Thursday, January 23, 2014

Police With Long Memories

We've all seen Goodfellas more times than we can count. There's something about such films, featuring criminals with a certain undefinable charm. The men are murderers, thugs, and deserving of lengthy prison sentences, but there's that code of honor they follow that makes them more intriguing than the average hustler.

The real Goodfellas
Henry Hill was one of those goodfellas, played as a handsome rake by Ray Liotta. He admitted his part in the theft of millions from a Lufthansa cargo that arrived at New York's JFK airport back in 1978. The sensational crime was never solved, however, because of that code of honor that led  Mr. Hill's associate, James Burke, to murder a large portion of his gang for the crime of not laying low as ordered, thereby endangering the secrecy.

According to Mr. Hill, the fact that Jimmy Burke was whacking those who took part in the crime, as a way to silence the witnesses, encouraged him to turn against his crime family to save his life. He talked, he wrote a book, and the book became a movie. After that, the crime was more or less forgotten.

But the New York police never forgot.

The case went cold, but they did not file away their leads and tips.

In June, the FBI went to the home of Jimmy Burke, who died years ago without ratting, and dug up the basement. Somewhere, somehow, they had a tip on the cold case. They were driven by more than a desire to solve a crime. It was the principle of the thing. To let the Mafia get away with a crime would send the wrong message about the FBI's ability to bring down organized crime. Without a break in the case, the Mafia would profit from the massive theft, since little of the stolen cash was ever recovered, and that isn't what the FBI wants.

Someone had been buried in the basement, someone maybe connected to the crime with relatives who were never sure where the family member went some night long ago. Someone might have said something after learning of the murder, and decided to get even by talking.

Several Mafiosi were arrested and are scheduled to be arraigned this week. All the police are saying is that the arrests are part of an ongoing investigation into cold cases, including the Lufthansa heist.

Long memories, those policemen. Probably a few who were new to the force in 1978 and harbor a desire to solve the crime before they retire.

And maybe there's a little animosity towards the image projected in Goodfellas, of charming devils committing crimes and enjoying great food, when the reality is not the sort of thing that Hollywood presents. It isn't all fun and games, a contest to outsmart authority and bring home bags of cash. The police force wants to make sure that the story ends with criminals doing life in prison, peons rather than bosses. Toothless animals, put into cages where they can't hurt anyone else.

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