Monday, July 25, 2016

The Fate of Jimmy Hoffa

Among the mysteries of the twentieth century is the disappearance of Teamsters Union President James “Jimmy” Hoffa, who was last seen in 1975 in Detroit, Michigan, before he went missing. It was known that he was having difficulties both with the United States government and gangsters. Over the years, there have been rumors that he was not only murdered but that his body was buried under a stadium or in some other bizarre location. The mafia was suspected of the crime and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has often been faulted for not being able to solve the case. In a book first published in 2004 and now republished in an expanded edition, Charles Brandt seems to have answered some key questions about the end of Jimmy Hoffa. (I Heard You Paint Houses, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2004, 2016 [third edition].)

One surprise according to Brandt is that the FBI did know all along who killed Hoffa, but they could not prove it. So, instead, they investigated the several suspects until federal prosecutors were able to charge all of them with other crimes such as extortion and attempted murder. As to the Hoffa killing, Brandt was able to coax a deathbed confession of murder from Frank Sheeran, who worked for both Hoffa and mafia don Rosario “Russell” Bufalino. Sheeran implicated Bufalino as the person who sanctioned the murder. Several individuals participated in the deed, but Sheeran said that he was the one who pulled the trigger.

Hoffa had been bringing the attention of the United States Justice Department to himself and the Teamsters Union, which had long been associated with the mafia. In 1975, his disagreement with the mafia came to a head, but Hoffa seemed not to believe that the “mob” would dare to kill him. One evening in 1975, he was supposed to meet Sheeran for dinner at a restaurant. Sheeran arrived late and with at least two other men in the car with him. Hoffa was angry about the lateness and suspicious about the other men, but Sheeran said that he had good news. Bufalino wanted to talk to Hoffa and see if they could patch their differences. This seemed to assuage Hoffa’s concern and he agreed to go with Sheeran and company to meet with Bufalino at a private address.

When Hoffa entered the house in question, he must have instantly realized that he had been led into a trap, because the house was clearly empty. There was to be no meeting with Bufalino who was not even in town. When Hoffa attempted to run for the door, Sheeran shot him twice in the back of the head. Hoffa’s body was taken to a local crematorium and reduced to ashes. Thus, reports of his body being buried anywhere at all are false.

In the movie The Godfather, Don Corleone gives his son, Michael, the advice that if someone close to you that you thought was a friend invites you to meet with an enemy, then that friend is a traitor and they are setting you up to be assassinated. That appears to be exactly what happened to Hoffa. He trusted Sheeran as a good and loyal friend. He did not appreciate that Sheeran was a closer friend of Bufalino.

Bufalino is an interesting figure in his own right. Although he was nominally the boss of the northern Pennsylvania crime territory, his influence was actually wider. He gained control of crime as far north as Buffalo, New York, and as far east as New York City, where he had a few interests and kept an apartment. Part of his power was based on his ability to negotiate with other crime bosses, providing not only advice to them but special services. He was apparently a key player in all decisions by the mafia to murder their enemies. Indeed, it is ironic that when conspiracy theorists and self-styled experts on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy invoke the participation of the mafia in that case, they rarely mention Bufalino, without whose approval and participation such a mob-related hit would not have been possible.

Bufalino was also an equal opportunity employer. His associates were as likely to be Irish as Italian. Sheeran tells a story that illustrates how, even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were still Irish and Jewish gangsters as well as Sicilian ones. Sheeran was approached by an Italian gangster who wanted Sheeran to commit arson against a commercial laundry. Sheeran went to the establishment during the day in preparation for setting it on fire. He was soon called to a meeting with Bufalino who asked him what he meant to do. When Sheeran told him he had been hired to torch the laundry, Bufalino informed him that the laundry was run by Jewish gangsters who had been instantly suspicious when they saw Sheeran and had contacted Bufalino. What irritated Bufalino most of all was that neither Sheeran nor his client had asked Bufalino’s permission. He forgave Sheeran on the condition that he had to kill his client. Sheeran did as he was told. It was the first of about thirty “hits” for which Sheeran would be responsible.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The World's Most Popular Handguns

The Glock series of handguns is one of the most successful in the world, and its various models have been adopted by military and law enforcement in many countries, including the United States where Glock is so popular that Paul M. Barrett authored a book entitled Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, even though the parent company of the manufacturer is Austrian. Glock was founded by an entrepreneur named Gaston Glock (the name “Glock,” BTW, is derived from the German word for “bell”) who never designed a gun before 1980 when he was 51. The company’s story is about the use of revolutionary manufacturing methods in gun-making. It is also the story of an attempted murder to cover up corporate malfeasance, as well as other scandals, but more about that below.

The chief claim to fame of Glock pistols is that they are constructed from a combination of steel and lightweight yet durable polymers. The lightness, plus more and more ergonomic designs over the years, has made these pistols very easy to handle. Glock was not the first to use polymers in gun-making, but it was responsible for their subsequent widespread use. Mr. Glock’s background was in engineering and the manufacture of curtain rods and knives, where he had experience in the use of polymers. Also, his first employees in his gun-making business mainly came from camera manufacturing where polymers were already in use. Glock was already a military contractor, selling knives to the military, which it still does. In 1980, when he learned that the Austrian military was looking to replace the Walther P38 pistol as their official sidearm, he designed a prototype, which he submitted as the Glock 17 in 1981. The Austrian military accepted the new handgun as its standard, and the rest is history.

Glock Ges. m. b.H. has five subsidiaries worldwide, and one of them, Glock, Inc.,* is in Smyrna, Georgia, U.S.A.  This factory is an extremely modern facility, ultra-clean and kept under ultra-tight security. (After all, if there were a heist, the thieves could get away with large numbers of what is arguably the best handgun in the world!) The American factory is responsible for all aspects of the manufacturing process, except that the machinery and many of the proprietary aspects are imported. For example, Glocks are made from specially formulated steel. The American factory follows that formula, using its own smelting facility.

 Now for the tale of greed and violence (which would make a good movie, unless it has already been done). In 1999, a man name Charles Ewert was embezzling millions from the Glock company. Fearing that Gaston Glock was about to find out about it, Ewert hired a French hit-man to murder Mr. Glock. In a twist that would not have been Hollywood’s call, no firearm, let alone a Glock pistol, was used in the attempted murder or in Mr. Glock’s defense. Instead the would-be assassin used a mallet. What is Hollywood-esque is that Mr. Glock managed to fight off his attacker despite being badly injured. His attacker was caught and agreed to testify against Ewert. The hit-man received seventeen years in prison and is either out now or likely soon will be, but Ewert was sentenced to twenty years and is still in prison.

Mr. Glock, now 87 years-old, wound up undergoing years of medical treatment and rehabilitation. He has also suffered two strokes, possibly due to delayed effects of the beating. During the same period, Mr. Glock separated from his wife and married his nurse, thereby scandalizing his family and causing a feud over the disposition of his fortune of nearly two billion Euros. The American subsidiary has not been free from scandal as its former CEO, Paul Jannuzzo, was also caught embezzling.

 My own Glock is a model 42, which is the smallest gun that Glock makes. It is my understanding that the 42 is only manufactured at the U.S. plant. I detect a theme in my gun ownership: my .380 Glock is the smallest of its kind (indeed, it is often considered a “ladies gun”), my .25 Colt 1908 vest pocket is so-called because it is only four and a half inches in length (it looks a bit like a miniature .45 semiautomatic), and my Henry U.S. Survival Rifle is a little .22 rabbit hunter. Also, as it happens, these guns are all made in the U.S.A. (although, in the past, I have owned non-American guns, including a Chinese-made shotgun and an Argentine pistol.)

*From having worked for Standard and Poor’s, I know that U.S. companies tend to use a comma before “Inc.” but Canadian companies almost never do. Fowler, Inc. would be a U.S. company, while Fowler Inc. would be Canadian.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mishkin the cat

Mishkin, a Maine Coon, circa 2000. Blue eyed cats don't photograph any better than blue-eyed people.

Most people seem to prefer either cats or dogs (or neither). I grew up in a household where both dogs and cats lived from time to time, and I learned to like both, having accepted the fact that they are just different. If you are a dog lover, you might think that cats can never be as friendly, playful or loyal as dogs, but I have known one cat that combined the best traits of both creatures. About twelve years ago, Mishkin, then eighteen years old and suffering from organ failure, was put to sleep. It is not surprising to me that, despite my sadness over the loss of both previous and subsequent pets, Mishkin remains especially missed.

Mishkin was a long-haired Maine Coon mix with enough markers to qualify as mostly if not entirely Maine Coon. Susan named him after Prince Myshkin, the hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, “The Idiot.” Literary critics have long described Prince Myshkin as being so kind and gentle and wise that he was almost Christ-like. (If such a characterization seems excessively hagiographic for a cat, I will nevertheless argue here that it has, at least, some merit.) Mishkin was born, if not in a manger, perhaps in a barn or shed, in Sullivan County, New York, at the end of the 1980s. (I am being fudgy about dates throughout this post because I have long since lost my ability to keep track of dates with much precision.) My partner, Susan, and her son, Karl, picked out a kitten from among the many wild cats congregating in the backyard where Mrs. Helen Hubert (Susan’s mother) fed them. They took him home to the Albany area where he lived for over a decade. After Mishkin and I met at the end of 1998, he graciously, and with characteristic tolerance, moved with Susan and me to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1999.

Mishkin not only loved being around all people, but he was my best buddy for over half a decade. He would wake me up in the morning and follow me wherever I went, if I would let him. He was playful and extremely tolerant of seemingly unreasonable if well-intentioned interference by humans. (Nobody likes being made to take medication, but Mishkin took it.) He was an intelligent mouser when he got the chance to be. I have since met other Maine Coons, and they all seem to be loving and loyal toward their humans and equally friendly with strangers.

Unfortunately, Maine Coons are not easy to come by. Since 1976, they have been recognized as an official breed by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, and, consequently, are expensive. When you find them available at animal shelters, it is often because they have an incurable disease.

A little known fact: Though popular around 1900, the Maine Coon not only subsequently lost popularity but was declared extinct by some authorities by the middle of the last century, although the Central Maine Cat Club vehemently contradicted this declaration (and they were evidently correct in doing so).

Another little known fact: Yes, the Maine Coon can be traced to the state of Maine, but its origins prior to that seem to be shrouded in myth, including the origin of its name. Some have said that the creature is a cross between a cat and a raccoon, which is biologically impossible since a cat and a raccoon cannot breed. (I shudder to imagine someone trying to prove that.) Another explanation, which is probably closer to the truth, is that this type of cat was brought over to Maine from Europe by sea captains (who kept cats on their ships in order to kill rats), and among these seafarers was one Captain Charles Coon. When Mainers recognized a new breed popping up in their cat population, they said, “Why, that must be one of Coon’s cats.” So the story goes.