Monday, September 5, 2016
Henry Hill: American Gangster
Hill's life story was documented in the true crime book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi. Wiseguy was subsequently adapted by Martin Scorsese into the critically acclaimed film Goodfellas, in which Hill was portrayed by Ray Liotta.
Henry Hill, Jr., was born on June 11, 1943, to Henry Hill, Sr., an immigrant Irish-American electrician, and Carmela Costa Hill, a Sicilian-American. The working-class family consisted of Henry and his eight siblings who grew up in Brownsville, a poorer area of the East New York section of Brooklyn. From an early age, he admired the local mobsters who socialized across the street from his home, including Paul Vario, a "capo" in the Lucchese crime family. In 1955, when Hill was eleven years old, he wandered into the cabstand across the street looking for a part-time after-school job. In his early teens, he began running errands for patrons of Vario's storefront shoe-shine, pizzeria, and dispatch cabstand. He first met the notorious hijacker and Lucchese family associate James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke in 1956. The thirteen-year-old Hill served drinks and sandwiches at a card game and was dazzled by Burke's openhanded tipping.
The following year, Paul Vario's younger brother, Vito "Tuddy" Vario, and older brother, Lenny Vario, presented Hill with a highly sought-after union card in the bricklayers' local. Hill would be a "no show," put on a building contractor's construction payroll, guaranteeing him a weekly salary of $190. This didn't mean Hill would be getting or keeping all that money every week. He received only a portion of it and the rest would be kept and divided among the Varios. The card also allowed Hill to facilitate pickup of daily policy bets and loan payments to Vario from local construction sites. Once Hill had this "legitimate" job, he dropped out of high school, working exclusively for the Vario gangsters.
Hill's first encounter with arson occurred when the Rebel Cab Company cabstand opened just around the corner from Vario's business. The competing company's owner was from Alabama; new to New York City. Sometime after midnight, Tuddy and Hill drove to the rival cabstand with a drum full of gasoline in the back seat of Tuddy's car. Hill smashed the cab windows and filled them with gasoline-soaked newspapers, then tossed in lit match books.
Hill's first arrest took place when he was sixteen; the arrest record is one of the few official documents that prove his existence. Hill and Lenny, Vario's equally underage son, attempted to use a stolen credit card to buy snow tires for Tuddy's wife's car. When Hill and Lenny returned to Tuddy's, two police detectives apprehended Hill. During a rough interrogation, Hill gave his name and nothing else; Vario's attorney later facilitated his release on bail. While a suspended sentence resulted, Hill's refusal to talk earned him the respect of both Vario and Burke. Burke, in particular, saw great potential in Hill. Like Burke, he was of Irish ancestry and therefore ineligible to become a "made man." The Vario crew, however, were happy to have associates of any ethnicity, so long as they made money and refused to cooperate with the authorities.
Throughout his three-year enlistment, Hill maintained his mob contacts. He also continued to hustle: in charge of kitchen detail, he sold surplus food; loan sharked pay advances to fellow soldiers; and sold tax-free cigarettes. Before his discharge, Hill spent two months in the stockade for stealing a local sheriff's car and brawling in a bar with a civilian and Marines. In 1963, Hill returned to New York and began the most notorious phase of his criminal career: arson, intimidation, running an organized stolen car ring, and hijacking trucks.
In 1965, Hill met his future wife, Karen Friedman, through Paul Vario, Jr., though the film Goodfellas replaces him with Thomas "Tommy" DeSimone. Paul insisted that Hill go with him on a double date at Frank "Frankie the Wop" Manzo's restaurant, Villa Capra. According to Friedman the date was disastrous, and Hill stood her up at the next dinner. After, the two began going on dates at the Copacabana and other nightclubs, where Karen was introduced to Henry's outwardly impressive lifestyle. The two later got married in a large North Carolina wedding, attended by most of Hill's gangster friends.
On December 11, 1978, Hill and Jimmy Burke pulled the Lufthansa heist. Hill had heard from Robert "Frenchy" McMahon that his employer, Lufthansa, was handling a shipment of USD $6 million in cash and jewelry. The main problem was a guard with a key to the safe. They identified the guard's weakness for women. They got the guard drunk and took him to a motel, where a prostitute waited to distract him. When the guard took off his pants to change into a bathrobe, they took his ring of keys. Not knowing which key led to the vault, the mobsters simply made duplicate copies of as many of the keys as possible, then replaced the original keyring without his knowledge. At 11:40 pm on a Saturday, Hill and Burke drove to the Air France cargo parking lot in a rented car sporting false plates. They left with the USD $6 million haul. Hill and DeSimone paid a $750,000 tribute to two mob chiefs. They were Sebastian "Buster" Aloi, the 57-year-old capo for the Colombo crime family, who considered Kennedy Airport their turf, and their own capo, Paul Vario.
Hill began wholesaling marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and quaaludes based on connections he made in prison; he earned enormous amounts of money. A young kid who was a "mule" of Hill's "ratted" Hill out to Narcotics Detectives Daniel Mann and William Broder. "The Youngster" (so named by the detectives) informed them that the supplier [Henry Hill] was connected to the Lucchese crime family and was a close friend to Paul Vario and to Jimmy Burke and "had probably been in on the Lufthansa robbery." Knowing who Hill was and what he did, they put surveillance on him, taking pictures. They found out that Hill's old prison friend from Pittsburgh ran a dog-grooming salon as a front. Mann and Broder had "thousands" of wiretaps of Hill. But Hill and his crew used coded language in the conversations.
Hill and his Pittsburgh connection set up a point shaving scheme by convincing Boston College center Rick Kuhn to participate. Kuhn encouraged teammates to join the scheme, which ended in a well-known scandal. Hill also claimed to have an NBA referee in his pocket who worked games at Madison Square Garden during the 1970s. The referee had incurred gambling debts on horse races.
While Karen was worried, she kept getting calls from Jimmy Burke's wife, Mickey, asking when Hill was coming home, or if Karen needed anything. Hill knew the calls were from Jimmy. When Hill was finally released on bail, he met Burke at a restaurant they always went to, Burke told him that they should meet at a bar Hill had never heard of or seen before, owned by "Charlie the Jap." Hill never met him there, instead they met at Burke's sweatshop with Karen and asked for the address in Florida where he was to kill Bobby Germaine's son with Anthony Stabile. Hill knew he was going to get killed in Florida, but he needed to stay on the streets to make money. McDonald didn't want to take any chances and arrested Hill as a material witness in the Lufthansa robbery. Hill then agreed to become an informant and signed an agreement with the United States Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force on May 27, 1980. In 2011, former junior mob associate Greg Bucceroni alleged that, after Hill's 1980 arrest, Jimmy Burke offered him money to arrange a meeting between Bucceroni and Hill at a Brooklyn grocery store so that Burke could have Hill murdered gangland fashion, but Bucceroni decided quietly against any involvement with the hit on Hill. Shortly afterwards, Burke and several other Lucchese crime family members were arrested by federal authorities.
Jimmy Burke was given 20 years in prison for the 1978–79 Boston College point shaving scandal, involving fixing Boston College basketball games. Burke was also later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of scam artist Richard Eaton. Burke died of cancer while serving his life sentence, on April 13, 1996. He was 69.
Paul Vario received four years for helping Henry Hill obtain a no-show job to get him paroled from prison. Vario was also later sentenced to ten years in prison for the extortion of air freight companies at JFK Airport. He died of respiratory failure on November 22, 1988, at age 73 while incarcerated in the FCI Federal Prison in Fort Worth.
Hill, his wife Karen, and their two children (Gregg and Gina) entered the U.S. Marshals' Witness Protection Program in 1980, changed their names, and moved to undisclosed locations in Omaha, Nebraska; Independence, Kentucky; Redmond, Washington; and Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, Hill hosted backyard cookouts for his neighbors, and on one occasion, while under the influence of a combination of liquor and drugs, he revealed his true identity to his guests. To the ire of the federal marshals, they were forced to relocate him one final time to Sarasota, Florida. There, a few months had passed, and Hill repeated the same breach of security, causing the government to finally expel him from the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Due to his numerous crimes while in witness protection, Hill (along with his wife) were expelled from the program in the early 1990s. After the 1987 arrest, Hill claimed to be clean until he was arrested in North Platte, Nebraska, in March 2005. Hill had left his luggage at Lee Bird Field Airport in North Platte, Nebraska, containing drug paraphernalia, glass tubes with cocaine and methamphetamine residue. In September 2005, he was sentenced to 180 days imprisonment for attempted methamphetamine possession.
Hill was a painter and he sold his artwork on eBay, and was a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show. Hill, who previously claimed to have never killed anyone, admitted on The Howard Stern Show to being ordered by Vario to kill three people, which he says he did comply with.
He was sentenced to two years probation on March 26, 2009. On December 14, 2009, he was arrested in Fairview Heights, Illinois, for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest which Hill attributed to his drinking problems.
In August 2011, Henry Hill appeared in the special "Mob Week" on AMC. He and other former mob members talked about The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other such mob films. On February 14, 2012, he was put in the Las Vegas Mob Museum and in April 2012, he interviewed for "mobsters" about Jimmy Burke and Tommy DeSimone to air that summer.
In October 2002 Henry Hill wrote a cookbook called The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As A Goodfella To Cooking On The Run. Henry shares some of his stories and recipes he’s learned from his family, his years in the Mob, and ones that he came up with himself. Hill’s last supper on the day he got busted for drugs was rolled veal cutlets, sauce with pork butt, veal shanks, and ziti, green beans with olive oil and garlic.
Hill worked for a time as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Nebraska and his spaghetti sauce, Sunday Gravy, was marketed over the internet. Hill opened another restaurant, Wiseguys, in West Haven, Connecticut, in October 2007.
On October 7, 2014 Henry Hill was featured on ESPN Films: 30 for 30 "Playing for the Mob". It was based on the fixing of the Boston College basketball games in 1978 and 1979, Hill reveals the details behind the point shaving scandal along with the testimony from the players and federal investigators involved. Ray Liotta also guest starred as the narrator.
Hill died in a Los Angeles hospital on June 12, 2012, one day after his 69th birthday. Hill's girlfriend for the last 14 years of his life, Lisa Caserta, said: "He had been sick for a long time and that his heart gave out." and CBS News reported Caserta saying: "he went out pretty peacefully, for a goodfella."
She said Hill recently suffered a heart attack before his death and that Hill died of complications from longtime heart problems related to smoking. Hill's family was present when he died. Hill was cremated the day after his death.
This work is released through CC 3.0 BY-SA: Creative Commons