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DNA Yields Clue in Jimmy Hoffa Disappearance

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the 20th century’s leading advances in forensic science has suddenly added tantalizing new evidence to one of its great unsolved mysteries: the 1975 disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

Using DNA testing, the FBI has established a match between known samples of Hoffa’s hair and strands of human hair found here more than 25 years ago in a car that police believe was used to abduct the former Teamsters president and carry him to his death.

Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder by Mafia hit men sparked an ongoing investigation that has consumed thousands of work hours and sent FBI agents and local police tramping through construction projects, landfills and other possible disposal sites all over Michigan and beyond.

It also spawned legends and gallows humor undimmed by the passage of time. Even Friday, as news of the DNA findings spread, New Yorkers joked that they already know where Hoffa’s body is: Beneath the end zone of New Jersey’s Meadowlands football stadium, where thousands of tons of concrete were being poured just about the time he vanished.

The new DNA evidence, first reported by the Detroit News and confirmed Friday by federal law enforcement sources speaking on condition of anonymity, has reinvigorated the investigation.

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It focuses renewed attention on Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, a former Teamsters underling who is linked to the suspected abduction car and who, as a child, was rescued from poverty by Hoffa and raised for a time in the union leader’s own home.

While law enforcement officials cautioned that the DNA evidence alone is not enough to bring criminal charges against anyone, it apparently provides the first hard scientific evidence supporting investigators’ long-held theory: that corrupt Teamsters leaders with ties to organized crime ordered his murder because Hoffa, who had been freed by President Nixon in 1971 after going to prison for jury tampering and misuse of union funds, was threatening their hold on the rich and powerful union.

“I think it’s clear that my father wanted to come back in the union, and people did not want my father coming back. I think they were people that were in the union at the time, in league with people in organized crime,” Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, said Friday.

“I hope it will bring this to a speedy resolution,” said Hoffa, who now heads the union his father built into one of the strongest and most scandal-ridden labor organizations in the country. Jimmy Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982.

“So what does it give you? I’m not sure,” a federal law enforcement official said when asked about the DNA results. “It’s uncertain at this point how exactly the confirmation strengthens the investigation or even whether it does.”

Peter Neufeld, an expert who has been involved in many cases in which DNA evidence has been used to challenge convictions, agreed that the tests alone would not be conclusive.

But when added to other kinds of evidence, he said, such results “then become a lot more significant.”

Before the development of DNA testing in the 1980s and 1990s, the system used by law enforcement to match hair samples--the visual comparison of fibers under a microscope--"was junk science,” Neufeld said.

DNA tests, on the other hand, are considered powerful evidence because the likelihood of misleading results is relatively slight.

So-called mitochondrial DNA tests, developed fairly recently, are considered especially valuable for assessing hair samples because they usually give good results even if the hair fragment is old or incomplete.

Hoffa, then 62, vanished without a trace on the afternoon of July 30, 1975. He was last seen in the parking lot of a now-defunct restaurant in suburban Detroit called the Machus Red Fox Inn.

He had told friends he was going there to meet two men who had ties both to the union and to organized crime: Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, known as a Detroit underworld enforcer, and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, the New Jersey Teamsters boss and a reputed organized crime figure. Provenzano, who was later convicted of murdering another union rival, died of a heart attack while serving a prison sentence in Lompoc.

Hoffa had reportedly been lured to the supposed meeting by Giacalone, who presented himself as a peacemaker trying to end a feud between Hoffa and Provenzano. Hoffa blamed Provenzano for the relentless investigation of the union by federal authorities--an investigation pressed by the late Robert F. Kennedy, first as counsel for a Senate committee and later as attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

Though Hoffa and Provenzano had become enemies while serving time together in federal prison, Hoffa was believed to be seeking the violence-prone racketeer’s help in recapturing his place atop the union.

But Giacalone and Provenzano were not at the Red Fox that afternoon. Provenzano was in New Jersey. Giacalone was displaying uncustomarily high spirits at a health club in the Detroit area.

Instead of holding a peace conference, Hoffa left the parking lot in the back seat of a dark red Mercury Marquis Brougham, according to an eyewitness, who said the ex-union boss was sitting beside a man who appeared to be holding what looked like a rifle or shotgun partially covered by a blanket.

Hoffa was never seen again, but it was learned that a Mercury Marquis matching the witness’ description was being driven that day by O’Brien.

When investigators examined the car, they learned that O’Brien had borrowed it for the day from Giacalone’s son. And they found hair strands and small quantities of blood in it.

O’Brien denied any involvement in the case. He insisted that Hoffa had not been in the car and that the blood came from a large salmon he had transported that day for a friend.

It is not known what if anything was learned about the blood, but the hair samples collected 26 years ago were the ones used in the recent DNA tests.

Both the authorities and members of Hoffa’s family were convinced that Hoffa was lured into a trap with the promise of a fictitious peace council. And they believe O’Brien played a role because, as the younger Hoffa said, his father’s implicit trust in O’Brien would have disarmed his normal wariness in such situations.

The elder Hoffa had come up through the violent days of Depression-era union organizing, survived numerous beatings, car bombings and similar hazards, and was not considered an easy target for an ambush.

“I haven’t talked to Chuckie O’Brien in over 26 years, and I don’t intend to,” James P. Hoffa said Friday. “His actions were suspicious, he couldn’t explain where he was that day . . . I told him, explain yourself, and his reaction was that he ran out of the room. I’m disgusted.”

The elder Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, now a county judge in St. Louis, would not comment on the report of new evidence, said her clerk, Wanda Rusk.

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Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.


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