Organized crime's 'code of silence' broken in alleged mobster's trial

Story highlights

  • Trial of alleged ex-mob captain Vincent Asaro showcased two witnesses this week
  • Sal Vitale, Gaspare Valenti offered peek at mob rules, 1978 Lufthansa heist
  • Asaro's family openly bashed Valenti's testimony: 'These are some fairytales'

(CNN)Witnesses talk about wiseguys, rats and hiding bodies, and list the do's and don'ts of organized crime. A tattoo on the defendant's arm reads "Death before dishonor." Peppered into riveting testimony are nicknames like Skinny Dom, Vinny Gorgeous, Louie Haha and Tommy Shots.

If it sounds like a Hollywood movie script, it kind of already is.
But this is real life and at the center of it all is 80-year-old Vincent Asaro -- the alleged former mob captain who's on trial in federal court to face charges in a string of crimes over 40 years. Among them: murder, racketeering and the famed 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK International Airport that helped inspire part of the plot in the 1990 film "Goodfellas."
    In opening statements as the trial got under way Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Gerdes called Asaro a "gangster through and through," who, as a captain in the Bonanno crime family, lived his life according to the Omerta -- organized crime's "code of silence."
    Two witnesses have been called so far who have chosen to break that code: Sal Vitale, a Bonanno underboss who has pleaded guilty to participating in 11 mob-related murders, and Gaspare Valenti, a cousin of Asaro and a Bonanno associate. Both have signed cooperation agreements with the government.

    Lufthansa heist

    While Vitale offered a compelling look Monday into the rules and hierarchy of organized crime, it was Valenti's testimony Tuesday that ties Asaro to the most serious charges he is facing, including what prosecutors call the "score of all scores" -- the Lufthansa heist.
    In that robbery, a band of robbers stole about $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewels from an airline cargo building in the largest cash robbery in the nation's history at the time.
    Asaro was one of five reputed mobsters indicted in January for the long-unsolved crime.
    Valenti testified that Asaro invited him to take part in the heist, and on the night of the robbery, cautioned him to "make sure you do everything you're supposed to do. Don't dog it. If anything happens, stand your ground, do the robbery the best you can."
    While Asaro waited outside the terminal in a decoy "crash car" which would intercept the police in case they responded to the heist, Valenti testified that the robbery team, brandishing guns, detained Lufthansa terminal workers and robbed the vault of 50 boxes -- each containing $125,000; a silver box of jewelry and German money.
    Valenti recalled being "happy" and "euphoric" after the group realized the size of its score.

    Dealing with 'a rat'

    In grim testimony that gave a glimpse into how the mob deals with those who cooperate with law enforcement, Valenti also recalled when Asaro and his partner Jimmy Burke buried the body of a warehouse owner whom they accused of being a "rat." Paul Katz disappeared in 1969.
    Asaro allegedly told Valenti that he "did most of the digging. Jimmy hurt his hand when he killed Paul. They strangled him with a dog chain."
    The body was buried at a vacant house owned by Asaro and covered up with cement, according to Valenti's testimony.
    Valenti testified that years later, he was instructed by Asaro to dig up the body and move it from its hiding place.
    The trial will continue Thursday with Valenti's recorded wiretap conversations with Asaro.

    'These are some fairytales'

    Throughout Valenti's testimony, Asaro periodically shook his head and conferred with his lawyers, at one point mouthing the word "liar." Family members of Asaro's also could be heard muttering, "These are some fairytales. ... They gave him a book to memorize ... he should get an Academy Award."
    Asaro's attorney Diane Ferrone called the government's witnesses "criminal cooperators" in her opening statement, who "have a motive to lie." She noted Valenti's history of borrowing money he couldn't pay back and accused him of cooperating for money, saying everything he "did was to make a buck ... his latest con victim is the U.S. government."
    During cross examination of Vitale on Tuesday, defense attorney Elizabeth Macedonia had him detail the 11 murders he pleaded guilty to as part of his cooperation agreement with the government and highlighted that he has been paid for testifying for the government in almost 10 trials, including a $250,000 payment.