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