Burke inspired the character "Jimmy 'The Gent' Conway", one of the main characters in the 1990 movie Goodfellas, played by Robert de Niro.
He died of lung cancer in Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, while serving 20 years to life for murder in a New York State prison. He would have been eligible for parole in 2004.
James Burke was born in New York. His mother, Jane Conway, was from Dublin, Ireland. James' father has never been identified. At age two, his mother placed him in a foster home; he spent most of his early years in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns, and never saw his mother again. He was shuttled around various homes and orphanages, where he suffered abuse, physical and sexual, at the hands of various foster fathers and foster brothers. In the summer of 1944, when Burke was age 13, his foster father died in a car crash; he lost control of the car when he turned around to hit Burke, who was riding in the back seat. The deceased man's widow, who was in the car as well but survived, blamed Burke for the accident and beat him regularly until he was taken back into foster care.
In 1962, when Burke and his future wife, Mickey, decided to get married, Burke discovered that Mickey was being bothered by an old boyfriend, who was calling her on the phone, yelling at her on the street, and circling her house for hours in his car. On Burke and Mickey's wedding day, the police found the ex-boyfriend's remains. He had been carefully cut into over a dozen pieces and tossed all over the inside of his car.
Burke was of Irish descent and, because he was not fully Italian, was not a made man. He was an associate and had one made man as friend and associate, Paul Vario.
During the 1950s, Burke was involved in various illegal activities, such as distributing untaxed cigarettes and liquor. He fathered one daughter named Catherine Burke, and two sons: Frank James Burke and Jesse James Burke (named after the famous outlaw brothers of the Old West). Jesse James stuttered and was largely ignored by Jimmy, who left him to play in their home's basement filled with stolen toys.
Burke was a mentor of Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and Angelo Sepe, who were all young men in the 1960s. They carried out jobs for Burke, such as selling stolen merchandise. They eventually became part of Jimmy's crew and worked out of South Ozone Park, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn. The pair helped Burke with the hijacking of delivery trucks. According to Hill, Burke would take the drivers' licenses and would usually give fifty dollars to the drivers of the trucks that they stole, as if he were tipping them for the inconvenience, which led to his nickname "Jimmy the Gent".
Corrupt law enforcement officers bribed by Burke would tell him about any potential witnesses or informants. Burke told Henry Hill that bribing cops was like feeding elephants at the zoo: "All you need is peanuts." Hill said about Burke: "Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn't matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert."
Burke owned a bar in South Ozone Park, Queens called Robert's Lounge. It was a favorite hang-out of Burke and his crew, and many other mobsters, bookmakers, loan sharks, and other assorted criminals. Henry Hill claimed that the bar was also Burke's private cemetery, and more than a dozen people were buried in and around it. Burke ran a loan sharking and bookmaking operation that was based at the bar, and high-stakes poker games in the basement, of which he would receive a cut. Burke also owned a dress factory in South Ozone Park, Queens, called Moo Moo Vedda's, which kept him awash in laundered money.
In 1972, Burke and Henry Hill were arrested for beating up Gaspar Ciaccio in Tampa, Florida. Ciaccio allegedly owed a large gambling debt to their friend, union boss Casey Rosado. They were charged with extortion, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Burke was paroled after six years and went straight back to crime, as did Hill, who was released around the same time. Afterwards, Burke once again partnered with Hill, and introduced him to Greg Bucceroni, whom Burke mentored. Hill began trafficking in drugs, and Burke was soon involved in this new enterprise, even though the Lucchese crime family, with whom they were associated, did not authorize any of its members to deal in drugs. This Lucchese ban was made because the prison sentences imposed on anyone convicted of drug trafficking were so lengthy that the accused would often become informants in exchange for a lighter sentence. This is exactly what Henry Hill eventually did, becoming an informant against Burke after several years selling drugs.
Burke is alleged to have committed a number of murders, but no victims were ever named. He supposedly killed nine people following the Lufthansa Heist. He did, however, order the murder of his best friend Dominick "Remo" Cersani, who became an informant and was going to set up Burke in a cigarette hijack. Burke got suspicious about Cersani and later found out from one of his friends in the Queens, New York DA's office that Cersani was talking to the New York City Police Department and that they were going to arrest Burke on a truck hijacking charge. Remo was killed within a week. At Robert's Lounge, Burke told Remo, "Let's take a ride." Tommy DeSimone strangled Remo with a piano wire. Henry Hill said, "Remo put up some fight. He kicked and swung and shit all over himself before he died." Burke had Remo buried next to the bocce court behind the building. It was said that, whenever Burke and Tommy DeSimone played bocce there with friends, they would jokingly say, "Hi Remo, how ya doing?"
Burke frequently liked to lock the young children of his victims in refrigerators. When Burke had a problem collecting money that he was owed, and the unfortunate debtor had children, he would pick up the child in his huge arm, open the refrigerator with the other, and say, "If you don't do whatcha supposed to, I'm gonna lock your kid inside the fuckin' refrigerator".
Jimmy Breslin wrote a disparaging and accusative article about Paul Vario, so Burke strangled the journalist almost to death in front of a bar full of witnesses.
Jimmy's crew were responsible for a large number of murders. Henry Hill said in an interview "60-70 murders that I know of, there have been more..."
Burke became famous as a result of the Lufthansa heist, which involved the theft of approximately $6 million in cash and jewels from Building 261 at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Based on inside information from Lufthansa Cargo Supervisor Louis Werner, who owed a large gambling debt to Burke-controlled bookmaker Martin Krugman, Burke planned and recruited a crew of criminal acquaintances that included Tommy DeSimone, Angelo Sepe, Louis Cafora, Joe Manri, Robert McMahon, and Paolo LiCastri. Burke's son, Frank James Burke, drove a "crash car" whose function was to ram all police cars in pursuit of the escape vehicle. Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards did not directly participate in the robbery but was ordered to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a junkyard compactor in New Jersey.
The robbery took place in the early morning hours of December 11, 1978. Because JFK was divided between the Gambino crime family and the Lucchese Family, permission was asked and granted by the Gambino capo who controlled the airport, John Gotti. Gotti's crew expected $250,000 from the proceeds of the robbery and Paolo LiCastri, a soldier under Gotti in the Gambino Family, became the sixth gunman, to ensure the Gambinos' interests were looked after.
A van containing the robbers and a "crash car" arrived at the Lufthansa cargo terminal at 3:00 AM. The crash car, driven by Frank Burke, remained in the parking lot. Three men got out of the van and entered the front door of the cargo terminus. The two men left in the van drove to the rear of the building, cut the lock on the security fence and replaced it with one of their own. The robbers, all armed, wore dark clothing and ski masks. Three men entered the building and rounded up all ten employees at gunpoint. Since 3:00 AM was "lunch hour" for the shift, most personnel were already in the cafeteria. Kerry Whalen, the Lufthansa transfer agent who was returning from American Airlines rampside, saw two of the robbers sitting in a van, without mask or gloves. As Whalen entered the building he was pistol-whipped. One of the robbers led the cargo agent inside the building, where he was forced to the floor.
Since the robbers had inside information, all the employees were accounted for, handcuffed, and forced down on the floor. At gunpoint, the shift supervisor was forced to deactivate the alarm system as well as all additional silent alarms within the vault and escort the robbers inside the vault. The supervisor was forced to open the cargo bay door. The robbers drove the van into the loading bay and packed it with every bag of currency (from overseas military monetary exchanges) and jewelry they found in the vault.
After the van was loaded, the supervisor was taken back to the lunchroom, handcuffed, and forced to the floor next to the other employees. The robbers ordered the employees not to make a move for at least fifteen minutes. To ensure compliance, the robbers confiscated the wallets of every employee and threatened their families' lives if instructions were not followed. This fifteen-minute buffer was crucial because Werner's inside information made the robbers aware that the Port Authority Police could seal the entire airport within 90 seconds, preventing any vehicles or persons entrance or exit.
At 3:40 AM, the van containing the robbers and stolen cash pulled out of the cargo terminus and left JFK, followed by the crash car, and drove to a garage in Maspeth, Queens, where Jimmy Burke was waiting. There, the money was switched to a third vehicle that was driven away by Jimmy and his son Frank. The rest of the robbers left and drove home, except Paolo LiCastri, who insisted on taking the subway home. Parnell "Stacks" Edwards put stolen license plates on the van and was to drive it to a wrecking yard in New Jersey, where it would be compacted to scrap metal.
Burke never expected the robbery to bring in more than two million dollars, and was shocked by the six million haul. He became paranoid about all the publicity. He was aware that a robbery of this magnitude would attract the intense attention of local, state, and federal authorities, causing a lot of problems for all involved, as well as for organized crime in New York in general. There were a number of murders and disappearances following the Lufthansa robbery, as Burke became increasingly concerned that there were too many witnesses who knew of his involvement, and who became greedy upon learning the true amount of money stolen in the heist. Burke was being pressed for more money by the participants of the Lufthansa robbery, so he decided to murder everyone connected to it.
Parnell Steven "Stacks" Edwards was found shot to death in his apartment in South Ozone Park, Queens on December 18, 1978, only one week after the robbery. Henry Hill was not involved in the robbery, but recounted that "Stacks" forgot to dispose of the van used in the robbery at a New Jersey compactor, instead getting high and passing out at a girlfriend's house, leaving the truck in a no parking zone. The next day, the van was discovered by police with his fingerprints, as well as other evidence pointing to him.
Martin Krugman was the bookmaker who provided the tip to Henry Hill and Burke's Robert's Lounge crew. He vanished on January 6, 1979. Henry Hill stated that Krugman was killed in "Vinnie's fence company" on the orders of Burke, who did not want to pay Krugman his $500,000 share of the stolen money. Hill said, "It was a matter of half a million bucks. No way Jimmy was going to deny himself half a million dollars because of Marty Krugman. If Jimmy killed Marty, Jimmy would get Marty’s half a mill'.”
The only robbers who survived Burke's murderous rampage following the Lufthansa Heist were Frank James Burke (Burke's son), Thomas DeSimone, and Angelo Sepe (a protégé of Burke). Burke knew that Sepe would never cooperate with the authorities under any circumstances, and he never pressed Burke for a bigger share of the robbery proceeds. Sepe was murdered in 1984, shot in the head when he answered the door one morning at his Brooklyn apartment. This was in retaliation for having robbed a Mafia-connected drug dealer. Frank James Burke was found shot to death on a Brooklyn street on May 18, 1987, over a drug deal gone bad.
Federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities were never able to develop enough evidence to indict Burke for the Lufthansa theft or related murders.
In 1982, Burke was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal, primarily based on the testimony of former mob associate Henry Hill. Hill's testimony in federal court led to a total of fifty convictions in this and other cases, including those of Burke and their boss, Paul Vario.
Federal prosecutors have since said the Burke conviction was similar to how they finally convicted Al Capone of tax evasion, as opposed to Capone's involvement in bootlegging and suspicion of being directly involved in, and ordering dozens of murders. They believed Burke was the mastermind of the Lufthansa Heist and involved in numerous related and unrelated murders, but never had enough evidence to indict him for those crimes.
In 1985 while in federal prison, Burke received an additional life sentence for the 1979 murder of mob front man and con artist Richard Eaton, who had swindled him out of $250,000 in drug money.
Arrested on a parole violation in 1982, Burke spent the rest of his life in jail. He was serving his time in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, when he developed lung cancer or stomach cancer. He died on April 13, 1996, while being treated at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Had he lived, he would have been eligible for parole on March 11, 2004. The last person to speak with Burke was Pavle Stanimirovic (Punch), a Serbian-American reformed criminal and writer, who was once mentored by Burke.
Jimmy Burke was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, renamed "James Conway" (his birth name), and serves as one of the film's main antagonists. It was claimed that, at the time, Burke was so happy to have Robert De Niro play him that he telephoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying that De Niro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.
Burke was played by Donald Sutherland in the 2001 television movie The Big Heist which portrays the events of the Lufthansa Heist.
In October 2014, Burke's involvement in the Boston College Point Shaving Scandal was highlighted in the ESPN 30 for 30 episode, "Playing for the Mob". Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas, is the narrator.
In 2015, author Robert Sberna self-published the book The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist with collaborator Dominick Cicale, a former member of the Bonanno crime family. According to Cicale, between $2 million and $4 million of the Lufthansa loot was stashed in a safe deposit box by Jimmy Burke. The keys were given to his daughters, Cathy and Robin. Cicale reported that Cathy Burke's husband Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, a Bonanno capo, gained access to the box with Vincent Basciano, also a Bonanno capo. Cicale said that Basciano spent $250,000 of the money on a movie that was never produced. The remainder was lost at casinos by Basciano.