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Tuesday 21 November 2017

How bad-fella Henry Hill became Scorsese's Goodfella

Henry Hill, who has died aged 69, was a mobster whose nefarious exploits with the Lucchese New York crime family were made famous by the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas (1990).

In the film, Hill, played by Ray Liotta, is the narrator and central figure, running the gamut of mob crime over a 25-year period from 1955.

Among many other misdeeds, he helped organise a robbery at JFK airport, known as the Lufthansa heist, which scored millions but resulted in a bloody feud between the thieves.

But though Hill's real-life criminal career was steeped in blood, he insisted he never "whacked" anyone himself. "I never killed anybody," he said last year. "I was a money man."

As for the film, he was happy to admit it was "99.9pc dead on".

Henry Hill was born on June 11, 1943, one of eight children in a poor family in Brooklyn. His father was Irish-American while his mother was of Italian extraction.

Henry's mixed heritage meant he could never become a "made" man in the Mafia, a status which offers certain protections and privileges.

He began his criminal career innocently enough, running errands for Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese family who ran a cabstand near the Hills' house. But soon Henry was learning how Vario ran loan sharking operations and protection rackets. He was awed by the easy money on display.

By age 14 he had dropped out of school and his position with Vario was formalised when he was made a member of a local construction union, which allowed him to collect a salary for a no-show job. He became a youthful mascot for the Vario crew, which included Jimmy Burke, the charismatic and brutal gangster played by Robert de Niro in Goodfellas.

Henry's first major crime came after he was ordered to put a rival cab rank out of business. Smashing his way into the taxis, he doused them in petrol and set them on fire.

But he was not arrested for the first time until 1959, when he attempted to buy goods with a stolen credit card. He was soon released, however, and his unwillingness to talk during his detention only added to the affection given by the Vario crew.

Between 1960 and 1963, Hill served with the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army. It is not clear whether this was an attempt to "go straight", but in Wiseguy, the book Goodfellas was based on, Hill claims the move was made to wait out police attention.

On his return to New York he duly picked up the threads of his old life, enjoying the perks of the mob life.

In 1972 Hill went to jail for extortion. But this didn't dent his career. He sold drugs, made books and, in 1978, was released for good behaviour.

Back outside, Hill, along with Burke and Tommy DeSimone, began robbing trucks and fencing stolen goods.

"The money," Hill recounted in an interview recently, "was unbelievable. We never robbed nothing small."

The biggest job of all, the Lufthansa heist of 1978, started with Hill. He had previous experience of robbing the cargo terminal at JFK airport, having stolen $420,000 in 1967.

A Lufthansa worker at the airport with serious gambling debts to a bookmaker called Martin Krugman, revealed that the airline regularly moved millions of dollars in cash destined for US servicemen in Germany.

It was a success beyond the gangsters' wildest dreams. They scooped more than $6m, a sum now equivalent to $20m, making the robbery one of America's biggest ever.

Within days, however, the fallout had begun. With the FBI scrutinising their every move, the robbers assumed one of their number would crack, and began to turn on each other.

Edward "Stacks" Parnell, a getaway driver who failed to dispose of his truck properly was the first to go, shot a week after the raid. Over the next six months, at least eight more mobsters died as Burke launched a vicious campaign to stamp out potential "rats".

As the body count mounted, Hill feared he too would be "whacked". He escalated his drug dealing, and eventually became addicted himself. This got him arrested, in April 1980.

When the police moved in, they played Hill wiretaps of his erstwhile allies in the mob discussing the need to kill him. Hill recognised that "the whole crew were homicidal maniacs" and agreed to become an informant.

His evidence helped secure 50 convictions, earning Hill and his family a place in Witness Protection. That is where Goodfellas ends, with Hill in a bland housing lot in Omaha.

In fact, his life subsequently remained anything but placid. The Mob continued to hunt him, forcing him to move regularly. On each occasion Hill had to assume a new identity.

His problems with drink and drugs endured. He was arrested in 1987 on drugs charges and left witness protection in the early 1990s.

He reassumed the name Henry Hill, but few of his adversaries were left to track him down. Vario had died in 1988, and Jimmy Burke was in jail. Nonetheless, Hill was always looking over his shoulder for "some punk kid trying to make a rep for himself".

He made several hundred thousand dollars from Goodfellas and turned himself into a consultant for mob films. Recently, when asked if the Mafia might kill him, he replied: "Are you kidding? They send me their scripts and treatments to sell in Hollywood."

Unlike many of his fellow mobsters, Hill died in bed, in a Los Angeles hospital.

He married, in 1965, Karen Friedman. They divorced in 2002, and he married Kelly Alor and then Lisa Caserta. He is survived by a son and daughter of his first marriage.

Henry Hill, born June 11, 1943, died June 12, 2012

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