NEW YORK (Reuters) - An alleged top member of New York's Bonanno crime family went on trial on Monday for what federal prosecutors said was his role in the famous 1978 airport heist that inspired the mob movie "Goodfellas."
Vincent Asaro, 80, was one of several armed men that stole $6 million in cash and jewelry in December 1978 from a Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, "truly the score of all scores," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Gerdes told a federal jury in Brooklyn.
But defense lawyer Diane Ferrone said the government's case is based entirely on witnesses who are lying to avoid lengthy prison terms for their own crimes.
"When necessary, they lie to each other, and they lie to save themselves," she told the jurors, whose identities the judge in the case has ordered sealed for security purposes.
The heist, which was depicted in Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning 1990 film, was one of the United States' most infamous unsolved crimes until last year, when prosecutors arrested Asaro and accused him of a litany of Mafia-related offenses - from murder to extortion - over the span of several decades.
Among other crimes, Asaro is accused of strangling a suspected informant to death with a dog chain in 1969.
Prosecutors contend Asaro followed his grandfather and father into the "family business" in the 1970s.
"The defendant is a gangster, through and through," Gerdes said.
Most of the other suspected participants in the heist disappeared, died or were killed, although jurors will not hear about the string of murders depicted in "Goodfellas" that followed the theft.
Several former members of the Bonanno family, one of five organized crime families in New York, are expected to testify for the government. The list includes former Bonanno boss Joseph Massino.
The first witness on Monday was Sal Vitale, Massino's former second-in-command, who took the jurors through the family's command structure and rules.
The "Don'ts," he said, include meeting federal agents, sleeping with another member's wife and killing someone without permission.
"The 'Dos' are very simple: Just do what you're told," said Vitale, who confessed to participating in 11 murders during his mob career.
He described a meeting soon after the Lufthansa heist, when Asaro handed Massino a case full of gold chains.
"Joe said, 'This is from the Lufthansa score,'" Vitale testified.