James Burke was born on July 5, 1931 to a mother named Conway. However, his childhood consisted of many foster homes, being the victim of much physical, verbal, and even sexual abuse. Between the ages of 16 and 22, he spent an amazing 86 days in reform facilities and prison.
Jimmy first gained respect by refusing to flip over on a fellow criminal in 1949 over a check-cashing scheme. The police beat him savagely as a result, but Jimmy never caved in. Jimmy spent 5 years in prison afterward, but his reputation preceded him and he gained further status by performing murders for mob figures who were also in prison.
Jimmy became quite fond of committing murder over the years. Just before getting married in 1962, Jimmy was told of an ex-boyfriend of her fiancee who gave her problems. Jimmy reportedly chopped the man into pieces and left him "tossed all over the inside of his car." One time Jimmy also murdered the son of an elderly woman that had refused to repay her and gave her the $5000 himself.
Henry Hill said of him, "Jimmy had a reputation for being wild. He’d whack you. There was no question – Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn’t matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert. He was scary and he scared some very scary fellows."
Much like the future John Gotti, Jimmy made his bones by hijacking things from Kennedy Airport. He had a complex system of bribery for the hijackings. If he didn't know the truck driver, he would take their driver's license so he knew their address and they knew that he could pay a visit if they cooperated too much with police. However, for each driver's license, Jimmy would slip a $50 bill in the wallet of the driver, making him quite popular. The drivers used to be happy to get hijacked by Jimmy because he was such a gentleman about it, bribing them with the equivalent of a week's pay. Even when a large number of police officers were assigned to stopping him, Jimmy made short work of bribing them into becoming partners in his operation.
Jimmy also ran several other schemes. He used to sell liquor that he got from Indian reservations in the city because it was untaxed and cheap. He also had trucks that illegally imported cigarettes from the Carolinas.
In 1972 Jimmy was nailed when helping a friend recover a gambling debt. Jimmy and Henry Hill went down to Florida and roughed up the brother of a typist for the FBI. Jimmy got over 5 years in prison and spent much of it in Atlanta Federal Prison. During his time in prison, he shared a cell with Steven "Stacks" Edwards and later Thomas "Two Gun Tommy" DeSimone.
Jimmy's greatest accomplishment was the Lufthansa Heist. Kennedy Airport employees allowed word to slip out about mass currency going through Building 261 on a daily basis. The Lucchese family gave approval to Jimmy to pull off a robbery and he planned it out with DeSimone. After their parole, they gathered with some fellow gangsters to organize the operation and made off with about $10 million in money and jewelry on December 11, 1978.
Since Jimmy and DeSimone were still staying at a halfway house on parole and had bribed the guards, they weren't considered suspects until things started to fall apart. By the end of 1979, everyone involved in the scheme except for Jimmy and one other were dead. The body of Richard Eaton, one of the plotters, was found in a dumpster and was the cause for Jimmy's indictment in 1980. He was sentenced to life in prison after Henry Hill and one of the other plotters in the heist testified against him.
James Burke died in prison of lung cancer in 1996.