At about 2:30 p.m. on July 30, 1975, Jimmy Hoffa called his wife, Josephine, to tell her that the men he was supposed to meet at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township were late.
James Riddle Hoffa, the fiery former Teamsters leader with an appropriate middle name, hasn’t been heard from since.
On this month’s 10th anniversary of the disappearance and presumed murder of the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the strange case of Jimmy Hoffa remains shrouded in speculation and myth. And, over the years, the Hoffa case, like those of Amelia Earhart and Judge Crater before, has been transformed in the public’s mind into one of America’s most celebrated missing-person mysteries.
For a time, guessing where Jimmy Hoffa’s body might lie was a popular game. Every big construction project in Michigan built about the time of his disappearance--from the Pontiac Silverdome to the Walter Reuther Freeway in suburban Detroit--was rumored to be Hoffa’s burial ground. Hoffa’s body is still placed by rumors everywhere from a New Jersey landfill to the Florida Everglades. Even today, waitresses at the Machus Red Fox say, the restaurant gets occasional telephone calls from jokesters asking that Jimmy Hoffa be paged.
James P. Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa’s son, who has tried to put his family’s tragedy behind him, says he also gets calls--from crackpots who claim to have new evidence. It usually takes only a minute or two for Hoffa, a heavyset Detroit attorney with his father’s jutting features and piercing eyes, to confirm that the callers don’t know what they are talking about.
One of the great paradoxes of the Hoffa case is that law enforcement officials have for years believed that they know who abducted and killed Hoffa--and why. They think also that they know where and how the kidnaping and murder took place, and they can make some intelligent guesses as to where his body might be.
The problem is that the government has never been able to prove any of what it claims to know about the crime. Hoffa’s body has never been found, and no one has ever been indicted for his killing. His two children could not claim his estate until 1982, when he was finally declared legally dead. (Hoffa’s wife died in 1980.)
Not Enough Evidence
“We have a strong feeling we know who the players were, but we have not been able to obtain enough evidence to bring an indictment,” Wayne Davis, agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, said. FBI spokesman John Anthony added that the bureau still has an agent assigned to follow leads in the case--there is no statute of limitations on murder--and said that the FBI is contacted about once a month (more frequently in July, around the anniversary of the crime) by someone claiming to have information.
Often, the contacts are convicts hoping to trade their information for reduced sentences. Sometimes, the leads appear genuine, Anthony says, but, so far, none have panned out.
“My sister and I are certainly disappointed that, with all of the FBI’s investigative tools, they haven’t been able to solve this crime,” said James P. Hoffa, now 44. “I still think about it every year, every day of my life. But it’s one of those things you have to accept and go on.”
However, those who law enforcement believes were involved have not escaped prosecution. Federal law enforcement officials say that virtually every individual they suspect was involved has served time in prison since the Hoffa disappearance.
Although none were ever tried for killing Hoffa, almost all of those suspected were sent to prison for other crimes that were uncovered as a result of the intensive investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force.
“Just about everybody who was any kind of suspect went to prison,” said Robert Ozer, who directed the Justice Department’s strike force in Detroit during the first year of the Hoffa investigation and who is now an attorney in private practice in Denver. “My guess is that the murderer of Jimmy Hoffa is either in a federal prison now or has spent some time in one.”
In addition, the Hoffa case led the FBI to give top priority to investigating and breaking up organized crime’s ties to the Teamsters. “The case had a tremendously positive impact on the FBI’s focusing on labor racketeering, and the (Justice Department’s) organized crime strike force programs benefited, too,” noted Paul Coffey, deputy chief of the Organized Crime Section of the Justice Department. “It definitely had a long-range positive impact on our investigations into organized crime.”
Theory on Killing
The theory about Hoffa’s disappearance that is most widely accepted by federal law enforcement officials and detailed in author Steven Brill’s 1978 book, “The Teamsters,” is based on the assumption that Hoffa was murdered on orders from those who wanted to ensure that he did not regain the presidency of the Teamsters, a position he had forfeited under the terms of the 1971 commutation of his prison term.
Hoffa, who was born in Indiana in 1913 and was reared in Detroit, had joined the Teamsters as an organizer during the Depression, moved up quickly through the ranks and was elected president of the Teamsters in 1957. Paradoxically, he was both a dedicated friend of the working man and a willing accomplice to organized crime’s involvement in the labor movement.
Through precedent-setting accomplishments such as the establishment of nationwide labor contracts for truckers, Hoffa vastly increased the power of the Teamsters while, at the same time, acceding to organized crime’s influence inside the organization. As a result, he became the target of frequent federal racketeering investigations, especially during the early 1960s, when his archenemy, Robert F. Kennedy, was U.S. attorney general.
In 1967, Hoffa was sent to prison for 13 years for mail fraud and jury tampering, and later, to obtain early release, was forced to agree to a deal with the Richard M. Nixon Administration to step down as Teamsters president, a title he had continued to hold while in jail.
Barred From Union Work
The terms of Hoffa’s release from prison barred him from engaging in union activities until 1980. But, at the time of his disappearance, he was waging a legal fight to have that restriction lifted. If that effort had succeeded, Hoffa, 62 at the time of his kidnaping, intended to have himself named an officer of his old Teamsters local in Detroit, still run by his allies. He then would have been eligible to run against Frank E. Fitzsimmons for the presidency at the union’s 1976 national convention in Las Vegas.
But, while Hoffa was in jail, organized crime, long his ally, had become more comfortable dealing with Fitzsimmons, a one-time assistant whom Hoffa had picked to hold down the fort at Teamsters headquarters while he was in prison. Initially, Hoffa apparently expected Fitzsimmons to relinquish power when he returned; but, instead, Fitzsimmons consolidated his hold on the leadership.
Law enforcement officials believe that organized crime was afraid that the increasingly independent Hoffa would not be as tolerant as Fitzsimmons of its influence in union affairs. (Fitzsimmons, who continued as president until he died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 73, is not thought by the FBI to have been involved in the Hoffa killing.)
In the summer of 1975, all the signs pointed to Hoffa’s success in court.
A feud between Hoffa and Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano, a former Teamsters vice president and a reputed organized crime leader in New Jersey, over whether Hoffa would tolerate Provenzano’s involvement in the union’s affairs is believed by law enforcement officials to have been connected to Hoffa’s disappearance. Provenzano and Hoffa had initially been friends but soured on each other when serving time together in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., in the late 1960s.
When Hoffa called his wife from the Machus Red Fox, officials have alleged, he was waiting to meet both Provenzano and Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, a reputed organized crime figure in Detroit and a one-time Hoffa ally. Giacalone had supposedly arranged a peace meeting between Hoffa and Provenzano, but neither Giacalone nor Provenzano showed up.
A federal grand jury was convened in Detroit in 1975 to investigate the Hoffa killing, but there was not enough physical evidence or solid testimony to persuade the grand jurors to return indictments. And none have been returned since.
FBI documents filed in the case help to flesh out the agency’s theory of Hoffa’s murder. According to a 1975 FBI affidavit, the abduction of Hoffa allegedly was facilitated by Charles (Chuckie) O’Brien, a Teamsters organizer and Hoffa protege who has often been inaccurately described as Hoffa’s foster son. (He was never a member of the Hoffa family, according to James P. Hoffa, who says he has refused to have any contact with O’Brien since his father’s murder.)
The FBI theory, as it was presented to the grand jury, alleges that O’Brien picked up Hoffa at the restaurant and drove him away in a 1975 Mercury owned by Giacalone’s son, Joey, ostensibly to meet Provenzano and Giacalone. Instead, according to the FBI’s theory, O’Brien then allegedly drove Hoffa to meet at least two Provenzano operatives sent from New Jersey. The FBI believes that they were Salvatore (Sally Bugs) Briguglio and either his brother Gabriel or Thomas Andretta.
(Another working theory is that they were in the car with O’Brien when he picked up Hoffa at the restaurant.)
FBI officials theorize that Hoffa’s body was disposed of at an organized-crime-controlled sanitation company in Hamtramck, Mich., a predominantly Polish inner-city area surrounded by Detroit. The FBI searched the property soon after Hoffa’s disappearance but found nothing.
Charred Hulk of Building
Early in 1976, the company was destroyed by arson, according to the Hamtramck Fire Department. Today, its charred hulk stands in a back alley of a decaying industrial area of Hamtramck, virtually untouched since the fire.
As FBI suspects, the Briguglios, Provenzano, Giacalone and Andretta were called to testify before the grand jury. Provenzano and Giacalone had solid alibis; Provenzano was playing gin rummy at the union hall of a Teamsters local he controlled in New Jersey on the day of the murder, and it was contended that he had been playing with the Briguglios and Andretta. Giacalone was seen getting a massage at a health club in suburban Detroit on the afternoon of the killing.
Provenzano and his New Jersey associates took the Fifth Amendment at grand jury hearings. William Bufalino, a Detroit attorney with strong ties to the Teamsters who represented the Provenzano group during the grand jury proceedings, insists that his clients are innocent.
“They were in New Jersey playing cards that day,” said Bufalino, who represented Hoffa in his legal struggles in the 1960s and is now retired from his position as a special counsel to the Teamsters. “If they had any other knowledge of it, I don’t know.”
Without a body or an arrest, speculation surrounding the case grew. Law enforcement officials and the press were flooded with leads; Ozer remembers receiving elaborate charts from astrologers that supposedly showed that Hoffa was lying next to a stream or was buried in a ditch. And, with huge rewards posted, con artists and hoaxers soon joined in.
40-Acre Field Dug Up
An embarrassed CBS acknowledged paying $10,000 to a person who contended that he had information about the case and then tried to make off with the money. Another person told Hoffa’s family that Hoffa was alive and demanded $100,000 to disclose his whereabouts. At the height of the Hoffa frenzy in the fall of 1975, Michigan’s attorney general, followed by a horde of reporters, took some state policemen and a backhoe on a wild goose chase to dig up a 40-acre field about 25 miles outside Detroit, after a tipster had told a Senate investigating committee that Hoffa’s body was there.
But, as the frenzy subsided, the FBI began to get convictions on other charges of those it suspected of Hoffa’s murder. In 1976, Provenzano and Salvatore Briguglio were indicted for conspiracy to murder Tony (Three Fingers) Castellito, a Provenzano opponent in a local Teamsters election who disappeared in 1961. In 1978, Provenzano was convicted in a New York state court of the Castellito murder and received a life sentence. Now 68, he has been serving a 20-year sentence at the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., since 1979 on a separate racketeering conviction and will begin to serve the state sentence for murder after he is released by federal authorities.
His control over Teamsters Local 560, the New Jersey union where he was playing cards when Hoffa was killed, has been threatened by the Justice Department. The government has obtained a federal court order, which is on appeal, to oust all of the union’s officers and appoint a trustee to administer the local.
One Suspect Slain
Meanwhile, Salvatore Briguglio was the victim of a gangland-style murder in Little Italy in Manhattan in March, 1978, just months before the Castellito murder trial was scheduled to begin.
Giacalone was sentenced to just under 13 years in prison for separate convictions on income tax evasion and extortion and has been in the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., since 1979. Now 66, he could be paroled as early as next January.
Gabriel Briguglio, now 46, was convicted of racketeering and sent to the federal penitentiary in Sandstone, Minn., in 1981. He was paroled in 1983 and is now working as a driver for a trucking company in North Bergen, N. J., according to federal investigators, who still keep track of the Hoffa suspects.
And Thomas Andretta, 47, has been serving a 20-year sentence for racketeering conspiracy at the federal prison in Otisville, N. Y., since 1979 and is not expected to be paroled until 1989.
Stephen Andretta, 49, (Thomas Andretta’s brother, who allegedly stayed behind in New Jersey to provide an alibi for the killers) was convicted of racketeering and was sentenced to seven years at the federal prison in Bastrop, Tex., in 1980. He was paroled in 1983 and is now a manager at the New Jersey trucking firm that employs Gabriel Briguglio.
Chuckie O’Brien, now 50, was convicted of making false statements on a mortgage loan application and was sentenced to one year at the federal prison in Eglin, Fla. He was released in 1979 and is now an organizer with the Southern Conference of Teamsters in Florida.
Still Saddened by Death
In a telephone interview, O’Brien refused to discuss the FBI’s charges about his alleged involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance but said he is still deeply saddened by Hoffa’s death. When asked if he remembered that the tenth anniversary was approaching, he said: “How can you forget something like that? I still have his picture up on the wall.”
Today, 10 years after the disappearance, federal investigators say they are surprised that no one has talked. They acknowledge that a confession from a participant is the only way they will ever crack the case.
“I believe there are very few, less than five people probably, who actually know for sure what happened,” Anthony says. “We’ve done everything we could do through our investigative efforts and still haven’t broken the case. Someone will have to talk.”
But Coffey is still optimistic that one of the suspects will step forward. “I believe we are going to solve this case by accident,” he said. “Someday, when the people are real old and in prison, and there is no real fear anymore, someone will tell us what happened. There is a lot of institutional memory in the mob, so we could still solve this case 10 or 15 years from now.”
Times Researcher Stephanie Droll contributed to this article.