NEW YORK — An aging mobster who stayed mostly in the shadows for decades by adhering to the Mafia's strict code of silence was acquitted Thursday of charges he helped plan a legendary 1978 Lufthansa heist retold in the hit film "Goodfellas."
A federal jury reached the surprising verdict at a Brooklyn racketeering trial where it heard testimony that portrayed 80-year-old Vincent Asaro as a throwback to an era when New York's five organized crime families comprised a secret society that committed brazen crimes and settled scores with bloodshed.
Asaro jumped up, pumped his fist and clapped after the verdict. When he walked out of the courthouse, he threw his hands up in the air and hollered: "Free!"
"I was shocked, I was really shocked," Asaro said outside. "I've got two years in, and I'm dying to get home."
He said he would be headed home to have a good meal with his family.
"Right now I've been eating bologna sandwiches," he said.
It was a stunning defeat for the federal government in a courthouse where prosecutors over the years have won convictions of major mob figures like Gambino family head John Gotti and Genovese crime boss Vincent "chin" Gigante. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment after the verdict.
Asaro, whose father and grandfather were members of the secretive Bonanno crime family, "was born into that life and he fully embraced it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Alicyn Cooley said in closing arguments. His devotion to the Bonannos "was as permanent as the 'death before dishonor' tattoo on his arm," she added.
Asaro said he believed jurors found him not guilty because the prosecution's case was "overkill."
"She must've put 30 agents on the stand, all lies," he said of the prosecutor.
The defense accused prosecutors of relying on shady paid cooperators, including Asaro's cousin Gaspare Valenti. They argued that the witnesses had incentive to frame Asaro to escape lengthy prison terms of their own.
"These are despicable people," defense lawyer Elizabeth Macedonio said in her closing. "They are accomplished liars."
At trial, prosecutors described how Asaro rose through the ranks and developed an "unbreakable bond" with the more notorious James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke, the late Lucchese crime family associate who orchestrated the holdup at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport. Taking the witness stand last month, Valenti testified that Asaro and Burke killed a suspected informant with a dog chain in 1969 before ordering Valenti to help bury the body.
Valenti also testified that Asaro drafted him for the Lufthansa heist, telling him, "Jimmy Burke has a big score at the airport coming up, and you're invited to go."
When he learned about the mountain of $100 bills and jewels taken from a Lufthansa vault, Asaro was "very happy, really euphoric," Valenti testified. "We thought there was going to be $2 million in cash and there was $6 million."
In the aftermath, Asaro survived a bloodbath portrayed in "Goodfellas," with Robert De Niro's character going ballistic over fellow mobsters' purchases of flashy cars and furs and, fearing they would attract law enforcement attention, having them whacked. Prosecutors claimed he collected at least $500,000 from the score but had a gambling problem and squandered it away at the racetrack.
Asked what he thought of Valenti, Asaro said: "You don't even want to know." But it was all behind him: Asaro was planning to spend Thanksgiving with this family.
As he hopped into a waiting car, Asaro quipped to one of his lawyers: "Sam, don't let them see the body in the trunk."