games as part of a point shaving gambling scam in 1978, and was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. Burke protested "I gave the little bastard (Hill) some bucks to bet on games, that's all!" Authorities knew he had planned and organized the Lufthansa heist, but they did not have enough evidence to prove it in a court of law.

Though Burke was suspected of committing over 50 murders he was only convicted of one: the murder of Richard Eaton, a hustler and con-man. If Burke had disposed of Eaton the way he disposed of most of his victims, he could have been out of jail before he died. Instead, Burke beat and strangled him to death and dumped his body, hogtied and gagged on the floor of an abandoned tractor-trailer in a garbage-strewn lot in Brooklyn. It was winter at the time, and his frozen body wasn't discovered until days later by children playing there. Detectives found a small address book sewn into the lining of Eaton's clothing with the name, address and telephone number of James Burke listed in the book.

Burke was later charged with the murder of Richard Eaton, based on evidence Henry Hill gave to authorities. At the trial, Hill took the stand and testified against his former friend. Hill testified Eaton had convinced Burke to invest $250,000 in a cocaine deal that promised immense profit. However, Eaton kept the money for his own use, and one day Hill asked Burke about Eaton's whereabouts, observing that he hadn't been around in a while. Hill said Burke replied "Don't worry about him. I whacked the fucking swindler out". Burke also told Hill that this would be a lesson to two other drug purchasers who had not yet paid Burke. Based on the evidence of Burke's name, address, and phone number found in Eaton's coat lining when his body was found and Hill's testimony, Burke was convicted, and on February 19, 1985 he was given a life sentence, protesting "the bastard died of hypothermia!" When he was leaving New York on an airplane, he looked down at JFK airport and said to an officer, "One day.... That was all mine".

There was an attempt by Henry Hill and Eastern District of New York Special Assistant United States Attorney Ed McDonald to convict Burke of taking part in the murder in 1970 of William 'Billy Batts' DeVino, but Hill was the sole living witness, so the charge was dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Burke was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed lung cancer. He died from this disease on April 13, 1996, aged 64, while being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.[1] Had he lived he would have been eligible for parole in 2004, aged 73.


Frank James Burke (1960 - May 18, 1987) was one of two sons born to James and Michelle "Mickey" Burke in Brooklyn. Like his father, he was a career criminal and a suspect in the Lufthansa heist. He was a well known heroin addict in mob circles and had been arrested several times for possession of the drug. He spent time at Robert's Lounge and The Linen Suite Lounge, which was a hangout for hijackers, burglars, thieves and scam artists. One of his father's proteges, Tommy DeSimone, took Frank out on his first "hit" or contract killing at age 16 or 17. The identity of Frank's victim reportedly told his father and criminal associates that Burke had "held up good." This earned Frank respect among the Italian wiseguys and made his father very proud. However, his criminal associates never made him a full-fledged member because of his Irish heritage.

Frank James Burke was found by police, shot to death on 1043 Liberty Avenue in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn, New York, at 2:30 a.m. May 18, 1987. He was 27 years old. There is no record of any remorse or grief from Jimmy Burke about the death of his son.

A second son, Jesse James Burke, is not involved in organized crime.

Daughter Catherine married Bonanno mobster Anthony Indelicato in 1992; as of 2006, the couple still live in the house that Burke owned in Howard Beach, Queens.

Movie depictions

Jimmy Burke was depicted by Robert DeNiro in the 1990 film Goodfellas as "Jimmy Conway." It was claimed that at the time 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. Burke was later portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the television film The Big Heist.

Further reading

  • Volkman, Ernest; Cummings, John (October 1986) (in English). The Heist: How a Gang Stole $8,000,000 at Kennedy Airport and Lived to Regret It. New York: Franklin Watts. ISBN 0531150240. 
  • Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (1990)
  • Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball by David Porter (2000)
  • On The Run — A Mafia Childhood by Gregg & Gina Hill (2004)
  • Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys . . . and Life on the Run by Henry Hill & Gus Russo (2005)
  • Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T. J. English (2005)


  1. ^ "James Burke, Mobster Depicted in Goodfellas". New York Times. April 17, 1996. Retrieved 2009-12-08. "James 'Jimmy the Gent' Burke, 64, a mobster depicted in Goodfellas and the suspected mastermind of the 1978 Lufthansa heist that netted a record $5.8 million in cash, has died. Burke died of cancer Saturday at a Buffalo hospital, said his attorney, Judd Burstein. Burke was serving 20 years to life for murdering a drug dealer when he became ill in February at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. Burke was closely associated with top members of the Lucchese ..." 

Simple English

James 'Jimmy the Gent' Burke (July 5, 1931 New York City, New YorkApril 13, 1996 Alden, New York), was an Irish-American gangster.


He is the father of small-time mobster Frankie Burke, Jesse James Burke, Catherine Burke and another unknown daughter.[needs proof] Catherine married Anthony Indelicato in 1992. He was nicknamed The Big Irishman or The Irish Guinea. Jimmy Conway, a character in the movie Goodfellas, is based on Burke.

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