Henry Hill in a 2005 photo at the Firefly in North Platte, superimposed on a photo of New York City.
Henry “Goodfella” Hill, a mobster who became a celebrity and spent several years in North Platte, died Tuesday. He was 69.
Hill’s life as a mobster was the basis for the Martin Scorsese film "Goodfellas.” In 2004, Hill came to North Platte and became the head chef at a restaurant.
He stayed about three years, designing the menu of Italian food at the Firefly, a restaurant in the Royal Colonial Inn, and marketing his special marina sauce – henry Hill’s Sunday Gravy.
But the infamous mobster was charged with multiple crimes during the time he lived here.
He was found guilty of possession of methamphetamine and numerous of counts of assault. After an argument with his estranged wife, Kelly, Hill then got into an argument with the former manager of the Firefly bar, Dale Norblad, who ordered Hill to leave.
Hill repeatedly threatened bar patrons, brandished knives at his wife and others and allegedly cut the tires of his enemies.
Drunk most of the time, Hill wore out his welcome in North Platte and spent more than six months in the Lincoln County jail. He fled after he was released for treatment in 2007.
Hill was born and raised in the Brooklyn area. He once worked for the Lucchese crime family in New York. Hill was never a “made” man: he couldn’t be because he isn’t full-blood Italian. His mother was from Sicily but his father was Irish.
That didn’t stop Hill from becoming active in the crime family, though.
In his teenage years, Hill did errands for the Lucchese capo, Paul Vario, and became best friends with Jimmy “The Gent” Burke and Tommy DeSimone. He quickly moved from errands to truck hijackings. He was also reported to be skilled at disposing of hijacked goods.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” from gangster Henry Hill’s opening monologue in Goodfellas, a movie made about his life in 1990. Hill was played by actor Ray Liotta.
Hill married and had two children but his relationship with his first wife, Karen, was rocky. Hill lived the gangster life – staying out all hours drinking and partying and having a number of affairs and girlfriends.
Hill was eventually busted for beating up a man who failed to pay a gambling debt. The man turned out to be the brother of an FBI typist.
Hill was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released early after Vario set up a fake job for him.
Hill began a narcotics operation, moving cocaine from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh, bringing in huge amounts of money. He did so without Vario’s permission or knowledge, as dealing narcotics was forbidden in the Lucchese crime family.
Hill got hooked on his own cocaine, which caused him to be sloppy.
On April 27, 1980, he was arrested for selling cocaine and heroin.
The authorities didn't really care about the drug charges — they wanted him to roll over on Vario and Burke.
Hill was left with a tough decision: run to Vario and likely be killed for disobeying family law, run from the law with his family or become a government witness.
The government offered him a deal. If he testified against fellow mobsters, the charges would be dropped and he would be protected.
Hill chose the government deal and ratted out Vario and Burke. He gave prosecutors the evidence they needed to convict the men and some 48 other gangsters.
The government buried the Hill family – Henry, Karen and their two kids – deep in the Witness Protection Program and moved them to Omaha. They were given $1,500 a month and a house to rent, according to Hill’s children, who wrote their own book.
Gregg was 13 and Gina was just 11 when their father made that deal with the government.
The mafia reportedly put out a a half-million-dollar contract on Hill in New York. At the time of his entry into the witness protection program, officials played him taped recordings of his enemies ordering his death.
The family later relocated to Kentucky, Ohio and Washington.
During this time, Henry consulted with Nicholas Pileggi, who went on to write the book “Wiseguy.” The book was adapted into the 1990 film “Goodfellas” that starred Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway, a character based on Burke, and Ray Liotta as Hill.
Hill was expelled from the protection program. The government wasn’t happy that he wasn’t keeping the required low profile.
Hill says those days are over, and he didn't need protection anymore. Burke and Vario both died in prison. Most of the others Lucchese family members are either imprisoned or dead, too.
“I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” Hill quoted from Wiseguy, Simon & Schuster 1986.
Hill married his second wife, Kelly. He moved to North Platte. Hill and Kelly have visited North Platte for several years since Kelly’s daughter from a previous marriage lives here.
Hill, who published a Wise Guy cookbook and is an excellent Italian chef, brought the idea of an Italian menu to Marie Jones, owner of the Firefly.
The partnership caught on. The restaurant became busy and the reviews were excellent. His meatballs were popular, as was his pizza.
Hill claimed to make the best pizza in the world.
Hill preferred good dried pasta to fresh.
“I like it to go right from the boiling water to my dish,” Hill said. “It has to be alive. It has a life to itself. It's good for you.”
The ex-mobster continued to live under the glare of media attention, with feature stories in newspapers, radio and TV interviews. He received requests for interviews weekly.
After he’d been in North Platte a few months Hill told the Bulletin he loves North Platte and feels accepted here.
“I’m rich in the way that counts the most,” Hill said. “I’m rich in friends.”
Hill scurried around in the kitchen, barking out instructions in colorful language, teaching his protégés the “proper way” to cook and serve delicious Italian cuisine.
But Hill’s transition wasn’t without its share of controversy.
His children, Greg and Gina Hill, released a book about growing up in the protection program. “On the Run: A Mafia Childhood” is not flattering to Hill.
Hill doesn’t hide from his past.
“I’m not proud of it but I own it,” Hill said.
Hill was convicted of disturbing the peace in North Platte and spent two days in the Lincoln County Jail after police officers said he was “drunk and yelling and screaming at passing cars” from the parking lot of the Kwik Stop.
Hill was also charged with possession of cocaine and methamphetamine Jan. 4, 2005 after security officers at North Platte Regional Airport/Lee Bird Field allegedly found the drugs in his luggage Aug. 15, 2004.
An affidavit said Hill few to Denver that day but didn’t have time to check his luggage. He flew out and left his luggage to arrive later.
During a search of the luggage, as per policy the affidavit said, attendants found a white paper sack with four glass tubes with residue, two prescription bottles of pills and a syringe.
The Nebraska State Patrol lab found the residue tested positive for meth and cocaine, the affidavit said.
Hill faced 10 years imprisonment if convicted. He was released on a $10,000 bond and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing.
Hill shrugged off the charge.
“It’s bull****,” Hill said. “Someone put that stuff in my suitcase a long time ago.”
“Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup,” from Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese.
To get good Italian food, Hill said he makes it himself. He’s proud of his menu and believes he offers something unique to North Platte – authentic Italian food – veal, chicken and scampi.
Hill makes the sauces daily with fresh ingredients.
Hill said he’s done with being afraid. He has left that life far behind.
Now he said he works 15-18 hour days and that it not only keeps him out of trouble, but also keeps him sane. He also planned to stay involved in the media, working on a sequel to “Goodfellas.”
Hill has also written his life story, “Gangsters and Goodfellas” and “A Goodfella’s Guide to New York.”
For several weeks, though, Hill could be found running around the kitchen at the Firefly, checking every detail, making sure his customers say, “molto bene.”
Frank L. Graham wrote most of this report as a feature story for the Bulletin in 2005. Graham and Hill were partners for a few months, collaborating to market Hill's Sunday Gravy marinara sauce. Graham now lives in Texas and works at a newspaper near Austin. -George L.