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Wiseguy | Context


Henry Hill

Infamous New York mobster Henry Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 11, 1943, one of nine children in his family. His father was Irish and his mother was Italian, and they lived in a working-class neighborhood made up largely of Italian American immigrants. Hill's first job was working for a cabstand across the street from his house, which was run by the local Vario brothers—who had organized crime connections to the Mafia. The Varios provided Hill with a sense of family and motivation, and he quickly rose within the ranks of their organized crime structure. Hill's access to the various levels of the Mafia gave him a particularly unique insight into the lifestyle, even rarer given he could never become a "made," or untouchable, member due to the fact he wasn't a full-blooded Italian. Paul Vario, a captain in the Lucchese crime family, took Hill under his wing as both a father figure and a boss, and even celebrated Hill's first teenage arrest with him.

Hill's swift rise within the Mafia ranks led to his commitment of more serious crimes, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence. Hill's time in prison was made easier thanks to protection on the inside from the Mafia, as well as help from his wife Karen. But inside the prison, Hill turned to dealing drugs—a crime that was banned by Paul Vario amongst his crew. After his release from prison, Hill took part in a heist of Lufthansa Airline with his colleague Jimmy Burke—a decision that set into motion eventual retaliation and threats to Hill's life by Burke. Hill was eventually arrested on narcotics charges, which led him to turn himself into the Federal Witness Protection Program to testify against his former mob colleagues. His testimony led to 50 separate convictions. Hill died on June 12, 2012.

The Lufthansa Airline Heist

Wiseguy centers on a climactic heist in which New York mobster Henry Hill participated—the robbery of over $5 million in cash from the Lufthansa Airline cargo building at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1978. The intricate heist involved plenty of moving parts and willing participants on the inside, and the case brought organized crime to the forefront of American media attention and the public consciousness. Kennedy Airport had long been the domain of two organized crime families, the Gambinos and the Luccheses, who used it to run heists and robberies—facilitated by security and union payoffs. However, the airline preferred to let insurance companies pay for the losses than to hire extra law enforcement. Investigation into the crime continued for more than 30 years as many participants and witnesses ended up dead or missing during the investigation.

James Burke—a friend and associate of Henry Hill—masterminded the heist, and in Wiseguy Hill claims Burke had "raised robbing the airport to an art form." Hill became involved on a tip from fellow bookmaker Marty Krugman that millions of dollars constantly waited around the Lufthansa cargo vault to be picked up by banks. Krugman learned this fact from Lufthansa cargo worker, Louis Werner, who owed Krugman a large gambling debt. Werner advised Krugman, Burke, and their associates precisely how and when to access the vault for a large payoff. The heist was pulled off effortlessly within an hour. Airline employees reported the masked robbers seemed to know all of their names and the codes to the vault.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) became immediately involved in the investigation because of its unprecedented nature, instantly suspecting it was the work of the Mafia, and Burke, Hill, and their associates in particular. Despite heavy surveillance on Burke and his crew, the FBI wasn't able to gather enough evidence to arrest anyone. Meanwhile, Burke became increasingly paranoid about his crew leaking information and began murdering anyone he perceived as a threat. While Burke went to prison on murder charges for an unrelated crime, he was never prosecuted for his role in the heist. Although Hill's connection to the heist led to his downfall in the form of an unrelated arrest, it took more than 30 years for the FBI to prosecute anyone related to the crime.

The Mafia

The Mafia, also referred to as the mob, is the name for an organized crime ring that largely consists of Italian American immigrants and their families. Members of the Mafia don't refer to themselves as such, preferring the Sicilian term Cosa Nostra, which translates to mean "our concern." The Mafia's criminal activities began and rose to prominence in poor and working-class immigrant neighborhoods in New York City and Brooklyn during the 20th century. The Mafia's presence in these neighborhoods was a result of immigrant ties to the Sicilian Mafia and a weariness with poverty. Because of its tight-knit, insular nature and distrust of outsiders, one of the Mafia's main codes of conduct is Mafia members are family regardless of blood ties. This code ensures unqualified support during prosecution for criminal activities.

In Wiseguy Henry Hill's introduction to the Mafia begins when he is taken under the wing of real-life crime boss Paul Vario, who treats him like a son. This relationship provides a sense of security for Hill that breeds loyalty toward the other wiseguys in his Mafia family. Nicholas Pileggi and Hill frequently mention the names of the five New York Mafia families: the Bonannos, the Columbos, the Gambinos, the Luccheses, and the Genoveses. Each family has its own hierarchy and "soldiers" who do its work. If conflicts arise between families, they are settled through a sit-down meeting between the bosses. Paul Vario belongs to the Lucchese family, and Hill and his fellow wiseguys come into various conflicts with the Gambino and Bonnano soldiers. The bosses will protect their wiseguys at all costs unless a mistake is made, at which point they may agree during the sit-down that murdering the offender is fair punishment.

Until the 1960s law enforcement paid little attention to the Mafia, despite its long-term establishment since the turn of the century and its active part in selling alcohol during the Prohibition era, when alcohol was outlawed. As recounted by Pileggi and Henry Hill, most members of the Mafia lived off the grid, without phone numbers, addresses, or bank accounts, making their activities hard to trace. Bribery and corruption of officials by the Mafia steadily increased, which also allowed them to operate without much interference from the police. By the 1960s the Mafia had its hand in everything from sports betting to airline heists and drug running. Also, as depicted in the book, the Mafia owned and operated a number of hotels and restaurants as fronts for their illegal businesses. Wiseguy also depicts the inevitable downfall of Hill's crime ring, after law enforcement organizes a task force to target Mafia families.

The FBI and Law Enforcement

In 1950 a special committee formed in the United States Senate to investigate the dealings of the growing organized crime ring known as the Mafia. The resulting findings were televised. As a consequence, the Mafia's dealings were publicized to the American audience for the first time, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began collecting information on known mobsters and the hierarchy and relationships within New York's Five Families.

As television grew in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, public interest in the Mafia's dealings and organization grew with it. In Wiseguy Pileggi points out how the news treated the Mafia's 1978 Lufthansa Airline heist as entertainment. This media attention put pressure on the FBI to catch and prosecute organized crime members. Yet, many of the law enforcement officers interviewed in the book express frustration that before they were able to question witnesses or suspects, many of them disappeared or turned up dead.

It was not until the 1960s that the FBI was finally able to catch a glimpse of the inner workings and organization of the Mafia. Henry Hill was a prime candidate for FBI questioning, given his extensive knowledge of the Lucchese crime family. In the 1970s the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) was passed, which made acts performed as part of a criminal organization subject to criminal penalties and civil action. While this act ramped up prosecution of Mafia members, it also provided increasing protection for informants such as Hill under the Federal Witness Protection Program or Witness Security Program (WITSEC).

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