Obituary: Jimmy Burke

Although his murderous career as a thief was over by the time Robert De Niro depicted Jimmy Burke in the 1990 movie Goodfellas, there is more than a little irony to be gleaned from a fellow criminal's description of Burke as "the kind of guy who cheered for the crooks in the movies". Burke was an unusually successful professional criminal whose career is noteworthy as much for the relish with which he plied his trade as for the violence that ran like a thread through the fabric of his 64 years.

Burke's early years were harsh by any standards. He never knew his real parents, and was taken into care at the age of two, a development that marked the beginning of over a decade of alternating violence, sexual abuse, kindness and pampering at the hands of dozens of foster parents. At the age of 13, an altercation with his latest foster parents while riding in a car resulted in a crash and the death of his foster father, an episode that earned him the enmity of his foster mother.

Jimmy Burke's life immediately began to conform with all of the classic stereotypes of juvenile delinquency, and within two months of the fatal accident he was arrested for a minor public order offence; he was subsequently cleared. Burke took to burglary and became a regular inmate in various reformatories, juvenile gaols and eventually adult prisons.

Although his fledgling career could hardly be described as successful - between the ages of 16 and 22 he enjoyed just 86 days of freedom - he was quickly establishing the kind of staunch resistance to police pressure that is a prerequisite for acceptance into the criminal fraternity. As a young convict Burke's reputation was further enhanced by his willingness to commit murder on behalf of incarcerated organised crime figures, and the man who was later described by crime writer Nicholas Pileggi as a "criminal savant" established an unusual distinction as a close associate of both the Lucchese and Colombo crime families.

His subsequent career in loan-sharking, cigarette smuggling, extortion, drug-dealing, hijacking and armed robbery was built on a lethal fusion of benevolence and murder. Burke earned his sobriquet "the Gent" from his tendency to tip heavily, and to treat the drivers of lorries that he hijacked well. When Burke heard of a young criminal who refused to pay back a $5,000 loan to his elderly mother, he gave the woman the money out of his own pocket, and then killed the errant son. He also murdered and dismembered the body of the ex-boyfriend of his bride-to-be on the eve of their marriage, and murdered his best friend as repayment for being double-crossed over a lorry-load of cigarettes.

Burke went on to emerge as one of the most eminent criminal money-makers of his day. Using Roberts Lounge in Queens as his base, he and his crew plundered Kennedy Airport. With the assistance of the Luccheses' powerful influence over the unions, they controlled every aspect of larceny in and around the airport, in particular hijacking, which despite its profitability enjoyed in the State of New York an ambiguous legal status. Rather less ambiguous was the treatment of anyone suspected of providing information to the police. They were murdered at the rate of up to a dozen a year.

The 1978 Lufthansa robbery from the airline's vaults at Kennedy airport was commonly attributed to Burke and his crew, and netted $5.8m, the largest theft of cash in American history. As the FBI informant Henry Hill explains in Pillegi's book Wise Guy, the book on which Goodfellas was closely based, the success of the Lufthansa heist marked the beginning of the end of Burke's career. Willie Johnson, the 300lb, half-Indian enforcer for various organised crime groups, pointed the finger at Paul Vario, a Lucchese capo with whom Burke had a long-term relationship, and gave the FBI information that enabled them electronically to bug a trailer in a scrapyard owned by Vario.

As members of Vario's crew were picked up by the FBI, so the Lucchese organisation conducted their own search for an informant. This search cost the lives of 14 people who were in some way connected with the robbery, and an increasingly paranoid Jimmy Burke was, according to Henry Hill, responsible for much of the carnage. The money was never recovered and only one conviction, that of a cargo agent, was achieved.

Burke was arrested in 1980 for a parole violation - associating with a known felon - and in 1982 received a 12-year sentence for his part in a points- fixing scam involving the Boston College basketball team. Within a year Hill's testimony led to Burke's conviction for the murder of a drug dealer and Lufthansa money-launderer, Richard Eaton, for which he received 20 years to life.

Jimmy Burke, who named his two sons Frank James and Jesse James, was a committed professional criminal who used murder as a routine part of his criminal strategy. He died in the month that his lawyer had scheduled a Federal Court motion to free him on the grounds that his civil rights had been violated.

Dick Hobbs

James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, professional criminal: born New York 5 July 1931; married (two sons); died Buffalo, New York 13 April 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn