- Last Updated: 10:07 AM, June 14, 2012
- Posted: 1:02 AM, June 14, 2012
I first met Henry Hill in 1980, when he showed up at my office in Brooklyn’s federal courthouse without a lawyer and wearing a loud plaid outfit straight out of “Guys and Dolls.”
It was early morning. And he was already drunk.
I was a federal prosecutor investigating the Lufthansa case — at $6 million, it was the nations’s largest cash robbery ever — and Henry was responding to a grand-jury subpoena.
I sent him on his way.
Henry, who died on Tuesday at 69, was too drunk to provide any meaningful testimony.
I also figured that down the road, he might recall that I had cut him a break.
A few weeks later, the Nassau County DA arrested Henry for trafficking in cocaine. Under the old Rockefeller drug laws, he and his wife faced life sentences.
Henry was looking for help. From the Nassau County Jail, he reached out to his federal parole officer and asked to meet me.
The rest became history.
In the early 1980s, when Mafia soldiers and Mafia bosses never cooperated, turning Henry Hill was a big deal.
We never made the Lufthansa case, but Henry was the key witness against the two principal targets in that investigation, Jimmy “The Gent” Burke and Paul Vario, the Luchese family don.
Based on Henry’s testimony, Vario and four others pleaded guilty to extorting $1 million from trucking companies at JFK.
As for Burke, he was convicted for his role in the Boston College basketball point-shaving case and later for the murder of Richard Eaton, a drug dealer and Lufthansa money-launderer.
But after cooperating, Henry never really got it together.
“He never got over being a rat,” said Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book “Wiseguy,” which later became the film “GoodFellas.”
I played myself in the movie, the prosecutor telling Ray Liotta. who played Hill, and Lorraine Bracco, who played his wife, Karen, that they needed to go into the witness-protection program.
“They can only get to him by getting to you or your kids. If he goes into the program, you’re in danger,” I said in the film, trying to convince Karen’s character to also enter into witness protection.
“I don’t know anything,” Karen said.
“Don’t give me the babe-in-the-woods routine. I’ve listened to those wiretaps and I’ve heard you talk about cocaine,” I said, sealing the deal.
In real life, Henry was so plagued by alcohol and drug addiction that he blew his cover three times and had to be moved repeatedly.
He was kicked out of the program in 1983 and was in and out of prison for the past 20 years, usually for offenses like drunken driving, disorderly conduct and breaking into liquor stores after the bars had closed.
“GoodFellas” made him a minor celebrity, but that only led him to a depressed Walter Mitty world of dashed Hollywood expectations.
Odd as it sounds, I stayed in touch with Henry for over 30 years.
I last saw him in New York two years ago, serving spaghetti dinners at the St. Marks Theatre to about a hundred “GoodFellas” fans who paid $250 to meet him.
He was a gangster, a swindler, a drug dealer and a rat — but there was more than that.
There was something about Henry. You couldn’t help but like him. I really don’t know why. He was a minor player in the mob, but even the bosses loved him.
And after he “turned bad,” as he would say, he never stopped making agents, cops and prosecutors laugh. He was a classic charming rogue, and a very effective witness.
Rest in peace, Henry.