NEW YORK — The crime gripped the public’s imagination, for both its magnitude and its moxie: In the predawn hours of Dec. 11, 1978, a group of masked gunmen seized about $6 million in cash and jewels from a cargo building at Kennedy International Airport.
The Lufthansa heist, as it was known, was billed as the biggest cash robbery in US history, and it played a starring role in the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie “Goodfellas.”
It remained unsolved for four decades, perhaps because many of those who might have known something turned up dead.
But more than 35 years later, federal authorities on Thursday charged a 78-year-old man, Vincent Asaro, with playing a role in the heist, saying they had four cooperating witnesses from organized crime families who linked Asaro, a reputed capo in the Bonanno crime family, to the robbery.
It is an unexpected turn in a famously unsolved case that had long been attributed to the Lucchese crime family. The indictment makes clear that the authorities are convinced that another family was also involved.
The man thought to be the mastermind, a Lucchese associate named James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, died in 1996 in prison, where he was serving a life sentence in a different case.
The only person ever convicted in the robbery was a Lufthansa cargo agent who was described as the “inside man” in the plot.
The indictment, for racketeering, represents the first time an organized crime figure has been charged in the $6 million heist — the equivalent, adjusted for inflation, of $21.4 million today.
But Asaro, a resident of Queens, does not appear to have grown rich from the crime; as late as 2011, he was recorded complaining about his take, according to the prosecutors.
The indictment charges Asaro; his son, Jerome, 55; and three other men with a racketeering conspiracy that plays like a Mafia highlights reel: robbery, extortion, armored truck heist, murder.
Asaro, for example, was accused of muscling his way into the pornography business, and of robbing Federal Express of $1.25 million worth of gold salts, which are sometimes used in medicinal treatments.
The indictment also accuses Asaro of seeking to have his cousin murdered after the cousin testified in court about an insurance swindle.
“Those suspected of cooperating with law enforcement paid with their lives,” said the US attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta E. Lynch, whose office is prosecuting the case.