“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” said actor Ray Liotta as he immortalized mobster-turned-FBI informant Henry Hill in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas.”
Hill was an associate in the New York-based Lucchese crime family and testified against mafia members following the theft of $5.8 million from a Lufthansa Airlines vault.
The “Lufthansa Heist” was masterminded by gangster Jimmy Burke, who was the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character in Goodfellas. Following the theft, those involved began turning on each other, with several turning up dead. Fearing a similar fate, Hill made an agreement in 1980 with the U.S. Department of Justice to share his knowledge of mafia operations which sent several dozen mobsters to prison.
Hill teamed with journalist Nicholas Pileggi in 1986 to tell his life story in the book “Wiseguy,” which was adapted into the movie that made him famous.
Following several drug arrests in the 1990s, Hill was expelled from the witness protection program, which many would have considered a death sentence. However, the end for Hill came on Tuesday, the day after his 69th birthday in a Los Angeles hospital bed. The cause of death was heart complications related to smoking and open-heart surgery.
Hill found further fame after Goodfellas as a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show. Hill was often intoxicated during his appearances, telling the Associated Press in 2009, “I’ve been on every drug humanly possible, and I can’t get a handle on alcohol... I’ll go two, two and a half years, and I don’t know what triggers me.”
Chicago-based radio host Abe Kanan, who broadcasts the “Abe Kanan Show” on Stern’s SiriusXM Satellite Radio channel Howard 101, Saturday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. central time, told the Times-Record on Wednesday that Hill was a frequent guest on his show as well, and “was always a lot of fun and was a good sport.”
“I think the real Henry Hill was much different than the character portrayed in the movie,” Kanan said. “I think he lived a tortured life and turned to alcohol as a way to deal with his life. He will always be a pop culture icon, and the movie about his life ‘Goodfellas’ will live forever. I always had fun with Henry on the radio and will miss his stories.”
“For us to live any other way was nuts.”
Hill’s life in the mob began in 1955 when he was 11 years old and began running errands for neighborhood hoodlums. Ironically, the mob defector’s first arrest at age 16 is what earned him respect in the mob for not flipping on any of his associates. His refusal to rat did not go unnoticed by Burke and gang boss Paul Vario, who is played in the movie by Paul Sorvino.
In mid 1960, Hill joined the army and served with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. Hill’s military service was less of an effort to serve his country, and more of a concentrated effort to avoid a U.S. Senate investigation into organized crime. While in the army, Hill continued small crimes including loan sharking and selling untaxed cigarettes. Prior to his discharge in 1963, he served two months in the stockade for stealing a North Carolina Sheriff’s car and fighting with marines in a bar.
His criminal exploits increased upon his return to New York, including arson, car thefts and truck hijacking. In 1967, Hill’s first major heist was the theft of $420,000 from Air France. Hill and an associate reportedly got the vault guard drunk and took him to a motel where a prostitute distracted him. The key to the vault was stolen from the guard’s pants and copied without his knowledge.
The tables began to turn on Hill in 1970, when William “Billy Batts” Devino, a “made man” in the Gambino crime family, was killed by Burke and Hill’s associate Tommy DeSimone. DeSimone, who was played by Joe Pesci in the movie, was insulted by Devino a couple weeks earlier over a comment made about DeSimone’s side job shining shoes as a youth. Burke had also taken over Devino’s loan shark business as Devino was serving a six-year sentence for drug possession. Under mafia code, killing a made man without a boss’s permission is punishable by death, and Hill had helped hide the body.
Throughout the 1970s, Hill became more and more involved in the drug trade. In April, 1980, he was arrested on a narcotics-trafficing charge. Law enforcement, along with Hill’s own paranoia, had him convinced his former associates were planning to kill him. Vario had a strict policy against dealing drugs, and Burke was concerned Hill would implicate him in the Lufthansa Heist. Hill signed an agreement with the Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force on May 27, 1980.
Among about 50 people Hill testified against, Burke received 20 years in prison and was later sentenced to life in prison for murder, dying from cancer in 1996. Vario received a total of 14 years, later dying of respiratory failure in 1988. DeSimone was killed by the mafia in retaliation for Devino’s murder.
While Hill claimed to never have killed anyone, he frequently told Howard Stern that the quickest, most efficient way to “whack somebody” was “an ice pick in the back of the head,” During one drunken appearance, he said Burke had ordered him to kill three people which he complied with.
Hill was often in and out of rehabs for his alcohol addiction in the later years of his life. In his last appearance on the Abe Kanan Show on Feb. 11, which may have been his last live public appearance, Hill called in with Paul Massey, who was Hill’s drug connection in Pittsburgh during the 1970s.
“Paul got upset that we were joking around with Henry and started screaming at us,” Kanan said. “Henry sounded drunk and we either lost the connection or they hung up on us. I think Paul didn’t understand the way Henry and I communicated.”