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depositing with

Air France Robbery (1967)

In 1967 mobster Henry Hill, aged 23, committed a US$420,000 burglary at the Air France air-cargo terminal in New York City's JFK International Airport.

The heist is memorable for its sheer audacity, and the unusualness of the target, particularly in that an airline should keep such sums in storage at an airport: Air France was the carrier for American currency that had been exchanged in France by tourists and military personnel. The airline had contracted to return the money to the US for depositing with American banks. It was carried out by Hill, Robert McMahon, Tommy DeSimone and Montague Montemurro, on a tip off from McMahon.

Planning

There were a few obstacles to the heist. The money was stored in a "strong room", which was being upgraded to cement block construction. There was only one key to the strong room, which was kept by a guard who would never let the key out of his sight and could not be bribed. The presence of the money could also never be ascertained, as no-one ever knew when or how much would be transported. The money was usually carried in large, white canvas bags, with red seals over the sides, each containing US$60,000.

Air France aircraft regularly delivered 3 or 4 of these $60,000 loads at a time, and McMahon was of the opinion that 3 or 4 men with pistols could easily steal it. Reconnaissance missions revealed further potential complications. The strong room was located in a warehouse that was quite large, and the entrance to the warehouse was on the other side of the building. Of all these obstacles, the most difficult one would prove to be the guard, who kept the key with him at all times, even on days off. Jimmy Burke wanted to kidnap him and take the key. According to Hill, he believed that Burke would have murdered the guard just to avoid the possibility of being identified.

Another break-in to the guard's home turned up a potential weakness beyond money. McMahon introduced the guard to an expensive escort at The Jade East Motel located at 501 East 4th Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey. In time, the guard and the girl became intimate. After a number of dry runs involving the theft, search, and replacement of the guard's clothes, they discovered the guard did in fact keep the key, one of many, with him at all times.

A short time before the event, McMahon heard that between $400,000 and $700,000 was being brought into the strong room, and decided the time was right for the heist for maximum profit. Without further rehearsals, Hill decided they would do it for real. McMahon took the guard to meet the girl again; however, they needed to take the guard's key, copy it, and return it within a narrow window of opportunity. It wasn't until half an hour before the deadline that the guard separated himself from his clothes.

Already running late when they obtained the keys, they found the keyring had 18 different keys, any of which could have been the one to the strong room. Hill took the keys, jumped into Jimmy Burke's waiting car and zoomed to a locksmith. Although closing, the locksmith was happy to duplicate the keys. However, he duplicated all except 3 of the keys because he didn't have the blanks. Working quickly, Hill replaced the keys without being discovered.

Execution

Fortunately for the robbers, one of the 15 keys McMahon tested the following Saturday worked. McMahon maintained the best time for the actual robbery would be just before midnight. There wasn't to be a bank collection until the subsequent Tuesday, due to a Jewish holiday. Hill bought the largest suitcase he could find.

On the day of the robbery, Hill and Tommy DeSimone drove to the Air France cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. At 11.40 p.m, they entered the Air France cargo terminal. McMahon said that they should just walk in, as people often came to the terminal to pick up lost baggage. DeSimone and Hill entered the unsecured area unchallenged. They unlocked the door with the duplicate key. Using a small flashlight, they found seven of the bags, which they loaded into the suitcase.

They walked out of the cargo terminal. No alarm was raised, no shots fired, no one was injured. No one was ever prosecuted for the theft.

Portrayal in film

The robbery was portrayed in the 1990 Hollywood film, Goodfellas. The film used this theft to foreshadow a similar robbery, the Lufthansa Heist, which was to be the central pivot of the film as the consequences of that robbery, and impact on Hill and the Vario crew's lives was the denouement of the film.

Hill still believes it was the Air France Robbery which endeared him to the mafia.

External sources

  • Wiseguy, written by Henry Hill and Nicholas Pileggi
  • The Channel 4 Documentary The Real GoodFella

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