Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas chronicled the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who became close to some of the biggest names in the mob, as were Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), but how do their deaths compare to real life? Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill and his involvement with the Lucchese crime family, as well as his decision to become an FBI informant years later.
After running errands for Paulie and his crew when he was a teenager, Henry earned their trust and eventually became part of their family. Along with Jimmy and Tommy, Henry participated in various crimes, though Henry didn’t take part in the Lufthansa heist, but he was key in planning it. Henry ended up cooperating with the FBI and his testimonies were used to send Paulie and Jimmy to prison, and by then, Tommy was already dead. Goodfellas showed the death of Tommy, but how does it compare to real life and how did Henry, Jimmy, and Paulie die?
1 Henry Hill
Henry Hill was born on June 11, 1943, in New York City, and just like in Goodfellas, he was fascinated by the mafia presence in his neighborhood, as local gangsters, including Paul Vario (Cicero in Goodfellas) gathered at a dispatch cabstand across the street from Hill’s home. Hill started running errands for Vario’s crew as a teenager and served drinks and sandwiches at card games organized by these mobsters, which is how he met Jimmy “The Gent” Burke (Conway in Goodfellas). Hill was first arrested when he was 16, when he and Vario’s son, Lenny, tried to use a stolen credit card to buy snow tires, and just like in Goodfellas, Hill refused to talk to the authorities, earning the respect of Vario and Burke.
As part of Vario’s crime family, Hill took part in the Air France robbery, and with that money, he purchased a restaurant called The Suite, where Billy Batts was pistol-whipped by Tommy DeSimone (DeVito in Goodfellas), and he had a role in the planning of the Lufthansa heist, though he didn’t actively participate in the heist. After a couple more arrests, Hill agreed to become an informant and entered the U.S. Marshals’ Witness Protection Program with his wife, Karen, and their two children. Hill was expelled from the witness protection program years later after more arrests, and after writing books and even owning a restaurant, he passed away on June 12, 2012, of complications related to heart disease.
2 Jimmy “The Gent” Conway
James Burke, best known as “Jimmy the Gent”, was born on July 5, 1931. Burke was an associate of the Lucchese crime family but just like Hill, he was ineligible to become a “made man” due to being of Irish descent. Burke was a mentor to Hill and DeSimone, and just like in Goodfellas, he began trafficking drugs with Hill after they served some time in jail. Burke, along with Hill, helped DeSimone dispose of Billy Batts’ body, burying him at a dog kennel owned by a friend of Burke – but three months later, Burke’s friend sold the dog kennel to housing developers, so he ordered Hill and DeSimone to exhume Batt’s body and dispose of it somewhere else.
Burke’s most notable crime was the Lufthansa heist, as he’s considered the mastermind of it, though it wouldn’t have been possible without Hill, who was told by Martin Krugman (Morrie in Goodfellas) that Lufthansa flew in currency to its cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Burke put together the crew for the heist and also ordered the murders of many of them after the heist, beginning with Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, as he grew paranoid about the authorities going after him. As a result of Hill’s testimonies, Burke was sent to prison, and while serving his sentence, he was charged with the 1979 murder of a drug dealer, and in 1985, he was sentenced to a further 20 years in prison. While serving his sentence in Wendell Correctional Facility in New York, Burke was diagnosed with cancer, and he died on April 13, 1996, at Roswell Parks Comprehensive Cancer Center.
3 Tommy DeSimone
Thomas DeSimone was born on May 24, 1950, and he came from a family of mobsters, as his paternal grandfather, Rosario DeSimone, was the boss of the Los Angeles family, and his uncle, Frank DeSimone, later became boss as well. Tommy’s brothers were associates of the Gambino crime family and one of his sisters was Jimmy Burke’s mistress, so it’s not surprising that he ended up involved in the mob as well. Tommy was 15 years old when he was introduced to Paul Vario, and he soon became involved in different criminal activities. As mentioned above, he was part of the Air France robbery, was the one responsible for the death of Billy Batts, and was part of Burke’s Lufthansa heist crew, after which he was ordered by Burke to kill Stacks Edwards.
Tommy DeSimone disappeared on January 14, 1979, and there are various theories on what happened to him. It’s widely believed that he was murdered as revenge for the murders of Batts and Ronald Jerothe, two of John Gotti’s men, with Jerothe being his protégé, and Hill told authorities that DeSimone’s murder was done by the Gambino family. According to Hill, DeSimone had been told he was going to be made, so Vario’s son, Peter, and Bruno Facciolo took him to an unknown location, where he was killed. However, other theories about DeSimone’s death say that Thomas Agro claimed in 1985 to kill Tommy DeSimone, while Hill also said that Gotti himself killed DeSimone, in the presence of Agro. Other theories claim DeSimone’s murder was Paul Vario’s fault, as he told the Gambino family what he did to Batts and Jerothe, and Vario did it in retaliation for trying to rape Karen Hill, Henry’s wife, with whom he had an affair. Tommy DeSimone’s body was never found, but it’s believed he was buried in The Hole, a suspected mafia graveyard.
4 Paul Vario
Paul Vario was born on July 10, 1914, and unlike his portrayal in Goodfellas, he’s described as having had a very violent temper. In addition to leading a crew that was involved in criminal dealings at John F. Kennedy Airport and many other crimes, Vario also had legitimate businesses, such as a flower shop and a taxi stand, though he also used these to conduct illegal rackets. Following Hill’s testimonies, Vario was convicted and sentenced to four years in federal prison, but after more information and evidence of other crimes came up, he was sentenced to a further 10 years. Paul Vario died on May 3, 1988, from lung failure while incarcerated at Forth Worth Federal Prison.