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Former 'Goodfellas' gangster Henry Hill dies in L.A.

LOS ANGELES — Henry Hill spent much of his life as a "goodfella," thinking his last moment would come with a bullet to the back of his head. In the end he died at a hospital after a long illness, going out like all the average nobodies he once pitied.

Hill, who went from small-time gangster to big-time celebrity when his life as a mobster-turned-FBI informant became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, died Tuesday at age 69, longtime girlfriend Lisa Caserta, 52, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Hill had open heart surgery last year and died of complications from longtime heart problems related to smoking, she said.

"He was a good soul towards the end . . . he started feeling remorseful," she said.

An associate in New York's Lucchese crime family, Hill told detailed, disturbing and often hilarious tales of life in the mob that first appeared in the 1986 book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, by Nicholas Pileggi, a journalist Hill sought out shortly after becoming an informant.

"Henry Hill was a hood. He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads," Pileggi wrote in the book. "He knew how to bribe and he knew how to con. He was a full-time working racketeer, an articulate hoodlum from organized crime."

In 1990, the book, adapted for the screen by Pileggi and Scorsese, became the instant classic Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as Hill, a young hoodlum on the make who thrives in the Mafia but is eventually forced by drugs to turn on his criminal friends and lead the life of a sad suburbanite.

Born in Brooklyn to an Irish father and an Italian mother, Hill's life with the mob began at age 11 when he wandered into a cabstand across the street in 1955 looking for work. He soon knew the life of these silk-suited soldiers was for him.

He began running errands for the men at the stand that soon led to small-time crimes. He was first arrested at age 16 for using a stolen credit card in an attempt to buy tires for the brother of gang leader Paul Vario, and impressed the gang leaders for refusing to squeal on them.

Far bigger crimes awaited, including the 1967 theft of $420,000 in cash from the Air France cargo terminal at JFK airport in New York, among the biggest cash heists in history at the time.

And in 1978, Hill had a key role in the theft of $5.8 million in cash from a Lufthansa Airlines vault, a heist masterminded by Jimmy Burke, the inspiration for De Niro's character in Goodfellas.

"Whenever we needed money, we'd rob the airport," Liotta says in the movie. "To us, it was better than Citibank."

But the crew involved in the heist would soon turn on each other, and several would end up dead, leaving Hill extremely paranoid he could be next, he later told Pileggi.

He was also selling drugs behind the back of his boss, Vario, and in 1980 was arrested on a narcotics-trafficking charge.

More afraid of his associates than prison, Hill decided he had no choice but to become an informant, and signed an agreement with a Department of Justice task force that would prove more fruitful than anyone imagined.

Hill's testimony sent dozens of men to prison, many for the Lufthansa heist, and he and his wife, Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco in the movie, went into hiding together.

In the early 1990s, after more drug arrests, Hill was booted from the witness protection program.

His fears for his life waned as many former associates died off, and he led a more public life in later years, appearing in documentaries and becoming a popular call-in guest on Howard Stern's radio show.

Caserta said Hill, who also had a home in Connecticut, is survived by three sisters, a brother, three children and four grandchildren. She said she could not give their names because they are in witness protection. Funeral plans were being arranged.

Former 'Goodfellas' gangster Henry Hill dies in L.A. 06/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 10:58pm]

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