Wednesday, July 30, 1975, was a humid, sultry day with the thermometer pushing 95ºF (35ºC) — a typical muggy mid-summer Detroit afternoon, in other words.
Gerald Ford was president of the United States, the North Vietnamese Army had just rolled into Saigon, the incredible Cincinnati Reds were rolling toward a World Series championship while the sadsack Detroit Tigers were enduring one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Eagles and Olivia Newton-John were topping the charts … and Jimmy Hoffa was about to take the second-last car ride of his life.
Hoffa, the once mighty and still dangerous former boss of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was trying to regain control of the organization he had built into a national powerhouse before going to prison in 1967 for jury tampering and fraud.
Then-president Richard Nixon had commuted Hoffa’s sentence to time served in December 1971 (for a $1 million bribe and a promise the Teamsters would support his re-election campaign in 1972, so the story goes) but Nixon attached a condition that Hoffa had to stay out of all union activity until 1980.
And Frank Fitzsimmons, the pliant toady Hoffa had picked to fill the union presidency while the real president was behind bars, was not willingly giving up the power he had come to enjoy during Hoffa’s incarceration. In fact, Fitzsimmons cut Hoffa off from the various sources of union income he had and even fired Hoffa’s wife, Josephine, from the $40,000-a-year pretend job she had with the Teamsters.
But in the summer of 1975, Hoffa was still fighting the Nixon ban on union activity in the courts and still marshalling his loyal supporters in the Teamsters rank and file. He was determined to regain the throne — and his enemies were worried he could very well pull it off.
Hoffa had been tight with various Mafiosi since at least the 1940s, probably as far back as the mid-’30s when he was a tough and fearless young union organizer who still needed all the muscle he could muster to fend off the management thugs and anti-union law authorities aligned against him.
So, as he tried to regain control of the Teamsters organization, Hoffa had been reaching out for backing to old Mafia friends he had installed in the local union hierarchy over the years. One of those was Anthony Giacalone — Tony Jack — who was big with the Teamsters in Detroit.
Now, as well as reaching out, Hoffa was also threatening. He was that kind of guy — charming and intimidating. And one of the threats was that he really would tell all in an autobiography he was working on, to be called Hoffa: The Real Story. Which, of course, did not sit well with the Mafia.
There were other reasons the Mafia did not want Jimmy Hoffa back in the Teamsters driver’s seat. The Mafia liked Frank Fitzsimmons as head of the Teamsters. They worked well with him. Hell, some of them — including Tony Jack — even went on golf vacations with him.
And Fitzsimmons had opened up access to the rich Teamsters pension fund for a big Mafia expansion in Las Vegas (again, so the story goes). The top Mafiosi were not sure Hoffa would keep the money train rolling to Vegas. And they sure as hell knew he would not be as easy to get along with as Fitzsimmons. Hoffa was independent and ornery and possessive of his union.
So when Jimmy Hoffa was reaching out to his supposed friend Anthony Giacalone, he was also probably reaching out to a sworn enemy — or at least the loyal subordinate of an enemy.
Hoffa may have had some sense of that — he was not a trusting man — but he and Tony Jack went back a long way and they were close enough that the Mafioso had already warned him to pull in his horns on the threats to spill the beans if he didn’t get his way.
So when Hoffa got a phone call on the morning of July 30, 1975, confirming a late lunch meeting with Tony Jack and a New Jersey Mafia (and Teamsters) boss, Anthony Provenzano (known as Tony Pro), at a familiar restaurant near Hoffa’s summer home north of Detroit, it was supposed to be a peace meeting.
Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano
Tony Pro was a confederate — and golf partner — of Frank Fitzsimmons in the post-Hoffa Teamsters leadership. Hoffa and Provenzano had once been allies but had since butted heads repeatedly, so a conciliatory meeting mediated by mutual friend Giacalone was an important step if Hoffa had any hope of returning to power. Hoffa had been rebuffing Tony Jack’s attempts to set up the meeting for months, but had finally agreed the week before.
Here’s what mob expert Thom L. Jones had to say about the relationship between Hoffa and Provenzano in an incredibly detailed 2010 post about Hoffa’s disappearance on the Gangsters Inc. website:
“According to inmate Eddy Edwards, bank robber, escape artist and former headliner on the FBI’s ‘Ten Mosted Wanted’ list, Hoffa once told him ‘…that guy Provenzano is nuts.’ In August 1967, in the prison mess hall, the two men came to blows. As they were separated, Provenzano was apparently heard screaming, ‘ … old man! Yours is coming! You know it’s coming one of these days…..You’re going to belong to me!’…
“Hoffa obviously hated the thought that a man as powerful as Provenzano was backing a man who Jimmy obviously thought of as a temporary back-stop for the job of running the Teamsters, until such times as he himself, could regain control. At a Teamster’s convention held in Miami in the early 1970s, after both Provenzano and Hoffa had been released from prison, the two men had another go at each other. According to Dan Sullivan, a New York teamster, Hoffa told him, ‘Pro threatened to pull my guts out and kidnap my children if I attempt to return to the presidency of the Teamsters.’”
Jimmy Hoffa and wife Josephine, flanked by their children Jimmy Jr. and Barbara Ann, both lawyers.
About 1:15 p.m., Jimmy kissed Josephine goodbye and headed out in his green Pontiac Grand Ville from his summer home on Lake Orion to a restaurant and cocktail lounge called Machus Red Fox in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills for the scheduled 2 p.m. meeting.
He was dressed casually in a blue short-sleeve sports shirt (the one he’s wearing in the photo below, actually), dark blue slacks, his usual white socks and black Gucci loafers.
Hoffa at his summer home on Lake Orion a week before his disappearance on July 30, 1975.
According to the manager of the Red Fox, Hoffa never entered the restaurant. He parked in a corner of the restaurant’s lot and waited. And waited. At 2:30 p.m., with no sign of Tony Jack and Tony Pro, an impatient Hoffa went to an adjoining strip mall and called his wife from a pay phone to see if they had been in touch. (This was, after all, in those long-ago days before mobile phones.) No such luck. Hoffa returned to his car in the Red Fox parking lot.
About 2:45 p.m. a local real estate agent who knew Hoffa spotted him standing by his car in the parking lot and stopped to chat for a few minutes before going on his way.
And that was the last time anyone not connected with his disappearance saw Jimmy Hoffa. One minute he was talking to a real estate agent. The next minute he was gone.
But there was one more possible contact…
Louis Linteau, owner of an airport limousine service and sometimes-friend/sometimes-enemy of Hoffa, later told police Hoffa had called him about 3:30 p.m. to say Tony Giacalone had not shown up for the 2 p.m. meeting. The timing of that call really doesn’t make sense and the FBI were never comfortable with Linteau’s version of events.
Later, in the investigation of his disappearance, Hoffa was reported to have been seen getting into a dark maroon Mercury in the Red Fox parking lot, but police and the FBI could never satisfactorily confirm that supposed sighting.
His family became worried when Hoffa did not return home that evening but — Jimmy Hoffa being Jimmy Hoffa — they held off shining a spotlight on his private affairs until the following day at 6 p.m. when Josephine Hoffa filed a missing person’s report (#75-3425) with Detroit police.
Police found Hoffa’s green Pontiac unlocked in the Machus Red Fox parking lot, but there was no sign of Jimmy and no sign of any apparent struggle. The assumption was made that he had willingly left the scene in another vehicle with someone he trusted — never to be seen again.
Within a few days, the FBI had taken over the case and began the largest missing-person’s investigation in the bureau’s history. Over the years, more than 200 FBI agents have been occupied in the fruitless search to find the Teamster boss or his corpse.
Both Tony Jack and Tony Pro denied a meeting had been arranged with Hoffa that day and both had iron-clad alibis elsewhere on the fateful afternoon. Tony Pro even had witnesses swearing he was in New Jersey on July 30, 1975.
But one thing the FBI did discover almost immediately was that on the day of his disappearance, a close associate of Hoffa had borrowed a 1975 maroon Mercury Marquis Brougham from Detroit hood Joey Giacalone, son of the aforementioned Tony Jack.
The person borrowing the car was Charles (Chuckie) O’Brien, son of Hoffa’s longtime family friend — and former lover — Sylvia Pagano (later Scaradino, later O’Brien, later Sylvia Paris).
Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien
Sylvia and Chuckie had even lived in the Hoffa household for several years while Chuckie was growing up and Hoffa considered the boy an adopted son, although nothing was ever formalized.
So, the FBI theorized, if anyone could get Jimmy Hoffa to willingly enter another vehicle to be driven to another, unknown location, it would be Hoffa’s “son” Chuckie.
In coming days, the FBI identified a fingerprint on a pop bottle under the front seat of Hoffa’s car as belonging to Chuckie O’Brien. And a police sniffer dog (that had been exposed, if that’s the right word, to a pair of underwear Hoffa had worn the day before he disappeared) gave strong indication that Hoffa had been sitting in the borrowed Mercury.
And a hair was found in the trunk of the vehicle that might or might not have belonged to Jimmy Hoffa. (Decades later, when DNA testing was reliably available, the hair was compared with hairs taken from one of Hoffa’s brushes and was declared a match.)
But Chuckie O’Brien denied up and down that he had been anywhere near the Machus Red Fox restaurant that day and that Jimmy Hoffa had ever been in the Mercury during the time Chuckie had it in his possession.
Although they were certain Chuckie was involved somehow, the FBI agents could not conclusively prove anything, so no charges were ever laid.
Although the FBI was hamstrung, Detroit was no longer a safe place for Chuckie. So, as soon as he could, Chuckie O’Brien slipped away to Florida — to a job arranged for him by Frank Fitzsimmons, president of the Teamsters union and one of the men who most directly benefited from Jimmy’s Hoffa’s removal.
As I said, the FBI continued to investigate Hoffa’s disappearance for decades — in fact, still keeps the file open and active — but fewer and fewer fresh leads in the case were turning up. And neither was the body of Jimmy Hoffa.
In January 1976, six months after Jimmy Hoffa went missing, an agent conference was held at FBI headquarters to bring together all the known facts (and reasonable suppositions) in the case.
Here’s a link to the official (but highly confidential and long-suppressed) report prepared for that gathering. The Hoffex Memo, as it is known, is fascinating reading (although the photocopying is a little difficult to make out in places).
The report concluded that Hoffa had almost certainly been murdered on the day he went missing and named more than a dozen suspects the FBI considered criminally implicated in the crime.
Among those deemed suspects by the FBI in the Detroit area (along with Chuckie O’Brien, Tony Jack and Tony’s brother Vito) were known mobsters Raffael Quasarano (“considered by sources as likely to be involved in actual murder of JRH, because of violent activities in the past”) and Paul Vitale (“associate of Quasarano who sources believe is likely to be involved in JRH disappearance”).
Non-Detroit suspects included New Jersey’s Tony Pro and associates Thomas Andretta, Sal Briguglio and Gabe Briguglio (all “reported by Newark sources to be involved in actual disappearance of JRH”) and Delaware Teamsters official Frank Sheehan (“known to be in Detroit at the time of JRH disappearance”).
Although considered the FBI’s definitive documentary position on the case, neither the Hoffex Memo nor the gathering of FBI agents in Washington produced any arrests or answers in the case.
But clues, tips, accusations and admissions did keep arising over the years — sometimes too plentiful and often too fanciful — about Jimmy Hoffa’s fate.
The given in most cases is that he was knocked off by the Mafia and his remains disposed of, but some conspiracy theories have reached out to include U.S. government participation.
In the decades since Hoffa’s disappearance, the FBI has spent millions of dollars running down leads and digging up backyards, farmers’ fields, basements and swimming pools throughout Michigan.
Other testimony has the murdered Hoffa’s body being run through a) a commercial meat rendering machine, b) a wood chopper, or c) a giant trash compactor with the subsequent remains buried or dumped in the Florida Everglades or shipped off to Japan as component elements of sheet metal for the Japanese car industry.
And plenty of people have claimed credit for Hoffa’s murder — usually mobsters or ex-mobsters in prison or at death’s door, and usually just about the time they are publishing “true” accounts of their supposed misdeeds and misadventures.
My favourite, of course, is the urban legend that Hoffa is buried in the cement foundation of Giants Stadium, which was being built in East Rutherford, N.J., at the time Hoffa disappeared.
That one started when former mob hitman and government witness Donald Frankos told Playboy magazine in a 1989 interview that he didn’t participate in Hoffa’s murder but that he was reliably informed two other New Jersey hoods were involved in the slaying and subsequent burial of Hoffa — in dismembered form — under one of the stadium’s end zones.
It’s an enticing legend but one given little credence by either the FBI or Hoffa’s family. And one that seems to have been thoroughly discredited when a careful analysis of soil in both end zones was done before the demolition of the old stadium in 2010 — with no trace of human remains detected.
Another building site that supposedly incorporated Hoffa’s remains was a poker club in Gardena, California. Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt bought the property in 2000 and tore down the old poker club to build a casino. But first Flynt had a careful examination of the site done in hopes of coming up with a sensational exclusive about finding Jimmy Hoffa’s body. You never read that exclusive, did you?
Another flight of fancy came from Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski who, over the past 20 years in prison, has claimed to be a Mafia hitman with more than 100 notches — including Jimmy Hoffa — on his various guns, knifes, garrotes, syringes and other implements of destruction. Kuklinski is certainly a psychopathic serial killer, convicted of five murders, but it is extremely doubtful that he killed as many people as he claims or that he was paid $50,000 a hit as he claims or that his targets included rival Mafia dons and Jimmy Hoffa.
Kuklinski said in 2009 that he had stabbed Hoffa in the back of the head with a knife and then carted the body back to New Jersey in the trunk of his car as proof and to claim his bounty, after which Hoffa’s corpse was dismembered and dumped.
Kuklinski’s supposed murder of Jimmy Hoffa — much like his claim to have assassinated Gambino Family godfather Paul Castellano — seems to be wild, self-serving fantasy and has been debunked and dismissed by both knowledgeable law enforcement officials and real mob insiders.
The truth about Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance and death will likely never be known. Or else we already know it but have not been able to distinguish the truth from the myriad of lies, red herrings and unfounded rumours littering the Hoffa landscape.
Every year, it seems, claims from another “reliable source” launch the FBI on a new Hoffa fishing expedition.
The latest unsuccessful search was in June 2013, when the FBI spent three days digging on a property in Oakland, Michigan. The FBI had to do due diligence because the tip came from Tony Zerilli, then 85, the son and successor of longtime Detroit mob boss Joe Zerilli.
Not surprisingly, Tony Z (who said he was flat broke) had a self-published e-book coming out at the same time he was making headlines with his tip to the FBI and — equally not surprising — the land he identified as the burial site of Hoffa’s remains belonged to a mob rival who had replaced Tony Z as boss in Detroit when Zerilli was sent to prison.
And — again not surprisingly — the FBI search came up empty-handed.
But that was more than a year ago, which means it’s time for another old mobster to come out of the woodwork and claim to have the “real” scoop on the death and final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.
As for the other main characters in this saga, Tony Pro and Tony Jack were both sent to prison for unrelated crimes soon after Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.
Tony Pro died of a heart attack in prison in 1988.
Tony Jack was released from prison — that time — shortly thereafter and returned to live relatively quietly (but surely not legally) in Detroit, dying in hospital in 2001.
Jimmy Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, is a retired judge in Missouri and his son, James P. Hoffa, is current president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, as he has been since 1999.
As for Chuckie O’Brien, the “other son” widely suspected of having helped set up Jimmy Hoffa … well, we know Chuckie went to Florida with help from Frank Fitzsimmons after Hoffa’s disappearance.
Chuckie O’Brien in 2006
And there, it seems, he remained although he spent at least a year in prison for lying on a loan application. When last heard of in 2006 (according to the industrious Thom L. Jones), Chuckie was working as a janitor at the University of Miami. By that time, Chuckie was in ill health, having already had two cancer surgeries, a bladder operation and four heart by-pass operations. I think it’s safe to say Chuckie O’Brien is now dead and gone. At the very least, he’s living a life not worth living.
That’s the story of Jimmy Hoffa, whose life almost certainly ended exactly 39 years ago today — and whose mystery took on a larger life of its own at the exact same time.