TAMPA — In the 1960s, Vince Lombardo was a negotiator for New York City’s crime syndicate.
Blessed with charisma and Paul Newman looks, he could do his bosses’ bidding through peaceful rather than violent means — a talent that enabled him to work closely with gangsters who would be introduced to mainstream America in the book “Wiseguy,” later made into the Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas,” about Mafia turncoat Henry Hill.
Still, you won’t find Lombardo mentioned in the book or film, nor is it likely anyone will portray him in the next movie about Hill from Hollywood director Brett Ratner.
With blood ties to the upper echelon of organized crime, Lombardo seemed primed to rise through the ranks. Instead, he walked away from a life of crime, choosing his own family rather than “la famiglia” in the years before the events that would make Hill famous.
“You watch these guys living an exciting lifestyle in the movies. They make money and have a good time. But it’s not all it’s made out to be,” said Lombardo’s stepson, Gary Rapoport, 60, of Tampa. “No one has a sound marriage. They’re always looking over their shoulder. Vince wanted a normal life.”
Lombardo, who died about two years ago, used to say the only way out of the Mafia was with a bullet or the backing of someone well-connected. He had the latter — his father-in-law Meyer Lansky, considered the architect of the American mob.
Lansky set a high bar, though.
When Lombardo asked for permission to marry his daughter, Lansky said yes with one condition: Earn an honest living.
Sandra Lansky-Lombardo, the woman at the center of the deal, admits it was an ironic ultimatum but one she welcomed.
“Vince agreed to it and we lived a great life together,” said Lansky-Lombardo, 78, of Tampa. “We were married for 50 years and dated for two before that. We had a great life together.”
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In contrast, the friends from Lombardo’s Mafioso days who were featured in the book and the film did not live happily ever after.
James Burke, for instance — the Robert De Niro character James Conway in “Goodfellas” — died in prison in 1996. And Carmine Tramunti, whose stiff sentence for drug trafficking in “Goodfellas” was used to warn Henry Hill against the narcotics business, died in prison in 1978.
“Vince knew all the guys from the movie from Jimmy Burke to the nut with the wigs,” said Lansky-Lombardo, referring to Marty Krugman, the wig salesman called Morrie Kessler in Goodfellas. Krugman was murdered in 1979 and suspicion fell on Burke.
Then there was Johnny “Dio” Dioguardi, played by Frank Pellegrino in “Goodfellas” as one of the heads of “Mafia Row” — a real-life series of Pennsylvania federal prison cells holding gangsters who used their connections to receive favoritism that included approval to cook authentic Italian meals with products brought from the outside.
Dioguardi died in 1979 while serving a prison sentence.
“My dad went to work at normal jobs and came home to be a father and husband,” said stepson Rapoport, who was raised by Lombardo.
Among Lombardo’s many careers was restaurant equipment salesman.
“He was content,” Rapoport said. “He never wished for that old life.”
Lombardo and Lansky-Lombardo, both New York natives, met in a bar in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.
Lombardo managed the business for a crime family as one of his duties. Lansky-Lombardo was there one night with another man.
“It was the worst first date ever,” Lanksy-Lombardo said.
But she hit it off with Lombardo.
“He looked a lot like Paul Newman. He had the most gorgeous blue eyes.”
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Lanksy-Lombardo was not aware then that Lombardo was involved in the Mafia and he did not know she was the daughter of Lansky, the man who put the organized in organized crime and helped build casino empires in Cuba and Las Vegas.
Lansky-Lombardo couldn’t recall when they discovered their true identities but believes it took a few weeks.
“I wish I could have been there when my step-dad found out who my mom’s dad was,” stepson Rapoport said with a laugh.
Though she was never directly involved with the mob, nor did her husband ever disclose much about his earlier work, Lansky-Lombardo was often surrounded by infamous men in their early years together.
On one occasion, she would go to dinner with boyfriend Lombardo and his uncle Sebastian “Buster” Aloi, a capo whose son Vincent Aloi later served as acting boss of the Colombo crime family.
Also joining them was Burke and other gangsters. Midmeal, she noticed her expensive Dunhill lighter was missing from the table.
Uncle Aloi, she said, took Burke and the others into the kitchen one-by-one to be strip searched. The lighter was never found.
“Only Vince and his uncle weren’t searched and Vince bought me the lighter,” Lansky-Lombardo said. “So you figure out who probably took it. His uncle searched everyone while it was probably in his own pocket.”
She never met Henry Hill, though her husband did on a few occasions.
Over the years, he made it clear he didn’t think the informer deserved the notoriety he received.
“Vince remembered him as a nobody, a go-fer,” Lansky-Lombardo said. “He was no one important like they depict in the movie. Henry Hill made himself out to be more than what he was and everyone believed him.”
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Still, Lombardo left behind his life of crime, for the most part, before most of the crimes attributed to Hill occurred.
Another view of the informer comes from author Daniel Simone, who co-wrote the book “The Lufthansa Heist” with Hill about the 1978 robbery of nearly $5 million in cash and $1 million jewels from a vault at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Simone interviewed FBI agents and the U.S. attorney in charge of the investigation and they corroborated Hill’s story that along with Burke, Hill was instrumental in planning the heist — the largest cash robbery in U.S. history.
Simone also said Hill was responsible for the theft of $420,000 from the Air France cargo terminal at New York City’s John K. Kennedy International Airport.
“Even if Henry Hill didn’t do anything else during his criminal career,” Simone said, “he pulled off the Lufthansa heist in 1978 and he pulled off the Air France robbery in 1967.”
According to the book “Wiseguy,” Lombardo’s uncle Aloi was given around $60,000 from the Air France haul because the airport fell under his criminal jurisdiction.
“Henry Hill came of prominence among those circles after Air France,” Simone said. “It established himself as a major earner.”
Still, Simone admitted Hill did fib. For example, he does not think Hill killed anyone despite boasting he did.
And “Goodfellas” was not entirely accurate.
One example is a scene where the actors representing Hill and Burke threaten to toss Gaspar Ciaccio of Tampa into a lion cage at Lowry Park Zoo over a gambling debt. It never happened, Simone said, though they did beat him.
“Even Henry Hill denied that happened,” Simone said. “It was added for entertainment purposes only.”
Simone said he also is in negotiations to have his book adapted into a major motion picture.
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Lombardo slipped back into crime one time, his widow said, despite Lansky’s ultimatum.
“My father told Vince very matter-of-factly that if he wants to marry me he walks away from that life,” Lansky-Lombardo said.
But in 1968, when his uncle Aloi asked for help in a stock scheme, Lombardo complied.
What followed shows he should have listened to Lansky.
According to court documents provided by Lansky-Lombardo, Aloi, Burke and others were buying controlling interest in a small company then trading the stock among themselves at inflated prices to falsely increase the worth so they could later sell it at a profit.
When the owner of the company refused to continue turning over stock, Lombardo was asked to find a peaceful solution.
“My dad was a born salesman,” Rapoport said. “He had so much charisma that he could talk you into anything. He was a Golden Gloves boxer so he could have settled anything with his fists. But he never had to.”
Because Burke had a vested interest in the scheme, he went with Lombardo to a Miami hotel to meet with the company owner.
But before Lombardo could negotiate, Burke hung the businessman out the window by his heels until he agreed to part with the stock, according to the court records.
Within a year, those involved with the scheme were charged in federal court.
Burke and Lombardo were arrested for what occurred in the Miami hotel room.
Lombardo was acquitted, so others thought he had cooperated with investigators, his widow said.
A hit was put out on him.
But seeing his son-in-law in trouble, Lansky called in an old friend, his daughter said — Santo Trafficante Jr., the Tampa native and former longtime mob boss of Florida.
“They had a sitdown with all the right people,” Lansky-Lombardo said. “And that was that.”
It turned out that Wall Street stockbroker Michael Hellerman, one of the scheme’s leaders, had turned state’s evidence. Hellerman later wrote a book on the experience, “Wall Street Swindler: An Insider’s Story of Mob Operators in the Stock Market.”
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Lombardo had every right to fear for his life, as later proved by the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist.
Burke worried that too many people knew of his involvement, plus he wanted a bigger share of the take, so he had as many as 13 of them killed, author Simone said.
Hill feared he was next.
Arrested on narcotics charges in 1980, he testified against associates for a number of crimes and entered the witness protection program.
Judging by “Goodfellas” life away from crime never seemed to suit Hill.
His character, played by Ray Liotta, turns to the camera after entering witness protection and, in one of the movie’s most famous lines, laments, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That was never the case with Lombardo, stepson Rapoport said.
“Maybe he missed the excitement at times but he was very happy with the life he had. My dad went to work every day and came home to a wife he loved. He was a family man and he loved his family. He loved my mom.”