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.

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