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Henry Hill, Jr.
FBI mugshot taken in 1980
|Born||June 11, 1943|
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
|Died||June 12, 2012 (aged 69)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Other names||Alex Canclini|
|Known for||Lucchese crime family criminal associate|
|Lisa Caserta (fiancée; 2006-2012; his death)|
|Service/||United States Army|
|Years of service||1960–1963|
|Unit||82nd Airborne Division|
Henry Hill, Jr. (June 11, 1943 - June 12, 2012) was a criminal from the United States. Between 1955 and 1980, Hill was associated with the Lucchese crime family. In 1980, Hill became an FBI informant, and his testimony helped secure 50 convictions, including those of mob capo (captain) Paul Vario and James Burke on multiple charges.
Hill's life story was documented in the true crime book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi.Wiseguy was subsequently adapted by Martin Scorsese into the critically acclaimed film Goodfellas, in which Hill was portrayed by Ray Liotta.
Henry Hill, Jr. was born on June 11, 1943 in Manhattan, New York, to Henry Hill, Sr., an Irish immigrant and electrician, and Carmela Costa Hill, a Sicilian. The working class family consisted of Henry and his eight siblings who grew up in Brownsville, a poorer area of the East New York section of Brooklyn. From an early age, Hill admired the local mobsters who socialized across the street from his home, including Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese crime family. In 1955, when Hill was 11 years old, he wandered into the cabstand across the street looking for a part-time after-school job. In his early teens, he began running errands for patrons of Vario's storefront shoeshine, pizzeria, and dispatch cabstand. He first met the notorious hijacker and Lucchese family associate James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke in 1956. The 13-year-old Hill served drinks and sandwiches at a card game and was dazzled by Burke's openhanded tipping. "He was sawbucking me to death. Twenty here. Twenty there. He wasn't like anyone else I had ever met."
The following year, Paul Vario's younger brother, Vito "Tuddy" Vario, and older brother, Lenny Vario, presented Hill with a highly sought-after union card in the bricklayers' local. Hill would be a "no show", put on a building contractor's construction payroll, guaranteeing him a weekly salary of $190 (equivalent to $1,690 in 2018). This didn't mean Hill would be getting or keeping all that money every week. He received only a portion of it, and the rest was kept and divided among the Varios. The card also allowed Hill to facilitate pickup of daily policy bets and loan payments to Vario from local construction sites. Once Hill had this "legitimate" job, he dropped out of high school, working exclusively for the Vario gangsters.
Hill's first encounter with arson occurred when the Rebel Cab Company cabstand opened just around the corner from Vario's business. The competing company's owner was from Alabama, new to New York City. Sometime after midnight, Tuddy and Hill drove to the rival cabstand with a drum full of gasoline in the back seat of Tuddy's car. Hill smashed the cab windows and filled them with gasoline-soaked newspapers, then tossed in lit match books.
Hill was first arrested when he was 16; his arrest record is one of the few official documents that prove his existence. Hill and Lenny, Vario's equally underage son, attempted to use a stolen credit card to buy snow tires for Tuddy's wife's car. When Hill and Lenny returned to Tuddy's, two police detectives apprehended Hill. During a rough interrogation, Hill gave his name and nothing else; Vario's attorney later facilitated his release on bail. While a suspended sentence resulted, Hill's refusal to talk earned him the respect of both Vario and Burke. Burke, in particular, saw great potential in Hill. Like Burke, he was of Irish ancestry and therefore ineligible to become a "made man". The Vario crew, however, were happy to have associates of any ethnicity, so long as they made money and refused to cooperate with the authorities.
In June 1960, at around 17 years old, Hill joined the Army, serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Hill claimed the timing was deliberate; the FBI investigation into the 1957 Apalachin mob summit meeting had prompted a Senate investigation into organized crime, and its links with businesses and unions. This resulted in the publication of a list of nearly 5,000 names of members and associates of the five major crime families. Hill searched through a partial list but could not find Vario listed among the Lucchese family.
Throughout his three-year enlistment, Hill maintained his mob contacts. He also continued to hustle: in charge of kitchen detail, he sold surplus food, loan sharked pay advances to fellow soldiers, and sold tax-free cigarettes. Before his discharge, Hill spent two months in the stockade for stealing a local sheriff's car, and brawling in a bar with a civilian and Marines. In 1963, Hill returned to New York and began the most notorious phase of his criminal career: arson, intimidation, running an organized stolen car ring, and hijacking trucks.
In 1965, Hill met his future wife, Karen Friedman, through Paul Vario, Jr. Paul insisted that Hill accompany him on a double date at Frank "Frankie the Wop" Manzo's restaurant, Villa Capra. According to Friedman the date was disastrous, and Hill stood her up at the next dinner date. Afterward, the two began going on dates at the Copacabana and other nightclubs, where Friedman was introduced to Hill's outwardly impressive lifestyle. The two later got married in a large North Carolina wedding, attended by most of Hill's gangster friends.
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On April 7, 1967, Hill and Tommy DeSimone executed the Air France robbery, following a tip-off from Robert "Frenchy" McMahon. The robbery was initially proposed to Hill in January 1967 as an armed heist of several bags containing $60,000 each from the Air France cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The targeted money was stored in a strong-room inside the Air France cargo hold, permanently protected by a security guard. Hill determined that an armed robbery would involve unnecessary risk and would be unlikely to succeed; instead, Hill devised a plan to steal the keys to the strong room from a security guard who carried them at all times. Hill conducted surveillance on the security guard during his leisure time and found the guard had a weakness for women. Hill and McMahon succeeded in getting the guard drunk before driving him to the Jade East Motel where he was introduced to a prostitute. While the guard was distracted, Hill retrieved the guard's set of keys from his discarded trousers and had copies made before returning the original keys, thus leaving the guard and his employers unaware of any breach in security. Hill entered the cargo terminal with Tommy DeSimone on April 7, 1967 following a tip-off from McMahon about a shipment of between $400,000 and $700,000 being made to the strong-room. Using the duplicate key, Hill and DeSimone stole $420,000 (equivalent to over $3.1 million in 2018) in cash from the strong-room, loading the money into a large suitcase. They entered and exited the cargo terminal unchallenged and unnoticed while the security guard was on a meal break. No shots were fired and the money was not reported missing until April 11, 1967. Hill shared the take from the heist with senior Mafia members, giving $120,000 in total to Paul Vario and Sebastian Aloi of the Colombo crime family, in recognition that the cargo terminal fell within the Colombo family's 'turf'.
Hill used his share of the robbery proceeds to purchase a restaurant on Queens Boulevard, The Suite, initially aiming to run it as a legitimate business and provide 'distance' between himself and his mob associates. However, within several months, the nightclub had become another mob hangout. Hill later said that members of Lucchese and Gambino crews moved into the club en masse, including high-ranking Gambino family members who "were always there".
One incident in the restaurant which Hill considered the most significant was the murder in 1970 of Gambino family member William "Billy Batts" Devino (whose surname was also given as 'Bentvena'), who had been recently released from prison. After an altercation in The Suite between Tommy DeSimone and Devino during a 'welcome-home' party for Devino on June 11, 1970, Hill stated that DeSimone and Jimmy Burke began planning his death. Devino was murdered inside The Suite several weeks later by DeSimone and Burke, with Hill assisting in the disposal of his body. Hill later claimed that "We knew what was coming" and he had deliberately cleared out The Suite in anticipation of Devino's murder. Burke had got Devino heavily drunk before he was assaulted by DeSimone, who then pistol-whipped Devino into unconsciousness. Assuming he was dead, they drove to Pennsylvania to ensure that the body wouldn't be found. During the drive there, noises were coming from the trunk. Hill pulled the car over to open the trunk to find Devino still alive. The bloody and bruised Devino cried Hill's name before Hill stepped back and witnessed Burke and DeSimone stab Devino to death. The actual motive for the murder involved loan-sharking rackets which Devino had run before being incarcerated; while he was in prison, the rackets had been taken over by DeSimone and Burke, who did not want to relinquish them. Witnessing the murder of Devino would haunt Hill for the rest of his life.
In 1972, Burke and Hill were arrested for beating Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida. Ciaccio allegedly owed a large gambling debt to their friend, union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg where he was imprisoned with Vario, who was serving a sentence for tax evasion, and several Gotti crew members. In Lewisburg, Hill met a man from Pittsburgh who, for a fee, taught Hill how to smuggle drugs into the prison. On July 12, 1978, Hill was paroled after four years and resumed his criminal career. Hill began trafficking in drugs, and Burke was soon involved with this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family, with whom they were associated, did not authorize any of its members to deal drugs. This Lucchese ban was enacted because the prison sentences imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking were so lengthy that the accused would often become informants in exchange for a lesser sentence. This is exactly what Hill eventually did, becoming an informant against Burke after several years selling drugs.
Hill began wholesaling marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and quaaludes based on connections he made in prison; he earned enormous amounts of money. A young kid who was a "mule" of Hill's "ratted" Hill out to Narcotics Detectives Daniel Mann and William Broder. "The Youngster" (so named by the detectives) informed them that the supplier [Henry Hill] was connected to the Lucchese crime family and was a close friend to Paul Vario and to Jimmy Burke and "had probably been in on the Lufthansa robbery". Knowing who Hill was and what he did, they put surveillance on him, taking pictures. They found out that Hill's old prison friend from Pittsburgh ran a dog-grooming salon as a front. Mann and Broder had "thousands" of wiretaps of Hill. But Hill and his crew used coded language in the conversations. Hill's wiretap on March 29 is an example of the bizarre vocabulary:
Pittsburgh Connection: You know the golf club and the dogs you gave me in return?
Pittsburgh Connection: Can you still do that?
Hill: Same kind of golf clubs?
Pittsburgh Connection: No. No golf clubs. Can you still give me the dogs if I can pay for the golf clubs?
Hill: Yeah. Sure.
[portion of conversation omitted]
Pittsburgh Connection: You front me the shampoo and I'll front you the dog pills. ... what time tomorrow?
Hill: Anytime after twelve.
Pittsburgh Connection: You won't hold my lady friend up?
Pittsburgh Connection: Somebody will just exchange dogs.
The Lufthansa heist was a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 11, 1978. An estimated $5.875 million ($22.6 million today) was stolen from the German airline Lufthansa, with $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry, making it the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at the time.
Hill and two Pittsburgh gamblers set up a point shaving scheme by convincing Boston College center Rick Kuhn to participate. Kuhn, who was a high school friend of one of the gamblers, encouraged teammates to participate in the scandal.
On April 27, 1980, Hill was arrested on a narcotics-trafficking charge. He became convinced that his former associates planned to have him killed: Vario, for dealing drugs; and Burke, to prevent Hill from implicating him in the Lufthansa Heist. Hill heard on a wiretap that his associates Angelo Sepe and Anthony Stabile were anxious to have him killed, and that they were telling Burke that Hill "is no good", and that he "is a junkie". Burke told them "not to worry about it". Hill was more convinced by a surveillance tape played to him by federal investigators, in which Burke tells Vario of their need to have Hill "whacked." But Hill still wouldn't talk to the investigators. While in his cell, the officers would tell Hill that the prosecutor, Ed McDonald, wanted to speak with him, and Hill would yell: "Fuck you and McDonald". Hill became even more paranoid because he thought Burke had officers on the inside and would have him killed.
While Karen was worried, she kept getting calls from Jimmy Burke's wife, Mickey, asking when Hill was coming home, or if Karen needed anything. Hill knew the calls were prompted by Burke.
When Hill was finally released on bail, he met Burke at a restaurant they always went to. Burke told Hill they should meet at a bar, which Hill had never heard of or seen before, that was owned by "Charlie the Jap". However, Hill never met Burke there; instead they met at Burke's sweatshop with Karen and asked for the address in Florida where Hill was to kill Bobby Germaine's son with Anthony Stabile. Hill knew he would be murdered if he went to Florida, but he needed to stay on the streets to make money.
McDonald didn't want to take any chances and arrested Hill as a material witness in the Lufthansa robbery. Hill then agreed to become an informant and signed an agreement with the United States Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force on May 27, 1980. In 2011, former junior mob associate Greg Bucceroni alleged that, after Hill's 1980 arrest, Burke offered him money to arrange a meeting between Bucceroni and Hill at a Brooklyn grocery store so that Burke could have Hill murdered gangland fashion, but Bucceroni decided quietly against having any involvement with the hit on Hill. Shortly afterwards, Burke and several other Lucchese crime family members were arrested by federal authorities.
Hill testified against his former associates to avoid a possible execution by his crew or going to prison for his crimes. His testimony led to 50 convictions.
Jimmy Burke was given 20 years in prison for the 1978-79 Boston College point shaving scandal, involving fixing Boston College basketball games. Burke was also later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of scam artist Richard Eaton. Burke died of cancer while serving his life sentence, on April 13, 1996, at the age of 64.
Paul Vario received four years for helping Henry Hill obtain a no-show job to get him paroled from prison. Vario was also later sentenced to ten years in prison for the extortion of air freight companies at JFK Airport. He died of respiratory failure on November 22, 1988, at age 73 while incarcerated in the FCI Federal Prison in Fort Worth.
Hill, his wife Karen, and their two children (Gregg and Gina) entered the U.S. Marshals' Witness Protection Program in 1980, changed their names, and moved to undisclosed locations in Omaha, Nebraska; Independence, Kentucky; Redmond, Washington; and Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, Hill hosted backyard cookouts for his neighbors, and on one occasion, while under the influence of a combination of liquor and drugs, he revealed his true identity to his guests. To the ire of the federal marshals, they were forced to relocate him one final time to Sarasota, Florida. There, a few months had passed, and Hill repeated the same breach of security, causing the government to finally expel him from the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Hill was arrested in 2001 on narcotics-related charges in Seattle, where he was living in the Wedgwood neighborhood under the name of Alex Canclini. In 1990, his wife Karen had filed for divorce after 23 years of marriage. The divorce was finalized in 2002. Due to his numerous crimes while in witness protection, Hill (along with his wife) were expelled from the program in the early 1990s.
After his 2001 arrest, Hill claimed to be clean until he was arrested again in North Platte, Nebraska, in August 2004. Hill had left his luggage at Lee Bird Field Airport in North Platte, Nebraska, containing drug paraphernalia, glass tubes with cocaine and methamphetamine residue. In September 2005, he was sentenced to 180 days imprisonment for attempted methamphetamine possession. Hill was sentenced to four years of probation on March 26. On December 14, 2009, he was arrested in Fairview Heights, Illinois, for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, which Hill attributed to his drinking problems.
In his later years, Hill lived in Topanga Canyon, approximately four miles from Malibu, California, with his Italian fiancée, Lisa Caserta. Both appeared in several documentaries and made public appearances on various media programs including The Howard Stern Show. Hill, who was a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show and had previously claimed to have never killed anyone, admitted on the show[when?] to having been ordered by Vario to kill three people, which he says he did comply with.
In 2004, Hill was interviewed by Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes. In 2010, Hill was inducted in the Museum of the American Gangster in New York City. On June 8, 2011, a show about Hill's life aired on the National Geographic Channel's Locked up Abroad.
In reference to his many victims, Hill stated in an interview in March 2008, with BBC's Heather Alexander: "I don't give a heck what those people think; I'm doing the right thing now", addressing the reporter's question about how his victims might think of his commercialization of his story through self-written books and advising on Goodfellas.
In 2008, Hill was featured in episode 3 of the crime documentary series The Irish Mob. In the episode, Hill recounts his life of crime, as well as his close relationship with Jimmy Burke and the illegal activity the two engaged in together. A large portion of the segment focuses on Burke's and Hill's involvements in the famous Lufthansa Heist. The entire series is currently available on Netflix.
In August 2011, Hill appeared in the special "Mob Week" on AMC; he and other former mob members talked about The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other such mob films, and in April 2012, he was interviewed about Jimmy Burke and Tommy DeSimone, for "Mobsters", set to air that summer. On February 14, 2012, he was put in the Las Vegas Mob Museum.
On October 7, 2014, Hill was featured on ESPN Films' 30 for 30: "Playing for the Mob". In the documentary episode, based on the fixing of the Boston College basketball games in 1978 and 1979, Hill reveals the details behind the point shaving scandal along with the testimony from the players and federal investigators involved. Ray Liotta also guest starred, as the narrator.
Hill worked for a time as a chef at an Italian restaurant in North Platte, Nebraska, and his spaghetti sauce, Sunday Gravy, was marketed over the internet. Hill opened another restaurant, Wiseguys, in West Haven, Connecticut, in October 2007.
In October 2002, Hill published The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As a Goodfella To Cooking On the Run. In it, Hill shared some stories throughout his childhood, life in the mob, and running from the law. He also presents recipes he learned from his family, during his years in the mob, and some that he came up with himself. For example, Hill claimed his last meal the day he was busted for drugs consisted of rolled veal cutlets, sauce with pork butt, veal shanks, ziti, and green beans with olive oil and garlic.
Henry Hill collaborated with the novelist Daniel Simone in writing and developing a non-fiction book titled, The Lufthansa Heist, a portrayal of the famous 1978 Lufthansa Airline robbery at Kennedy Airport.
Other books by Hill include:
Goodfellas, the 1990 Martin Scorsese-directed crime film adaptation of the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, follows the 1955 to 1980 rise and fall of Hill and his Lucchese crime family associates. Scorsese initially named the film Wise Guy but subsequently, with Pileggi's agreement, changed the name to Goodfellas to avoid confusion with the unrelated television crime drama Wiseguy. To prepare for their roles in the film, the actors often spoke with Pileggi, who shared research material he gathered while writing the book. The director made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines he liked best, and put them into a revised script the cast worked from during principal photography.
Hill died of complications related to heart disease in a Los Angeles hospital, on June 12, 2012, after a long battle with his illness, only a day after his 69th birthday. His girlfriend for the last six years of his life, Lisa Caserta, said, "He had been sick for a long time. ... his heart gave out". CBS News aired Caserta's report of Hill's death, during which she stated: "he went out pretty peacefully, for a goodfella." She said Hill had recently suffered a heart attack before his death and died of complications after a long history of heart problems associated with smoking. Hill's family was present when he died.
Ray Liotta, who portrayed Hill in Goodfellas, stated on Hill's death: "Although I played Henry Hill in the movie Goodfellas, I only met him a few short times so I can't say I knew him but I do know he lived a complicated life." Liotta added: "My heart goes out to his family and may he finally rest in peace." Hill was cremated the day after his death.
Published in issue #901-902 October 13, 2006