Up until the time he disappeared in 1975, longtime Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa had a lot of enemies. In the 1950s and early 1960s, none was more potent than Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, attorney general from 1961 to 1964, who succeeded in putting Hoffa in prison for a few years. But when the Mafia later turned on Hoffa, after years of cooperation and manipulation, that was, as one organization crime figure put it, “all she wrote.” Hoffa disappeared—permanently.
There is little doubt that Hoffa was murdered. The FBI constructed a scenario that they concluded told the story pretty well. It may or may not be correct in all details, but one thing seems sure: Jimmy Hoffa’s not coming back.Hoffa was for decades a controversial Teamsters union leader, one with strong connections to organized crime. However, despite his underworld connections and a long list of shady dealings, he remained immune to prosecution until he became the target of Robert F. Kennedy, chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (more popularly called the McClellan Committee), and later attorney general.
As attorney general Kennedy made the “Get Hoffa” campaign a top priority of his administration. Kennedy’s efforts resulted in the labor leader’s trial in 1962 for extorting illegal payments from a firm employment Teamsters. The case ended in a hung jury, but Hoffa was then nabbed for attempting to bribe one of the jurors. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. In 1964 Hoffa was convicted of misappropriating $1.7 million in union pension funds. He fought off entering prison until 1967 and ended up doing 58 months, having his term commuted in 1971 by President Richard Nixon with the proviso that he stay out of union politics for 10 years.Hoffa did not take that proviso seriously and started legal action against the stipulation. In the meantime he went ahead with his efforts to regain control of the union from his former protégé, Frank Fitzsimmons. The Mafia was particularly cozy with Fitzsimmons, finding him easier to manipulate than the strong-willed Hoffa. True, there was a recording heard by the McClellan Committee in 1961 in which Hoffa seemed to be offering his permission for Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo to steal from union funds so long as he was not caught at it. But Hoffa actually was a tough bargainer and his assistance did not come cheap. Fitzsimmons was regarded by organized crime as a man who could be counted on always to be looking the other way. In addition, Fitzsimmons was welcome at the White House and Hoffa was not. A return to power by Hoffa would lead inevitably to further FBI surveillance of union activities—which was hardly conducive to tranquil mob operation. Time after time the mob told Hoffa to cool it, but in mob language he proved “hard of hearing and kept coming on.” On July 30, 1975, the 62-year-old Hoffa went to a restaurant in suburban Detroit, Machus Red Fox, supposedly to meet three men, one a Detroit labor leader, another an important Detroit mob member and the third a power in New Jersey Teamsters activities. Hoffa arrived first, at 2 P.M. A half hour later the trio had not shown up, and Hoffa called up his wife to say he was waiting somewhat longer — the last documented conversation Hoffa had. At 2:45 he was seen getting into a car in the restaurant parking lot with several other men. Investigators later were satisfied that Hoffa never got out of that car alive, that he was garroted and his body run through a mob-controlled fat-rendering plant that was later destroyed by fire. The government’s list of suspects was large and included, after intensive probing of underworld sources and convicts seeking reductions in their sentences, Russell Bufalino, Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and two Hoffa “cronies,” Thomas Andretta and Gabriel Briguglio. Another suspect, Gabriel’s brother Salvatore Briguglio, was believed to be talking to the FBI and was shot to death in New York in March 1978.
According to the FBI reconstruction of the Hoffa murder, Tony Pro had called the so-called peace parley with the union leader and then ordered him killed. Provenzano denied even being in Detroit at the time and, indeed, seemed to go out of his way to seal an airtight alibi; at the time of Hoffa’s disappearance, Tony was touring a number of Teamster locals in and around Hoboken, New Jersey.
There are many loose ends in the Hoffa case. For instance, why, if he were going to order Hoffa’s execution, had Tony Pro linked himself to a meeting with Hoffa when he had to know that Hoffa would and did mention he was to meet with him. Then there was the odd fact that the men who took care of Hoffa showed up 45 minutes late, hardly the norm for mob hit men for whom promptness is not only a virtue but also a necessity for staying alive themselves. The answer could be that the decision to hit Hoffa was a last-minute thing, with the Mafia hot line buzzing all around the country to get approval. In any event, the FBI’s theory that Hoffa was murdered, and by a particular method, was backed up from traces of his hair and blood found later in the abduction car.
There were other theories. One Teamsters official, subjected to considerable questioning by the FBI, stuck to his own inside version, that Hoffa had “run off to Brazil with a black go-go dancer.”
In the years since 1975, Hoffa has been declared legally dead and most of the suspects in the case have gone to prison for other crimes, some of the convicting evidence having been uncovered during the Hoffa probe. Any murder convictions in the Hoffa case per se are strictly on hold and probably depend on some member or members of organized crime talking to get out of prison. As one unidentified Teamsters vice president has been quoted, “We all know who did it. It was Tony and those guys of his from New Jersey. It’s common knowledge. But the cops need a corroborating witness, and it doesn’t look like they’re about to get one, does it?”Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno offers an alternative theory in The Last Mafioso. He tells of an important Cleveland mobster with close links to the Detroit family, saying it was nonsense about Tony Pro and Bufalino, that Detroit was not an organization that needed outside help. He linked local mafiosi big shots to the case: “Tony Giacalone was in tight with Hoffa and he’s the one that set him up. Tony Zerilli and Mike Polizzi gave the order and that was all she wrote.” Certainly there was no way Hoffa could be killed in their area without Detroit giving the okay, but in a sense we are merely talking mechanics. The fact is the Mafia held its own private union election, and Hoffa was voted a dead loser. A definitive break in the Hoffa case finally came in 2001. DNA testing revealed that a hair found in a car that Hoffa’s longtime friend, Charles (Chuckie) O’Brien, was driving on the day the ex-teamster boss vanished belonged to Hoffa. O’Brien who was expelled from the Teamsters in 1990 for association with organized crime had always been regarded as a suspect in the Hoffa disappearance, but investigators were never able to disprove his contention that Hoffa had never been in the car. The car O’Brien was driving was owned by Mafia enforcer Anthony Giacalone’s son. While this was solid enough evidence, most experts said it would never be enough to break the quarter-century-old case. DNA evidence or not, the Hoffa murder was still a perfect enough crime.