Obituary: Jimmy Burke - Obituaries - News - The Independent

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.

Life and Style
tech
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
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

IT Administrator - Graduate

£18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Exam Invigilators needed

£45 - £50 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Randstad Education are currentl...

Looking for work in Secondary Schools?

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Are you looking for work in Ed...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week