I woke up to a text from one of the small handful of friends I still have in my hometown of North Platte, NE.
“Henry Hill is dead,” it said. “I’ll never forget that time he called me a motherfucker.”
The Henry Hill story is a bit of a punchline in my hometown. Or a headache. Or a weird blip on the radar. It’s certainly … something.
Our list of hometown celebrities is small. There’s Buffalo Bill Cody, a circus magnate who held the first major rodeo in North Platte in 1882, and lived on the northern edges of North Platte. There’s New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead, who did something or other in that Super Bowl I didn’t watch. Glenn Miller, a big band leader. Zane Smith, a former player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who had one of baseball’s best mullets and played Little League Baseball in North Platte, a very important fact if you were playing Little League Baseball in North Platte in the early 90s (as I was) but whose name is largely forgotten now.
And then there was the time that, after getting out of witness protection, Henry Hill became a “celebrity chef” at a restaurant inside a hotel that’s now been raised to make room for an oil change and tire shop.
If you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” where Ray Liotta played him, you probably know parts of the Henry Hill story. A man who idolized the mob in his youth gets hooked in with the mob early through the Vario Family. In 1967, Hill and some associates robbed $420,000 from an Air France flight out of JFK Airport. Two years later, Hill participated in the murder of William Devino, a made man in the Gambino Family, who was pistol whipped and bludgeoned to death. After beating an FBI employees brother, Hill was tried and found guilty of extortion.
Behind bars, he started up a profitable drug trade thanks to a prison filled with mob connections, both inside and outside the cells. Considered a “model prisoner” he was granted early parole. He continued his bookkeeping pursuits, with clients including former Newark Mayor Hugh Addonzio and some NBA refs. He participated in the Lufthansa Heist, plotted by the Lucchese Family. When the magnitude of the heist caught the attention of mob boss Jimmy Burke, Burke set about having those involved killed. Hill began to fear for his own life, but not so much that it prevented him from starting a narcotics ring. He also became addicted to his own products, and was arrested through a wiretap investigation in 1980 on trafficking charges. Through this he became an informant. His testimony led to multiple convictions of former associates, including Burke and a member of the Vario family.
For his help, Hill entered Witness Relocation, bouncing around in places such as Omaha and Seattle. In 1987, he was arrested on drug charges, and claimed to clean up his act. However, sometime in the 90s he was booted from witness protection for multiple instances of criminal mischief.
Then, sometime in the early 00s, he landed in North Platte.
The Firefly Restaurant was located inside the Royal Colonial Inn on Jeffers Street in North Platte. Hill played an integral part of designing the menu for the restaurant with the owners around the time of the restaurants inception in 2004. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2005, he said, “I adopted about half the town already.”
He was arrested in August 2004 at North Platte’s small regional airport for drug related charges after being found with four glass tubes with meth and cocaine residue and a syringe, among other items. Convicted later in 2005, he served six months in county jail for this. In March 2005, he was arrested for keying a car. When he was arrested again in 2007, the North Platte Bulletin described him as having worn out his welcome.
He also came out with his own line of marinara sauces.
The restaurant closed for good in 2007, according to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s website. Henry Hill would move out to California, where he would be arrested for failure to appear on public intoxication charges in 2009.
He died on June 12, 2012.
What makes someone a celebrity?
At some point, it seems that fame and notoriety have an intersection. And there’s always been a cultural fascination with the criminal and the narratives it creates.
Henry Hill didn’t bring with him the mystique of celebrity of a former athlete or movie star. Until his last days, Henry Hill sold not only himself, but the mystique of the mafia. On his affiliated site, GoodFellaHenry.com, this personality was sold as much in trade as was the fascination with the mob.
Hill wasn’t the first mob associate in North Platte, of course. Early on (1860s and 1870s) it was a main fixture on the railroad lines, and it was a town with “a motley crowd of laborers, business men, gamblers and ‘toughs.’” By the 1920s, bootlegging operations, mob hideouts, brothels and other such “businesses” gave it the nickname Little Chicago. By the 1950s, the town had mostly cleaned up its act, though local lore still refers to some of its more lawless days.
And maybe that’s what led to Henry Hill being brought to the Firefly as a celebrity chef.
I went to the Firefly once with my family. A relative worked there as a waitress. She asked if we wanted to meet Henry. He staggered over, slurring to the point of being nearly incomprehensible. He came to our table, a bottle of wine or two into the night. He offered my parents and I a bottle of wine. My dad demured.
“I didn’t want to owe him a favor,” my dad said after Hill had stumbled away from the table.
I’m still uncertain of how much my dad was joking that day.
At the heart of this all was a troubled man - continuously plagued by personal problems, unable to escape his past histories of criminal convictions and drug addictions. A man without a home who bounced between locations looking and hoping for a place he could settle in, but always finding that trouble wasn’t far behind. He would wear out his welcomes wherever he went - in the mob, in witness protection, in North Platte.
Hill would do guest appearances on Howard Stern, where he once attempted to sell videos of his own assault. His personal relationships were frequently turbulent, his temper short. During his time in North Platte, his cooking skills were often overshadowed by incidences of keyed cars and slashed tires.
Sometimes celebrity is as much public performance and public creation as it is spectacles, notoriety and meltdowns.
Henry Hill: Mobster, Murderer, Traficker, Chef. Local celebrity.