NEW YORK — FBI agents with jackhammers and shovels were digging Tuesday under a New York City house once occupied by a famed gangster who inspired Robert De Niro's character in the movie "Goodfellas."
James Burke, the late Lucchese crime family associate, is said to have buried victims in familiar places — including under the nearby saloon he ran.
On Monday, FBI investigators descended on the Queens neighborhood that was also home base for the late mobster John Gotti and his Gambino crime family. It's from here that Burke allegedly masterminded a nearly $6 million robbery at New York's Kennedy Airport in 1978 — one of the largest cash thefts in American history.
Neighbors were stunned by news that the house once occupied by "Jimmy the Gent" — as Burke was nicknamed for his tendency to tip heavily — may contain evidence of criminality.
"I woke up hearing the helicopters above," said Shah Alam, 34, who lives next door.
Alam said he is a Muslim, as is the family in the house next to him.
"We're like, what? Are they looking for one of us?" asked the limousine driver, who counted Pakistanis, Palestinians and Bengalis among the block's residents.
Instead, he was witnessing what an FBI spokesman confirmed was an investigation at the red brick rowhouse — situated down the street from a cemetery — on a quiet tree-lined street in the borough's South Ozone Park neighborhood. The spokesman gave no details.
On Tuesday, a big blue canopy was erected over the driveway, and another one over the backyard. Three FBI Evidence Response Team trucks were parked in front, with about a dozen agents coming and going, some shoveling dirt into buckets.
The Burke family still owns the home, now rented to an elderly couple.
While living there, the reputed mobster also owned Robert's Lounge, the saloon that a fellow Lucchese associate, the late Henry Hill, described as Burke's private cemetery.
"Jimmy buried over a dozen bodies ... under the bocce courts," Hill wrote in his book, "A Goodfella's Guide to New York."
In June 1980, a human leg bone and a portion of a human shoulder bone were excavated from the saloon's basement.
The lounge was purportedly a mob hangout where the airport robbery of a Lufthansa Airlines freight area is said to have been planned by a mobster so accomplished that crime writer Nicholas Pileggi dubbed him a "criminal savant."
Burke specialized in hijacking, ripping into the cargo of a stolen trailer "like a greedy child at Christmas," Pileggi wrote in "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family," the book that was adapted into "Goodfellas."
But according to law enforcement officials, he also was linked to crimes including loan sharking, extortion, gambling and drug trafficking.
The mobster was arrested in 1982 for a parole violation — associating with a known felon — and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his part in a point-shaving scandal involving the Boston College basketball team. While in prison, he was indicted for the murder of a drug dealer whose body was found hogtied in a freezer truck in Brooklyn. He was sentence to 20 years to life for second-degree murder.
He died behind bars in 1996, at age 64, almost two decades after the airport robbery. The cash from the heist was never found and for lack of evidence, Burke was never prosecuted for the theft or for the bloodletting that followed: several of the alleged participants were murdered.
Burke's wife continued to live in the house for some years after his death.
Alam, the neighbor, said he was among those who have "a fascination with mob movies," he said. "Anyone who grows up in America does; I watched 'The Godfather,' like, 50 times."
Two doors down from the mobster's former home, Suhail Muhammad knew nothing about Burke. The 24-year-old student said he hadn't seen "Goodfellas," the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie in which De Niro played a character named Jimmy Conway. He planned to watch it this week.
The FBI activity "is kind of cool and disturbing," he added. "If you find out there's a body next to you, it's kind of creepy."