BROOKLYN, NY (PIX11)—The East New York neighborhood that was a focal point in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film, "Goodfellas," still remembers the movie's lead character--mob associate, Henry Hill--who died Tuesday in Los Angeles, a day after his 69th birthday. "Goodfellas"--starring Ray Liotta as Hill--told the story of Hill's evolution from mafia protégé to a detested, government informant--forced to enter the Witness Protection program.
"He had that myth of a notorious side," said East New York resident, Mikial Rivera, who was standing at the corner of Pine Street and Pitkin Avenue, where an adolescent Henry Hill used to run errands for Lucchese crime family members in the 50's and 60's. The Lucchese soldiers and capos ran a cab stand across the street from Hill's home.
The "Goodfellas" movie depicted Hill's home at 392 Pine Street, where he lived with his Irish-American father, seven brothers and sisters, and Sicilian-American mother.
In a 2010 interview, Henry Hill told PIX 11's Debra Alfarone the mob life was difficult to escape. "The only way I was going to get out of it was with a bullet in my head or to go behind bars for the rest of my life," Hill told Alfarone. But Hill chose Witness Protection in 1980, when he was facing the possibility of multiple, life sentences--along with his wife--for drug trafficking.
The East New York neighborhood where he grew up is now a mix of minority families--including Latinos, Indians, and Middle Easterners. Clifford Curtis, an African-American, moved into Hill's former home in the late 1970's--and told PIX 11 he witnessed a man getting "whacked" by the mob, near the gold exchange store across the street.
""He was sitting outside, reading a paper and drinking coffee, and they just rolled up and shot him in the face," Clifford recalled. "I said, 'Damn! They just shot that dude in the face!'"
Hill had already moved out of East New York at the time and was living in Nassau County with his first wife, Karen, depicted in "Goodfellas" by Lorraine Bracco.
The movie showed how Hill began his mob association by parking cars for Lucchese capos, later selling untaxed cigarettes, using stolen credit cards, setting fires at rival businesses, bookmaking, and ultimately, dealing in drugs.
One of the central crimes in the film relayed the planning of the 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International airport, the biggest robbery of its time.
Edward McDonald, former director of the Organized Crime Strike Force for the U.S. Department of Justice, said, "I think it was six million dollars in cash and close to a million dollars in jewelry that was taken. Many of the people that were involved were executed, in the wake of all the publicity that followed."
McDonald prosecuted the only person to get tried in the case, a former Lufthansa employee named Lew Werner, who stole the heist idea from a fellow worker and went to the Lucchese crime family with the plot.
McDonald didn't have the witnesses to tie Hill's friend, Jimmy "The Gent" Burke, to the Lufthansa robbery, since many of them were dead. But once Hill became a federal witness--after getting busted for drug trafficking--he helped put Burke away for another crime. "Jimmy Burke was convicted on the Boston College 'point shaving' case," McDonald said. Jimmy "The Gent" was played by Robert DeNiro in "Goodfellas".
Hill also testified against Lucchese capo, Paul Vario, portrayed by Paul Sorvino in the movie. Vario's conviction? "Actually getting Henry Hill a 'no show' job in a Long Island nightclub," McDonald told PIX 11. Hill later gave information against Vario in a labor racketeering case. Dozens of mobsters were put away, because of Hill's cooperation.
Edward McDonald said part of the reason Hill became a government witness was because he knew people on the street wanted him dead. "They knew he had become a drug addict, and they were concerned he was unreliable," McDonald said.
But Hill only lasted in the Witness Protection program for about two years. "He couldn't help getting drunk and telling people he was Henry Hill, the big mobster in New York," McDonald said.
At one point, Hill was busted in Seattle for trafficking drugs with a Peruvian gang. The former East Coast prosecutor, McDonald, wrote a letter to the judge on the West Coast, telling him how much Hill had helped the government with his cooperation in the 1980's. The judge gave Hill--who was facing 15 years in prison--probation.
Once Henry Hill left Witness Protection, he spent the last 25 years "out and about"--as McDonald put it. "If people were looking to get him, they could have," McDonald observed.
PIX 11 stopped in Ozone Park, Queens--near the old social club once run by mob boss, John Gotti, who died in a federal prison .just like Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke. When we asked one local guy about Henry Hill, he barked, "We don't like rats." When we informed the man Hill was dead, he said, "Oh well. He got what he deserved."
Henry Hill managed to die from natural causes, although his health was impacted by years of smoking, alcohol and drug use.
The former prosecutor who put him into Witness Protection in 1980 said he would miss him. Turns out Edward McDonald played himself in the Scorsese film, sharing dialogue with Ray Liotta as Hill.
"I stayed in touch with him for 30 years," Ed McDonald said of the real Henry Hill. "He had a certain charm. It's hard to understand. You couldn't help but like the guy."