The Hood In The Woods: RIP Henry Hill, 1943-2012

The first time I met Henry Hill, he wandered into the bookstore where I was working part-time, took his own cookbook off the shelf, and autographed it. The second time I met him, after arranging by phone to visit his home for an interview, he was drunk with his cock poking out through his boxers. For a long time after this article ran, in October 2003 — with all the “fucks” obscured for newspaper readers, some of whom still took offense — Henry would call me to touch base, sometimes drunk, sometimes not so much. He told me I was up there with Shakespeare and wanted to talk over the box-office prospects for the second Matrix sequel, then heading to theaters. He was avuncular and charming in one turn, self-loathing and bestial in another. He died Tuesday.

Goodfella: Former gangster sought solace at Lake Wenatchee

LAKE WENATCHEE, Wash. — Henry Hill has hidden out in a lot of places in the last 24 years.

As a federal informant in high-profile New York Mafia prosecutions, the former gangster and his family were first uprooted from his Long Island home and relocated to Omaha, Neb., in 1980. Since then Hill’s lived in Lexington, Ky., Seattle and Redmond, Los Angeles and — beginning in late spring — Lake Wenatchee.

In May, Hill and his second wife Kelly moved to a cabin not far from the lake, intending to make it their permanent base. With his gangland past two decades behind him, Hill, 60 — whose story became the basis for the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” — wanted to finish his third book, a memoir of his years since turning evidence against the powerful Lucchese crime family.

More than that, Hill was struggling with alcoholism, and Kelly, 44, wanted him out of the L.A. whirlwind. “I basically did this to try and save Henry’s life,” she said.

“Maybe it’ll help me,” Hill said in the first of two interviews in late July, sipping from a surreptitious glass of liquor at the Star Spangled Manor restaurant along Highway 2. “I gotta get off this sauce. I lost one family already. I don’t need to lose another.”

At the time, Hill had already run afoul of the local law once. By autumn, he would rack up multiple encounters with police. The experiment in rural living was off to a shaky start.

The people he’d met in Eastern Washington are far different from those in his boyhood Brooklyn neighborhood, he said, where he first became gofer for a haven of gangsters. From that day, robbery, forcible debt collection, drug dealing and athletic point-shaving became routine; for 26 years he’d lived a life most of his fellow restaurant patrons had only seen in movies — like “Goodfellas.”

“I wish I could be more like normal people. Like these people here,” he said, motioning to the surrounding tables. “I don’t know how.”

____________

Graying and affable, casually profane in conversation, Henry Hill is now a celebrity by dint of his long association with criminals. Until he agreed to testify against them, the half-Irish, half-Sicilian Hill was a trusted operator for Lucchese crime boss Paul Vario and Vario’s lieutenant, Jimmy “The Gent” Burke.

“Henry did not appear to be limited by any rank or status within the mob,” wrote Nicholas Pileggi, detailing Hill’s odyssey in his 1985 book “Wiseguy.” “… Somehow he was able to move effortlessly through all levels of the mob’s hierarchy.”

Hill first wandered into “the Life,” as he calls it, at a Brooklyn cabstand in 1954. The cabstand was a front for Vario’s neighborhood operations, and it was right across the street from where 11-year-old Henry lived with his parents and six siblings. Vario’s group oversaw backstreet gambling, illicit loans and labor-union rackets in the vicinity. Hill became an errand boy for Vario’s men, parking cars, fetching sandwiches, and, at 14, graduating to arson when he torched all the taxis at a competing cab company.

Hill learned fast, worked quickly and kept his mouth shut whenever police nabbed him for questioning. He proved himself trustworthy to his mob chiefs, despite not being fully Italian. Henchmen like Hill and Jimmy Burke acted more or less as independent contractors, untouched as long as they kept earning.

“I got lucky. I was only half Sicilian. If you’re Italian and you’re a made guy, you have to get permission. We didn’t have to get permission from anybody,” Hill said.

Working with Burke’s crew, Hill helped plan and execute truck hijackings and extortion plots — one of which landed him in prison from 1974 to 1978 — and finally the looting of a $6 million Lufthansa Airlines payload, stolen from Kennedy Airport in December 1978. At the time, it was the largest single cash robbery in U.S. history.

Every caper kicked money up the Mafia ladder to bosses like Vario, who held the reins of each earner in his stable, including Hill. “He was a beast,” Hill said. “I seen him take a baseball bat to a woman. How sick is that?”

Lufthansa, Hill’s biggest score, also marked the start of his decline. After dabbling with drugs in prison, he became a serious user of cocaine and depressants on the outside. It didn’t help that Burke began murdering all his associates from the Lufthansa job, according to Pileggi’s book, to keep them from sharing the profits. Hill became certain he was on Burke’s list, too.

“At that time, after all my friends started getting killed, I was eating six, eight Quaaludes at a f—ing time, honest to God,” Hill said. “I was ‘luded out, cocained out half the time just to deal with the day. I didn’t want to wake up for fear I was gonna die later that day.

“It’s such a sick subculture. People haven’t got a f—ing clue. They see movies, they haven’t got a clue.”

In 1980, the cocaine franchise Hill ran at a girlfriend’s house was busted by narcotics agents. Exhausted, strung out and fearing for his safety, Hill defected from the Life. He, his wife Karen and their two daughters were sent into hiding with the federal Witness Protection Program, and he remained intermittently under the care of federal marshals for the next 20 years.

In return, he unspooled his long memory on the witness stand. On Hill’s testimony, Vario was jailed on fraud conspiracy. Burke was sent up for the murder of one of his couriers. Both men died in prison. Hill’s word put away many of his old Lucchese associates, and helped the feds track down suspects in other crimes as well.

It wasn’t always easy on his conscience.

“I put 50 f—ing murderers in prison. Bad people, y’know? And I’m proud of it, believe me. I wasn’t, for a long time. I hated myself for a lot of years. I hated it. I hated f—ing having to get on this witness stand. I hated it. But I know that for every motherf—er I put in prison for life, I saved a bunch of lives. I try to justify it that way.”

____________

As the dust settled from the initial prosecutions, Hill connected with Pileggi to begin work on “Wiseguy.” So colorful and concise was his storytelling that roughly 60 percent of the book is a transcript of Hill’s recollections.

The Hills moved to the Seattle area in the early 1980s, eventually buying a ranch near Redmond. It was there, where the family kept a handful of horses, that Henry met Kelly in 1985. Her ex-husband was Henry’s driver, and Kelly worked on the ranch, exercising his horses.

“When I met him, his name was Martin Lewis,” Kelly said. His federal protectors had assigned him that name after Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. (“The government’s got a sense of humor, too,” Hill said.)

In 1987, Henry ended his marriage and ran away with Kelly to California.

“One day I just said, ‘Well, my wife knows, me being in love.’ One day I just walked into my bedroom, grabbed a bunch of clothes, got in the car, took out half the money, bought a half a K (kilogram) of coke, and we left.”

Cocaine remained a fixture in Hill’s life. He was arrested in a narcotics conspiracy case in 1987; he maintains he was just a coke buyer and his alleged co-conspirators were his dealers. He was sentenced to five years’ probation, leaving him a free man when Kelly gave birth to their son Julian in 1989.

Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” hit theaters in 1990, and Hill’s celebrity jumped up a notch. He was suddenly in demand as a lecturer, TV commentator (whenever a Mafia indictment made the news) and writer. He began working on books and movie scripts of his own, despite his dyslexia, and on painting.

His gregariousness helped him make and keep friends, even among the lawmen who’d hunted him down. Ed Guevara, one of the federal agents who first detained Hill as a material witness, attended his daughter’s wedding. “Henry has been surprising me for more than 20 years,” said Guevara, now with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration in Florida.

“I enjoy going to Washington and teaching FBI agents,” Hill said. “I go out there and go, ‘Hey, I’m a recovering psychopath.’ That’s my pitch, and these people get up and clap. Twenty f—ing years ago, these guys would’ve killed me.”

Hill’s first book, “The Wiseguy Cookbook,” came out in October 2002, mixing recipes with personal history; “A Goodfella’s Guide to New York” was published last March. Both were written with co-authors. His new book with Pulitzer-nominated co-writer Gus Russo, “Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys, Witness Protection and Life on the Run,” is scheduled to see print in spring 2004. That book was finished during Hill’s summer on Lake Wenatchee.

While the government no longer dictates where he must live, Hill still gets visits from marshals checking on his movements and welfare. Friends on both coasts ridiculed the decision to move to the woods, taking bets on how long the city-bred wiseguy would last in the sticks. They laughed when they heard the ex-con was living near a town called Leavenworth.

“They think it’s a joke,” he said. “It’s not Kansas, Dorothy.”

____________

But for much of the season when Hill was supposed to be steering clear of booze and relaxing in a secluded cabin, he wound up, as he put it, “a guest of Chelan County.”

About 9:30 p.m. May 26, a Chelan County sheriff’s deputy stopped a Toyota sedan on Highway 2 near Mill Street in Leavenworth. The deputy reported the car was weaving across lanes, making sudden stops and reaching 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. Henry Hill’s blood alcohol at the scene was measured at .183 percent, well over the state’s .08 legal definition of drunkenness, according to police reports.

Hill spent three days in Chelan County Jail. He’d been imprisoned before, but this was new: “I’d never been in jail with all white guys,” he said. He pleaded guilty to the DUI charge Aug. 12, and was sentenced to two years on probation.

On July 20, Hill and his Toyota collided with a Ford Taurus at the Coles Corner intersection; police did not report evidence of drunkenness in that accident. But on Aug. 1, two days after Hill was first interviewed for this story, Kelly Hill accused her husband of drunkenly striking her with a telephone receiver. Henry claims the two were in a tug-of-war for the phone when he let go, and the receiver hit her.

Deputies noted a bruise on the outer rim of Kelly’s eye, and took Henry into custody on a charge of domestic assault. “Both (Henry and Kelly) appeared to be intoxicated,” the police report said, and Henry’s voluntary Breathalyzer test gave a .246 blood-alcohol reading. When a deputy ran Hill’s name through the National Crime Information Center database, he got back a record of Hill’s gangland career — about 25 arrests in four states dating back to 1967.

Hill was jailed again, this time for 11 days, and released only after agreeing to have no personal contact with Kelly until Feb. 4, 2004.

“Mr. Hill has gotten a reputation for being well-known in the area as a party animal, if you will,” said Chelan County Chief Criminal Deputy Mark Mann. “He’s had a number of contacts with our deputies where he’s been drinking.”

Another incident was yet to come: On Aug. 21, Kelly summoned deputies to the cabin again. They found both Hills there, both again apparently drunk, and judged that Henry was violating his no-contact order. Henry told deputies he and his wife had been at the house together all day before she called police.

Hill went to jail until Sept. 18. He pleaded guilty to violating the order, was fined $250 and received two years’ supervised probation. Kelly left the Lake Wenatchee house, which the Hills were negotiating to purchase; Henry said she’s now staying with relatives in Nebraska.

“We’re taking a separation for a little while. We’re fine, we’re fine,” Hill said.

Henry Hill moved to Sammamish after his release from jail. He met with The Wenatchee World two weeks ago — again at the Star Spangled Manor, a restaurant he frequented during his Lake Wenatchee stay. He claimed to have 46 days in sobriety. He was on his way to California for a week of meetings on his book, he said; after that, a photo shoot for Men’s Journal magazine in New York City, and a 10-day trip to London for a speaking engagement.

His son stayed with relatives in the Southeast and mountain states for much of the summer, but he was angered by his father’s drinking, Hill said. Hill wouldn’t rule out buying a different Lake Wenatchee cabin, some other time — but after three arrests, the experiment with rural living has to be considered a failure.

“You know what? I didn’t change one bit when I moved up there. … I’m the type of alcoholic, when I start, it’s real difficult for me to stop until I get a rude awakening. They’ve given me three chances.”

Hill’s sentencing on the domestic violence charge is set for Oct. 30; he hopes to earn a term of community service, so he can keep working on his entertainment projects. “A hundred times a day” Henry Hill wishes he hadn’t walked into that Brooklyn cabstand; if the court will let him, he wants to teach Chelan County schoolkids and youth groups to make a better choice.

“I ain’t no saint,” he said. “I’m an idiot. But they listen — some of them listen. And if you can save one soul, you can save the world.”

Daniel G. Harmann and The Trouble Starts — I’ve Turned To a Life of Crime

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3 Responses to The Hood In The Woods: RIP Henry Hill, 1943-2012

  1. Gorgeously written. You have a particular turn of phrase that brought out both this man’s humanity and lack thereof, and creates an appalled fascination with his story. I particularly enjoyed the colorful italicized intro. Bravo, good sir.

  2. Amie says:

    Amazing, Jefferson! Loved reading this so much.

  3. Josh says:

    This is great, although I am offended by your use of the f-word.

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