An Indiana native, Hoffa's participation in the United States labor movement dates back to Detroit of the early 1930s. Within two decades, he was the most important man in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. Unlike authoritarian westerner Dave Beck, who preceded Hoffa to the Teamster presidency, Hoffa seemed never to lose touch with his Midwest working class roots.
While organized crime had dabbled in organized labor since the turn of the 20th Century, infiltration of unions became an underworld focus in the post-Prohibition Era. It seems Hoffa entered into a private alliance with the Mafia criminal network in order to win the Teamster presidency in 1957. New York criminal minds like Tommy Lucchese and Johnny "Dio" Dioguardi and Chicago's Sam Giancana were able to fabricate union locals that backed Hoffa's presidency and to undermine Dave Beck.
In return, the mafiosi looked for good-paying administrative posts for their key operatives, access to union funds and other favors.
Organized crime's presence within organized labor was targeted by Senate attorney Robert Kennedy and the McClellan Committee in the late 1950s. With his brother John Kennedy's Presidential victory in 1960, the senate attorney won appointment as the nation's attorney general. Robert Kennedy immediately announced that Hoffa was the primary focus of his attack on corruption in labor unions.
Hoffa had channeled many millions of dollars of Teamster pension funds to underworld activities in Las Vegas and other Mafia-run land development operations. Those secret loans, rarely repaid, illustrated the intimate links between the Chicago crime family, which controlled much of Vegas at the time, and the Teamsters.
The Teamster membership records showed further links. Numerous known mobsters were listed on the union's rolls. Johnny Dio, reputed member of the Lucchese crime family, was one. Dio and Hoffa were believed to have used illegal wiretaps to weaken Beck in advance of the 1957 union elections.
Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, believed to be a senior member of the Genovese crime family, was a member of a Hoffa-loyal Teamsters local in Union, New Jersey. When federal labor officials demanded that Hoffa remove Provenzano from the Teamster rolls, Hoffa appointed Tony Pro to a regional leadership position. Salvatore Briguglio, a Provenzano aide in Union, New Jersey's Teamster Local 560, was also a made member of the Genovese family.
Russell Bufalino, who rose to command underworld activities in northern Pennsylvania and western New York State and who had strong "business" ties to Joe Barbara in Apalachin and Stefano Magaddino in Buffalo, was also connected Hoffa's Teamsters administration. Bufalino lieutenant Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran served as a Teamster boss in Wilmington, Delaware, and became a close Hoffa friend.
Hoffa managed to escape a number of federal charges, but was finally convicted of attempting to tamper with a jury in 1962 and then of improperly manipulating the union pension fund in 1964. Appeals kept him out of jail until 1967, when he began a 13-year sentence. Before entering prison, Hoffa designated his friend Frank Fitzsimmons to succeed him (and keep the president's chair warm for him).
Hoffa was freed by order of President Richard Nixon at the end of 1971. Nixon formally barred Hoffa from holding any leadership position with the union until 1980. Attorneys challenged that condition in court, as Hoffa prepared to take back the Teamster presidency. But Hoffa found his road back was blocked by some old friends. Fitzsimmons had grown comfortable in that warm president's chair and did not want to leave it. Anthony Provenzano, the mob's strongest link to union, had grown tired of Hoffa. Provenzano and Hoffa spent some time in a Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, prison together and had a falling out. It is possible that Hoffa came to realize the mistake he made when he allied himself with organized crime years earlier.
In the early 1970s, Hoffa made an effort to mend his fences. In summer of 1975, he called for a meeting to settle his differences with Tony Pro. Whether he intended to meet with Provenzano face-to-face is uncertain. Some have suggested that he called for a sit-down with Russell Bufalino himself, in order to obtain some leverage against Provenzano.
Early on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, Hoffa waited at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Witnesses said they saw him hanging around his green Pontiac Grand Ville in the parking lot and making at least two calls from a pay phone outside a nearby hardware store. At 2:15, Hoffa reportedly telephoned his wife at their Lake Orion home, told her he had been stood up and said he planned to wait only a few more minutes. He was never seen or heard from again.
Media reports indicated that Hoffa was planning to meet with Provenzano and Detroit mobster Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone at the time he disappeared. Frank Sheeran, who confessed late in life regarding his involvement in Hoffa's demise, said the meeting was to involve only Bufalino and Sheeran. In advance of the meeting date, according to one of Sheeran's several conflicting accounts, the underworld decided to do away with Hoffa and told Sheeran not to show at the Machus Red Fox.
On July 31, local police began to investigate. They discovered Hoffa's car still in the restaurant parking lot, but the vehicle yielded no clues. The FBI became involved a couple of days later and began looking into Hoffa's underworld connections.
Provenzano was long considered the prime suspect in Hoffa's disappearance. However, Tony Pro had an alibi that prevented him from being tried in the case. He reportedly met with a number of Teamster associates in New Jersey on July 30. Giacalone, too, was visibly elsewhere on that date.
On Aug. 21, police dogs detected Hoffa's scent in a car used by one of Hoffa's close friends, Charles O'Brien. The car was reportedly borrowed by O'Brien from Anthony Giacalone's son on the day Hoffa disappeared. But no other link could be established.
Federal prosecutors called a grand jury in Detroit. Several weeks of testimony were heard, but no indictments resulted. The FBI's active work on the case continued until 1985 -- three years after the missing Hoffa was declared legally dead. Headlines were made in 2001, when DNA tests showed that Hoffa's hair had been found in the back of the car O'Brien borrowed from Giacalone.
Sheeran's confessions in 2003 implicated Bufalino and Tony Pro's New Jersey subordinate Salvatore Briguglio in the elimination of Hoffa. In one of Sheeran's statements, he claimed to have been the actual murderer of Hoffa. The mob's use of one so close to Hoffa seems appropriate. But, in another statement, Sheeran said he showed up after the job was done by Briguglio and just carted away Hoffa's body.
Sheeran died Dec. 14, 2003, at the age of 83. His stories could not be confirmed, and his family disputes the validity of the statements attributed to him.
In spring of 2004, some blood was found beneath floorboards in the building Sheeran said was used for Hoffa's murder. The discovery was initially believed to support Sheeran's tale, but DNA tests later showed it was not Hoffa's blood.
While the debate over Hoffa's end continues, those who might have had personal knowledge of the event are gone.
In the late 1970s, Provenzano was implicated, along with Salvatore Briguglio, in the 1961 murder of a rival within the Teamsters, Anthony Castellito. Briguglio was shot down in New York City in March 1978 while prosecutors were assembling their case against him. Some sources believe that Sheeran pulled the trigger. Provenzano was ultimately convicted of labor racketeering, removed from the New Jersey Teamsters and sentenced to serve 20 years at Lompoc, California. He suffered a heart attack Dec. 12, 1988, at the prison and died while being rushed to a nearby hospital. He was 71 years old.
Bufalino died at age 90 in 1994. Giacalone reached the age of 82, dying in 2001. Johnny Dioguardi, who spent much of his adult life behind bars, died while in prison in 1979. He was 64.
The author relied on the sources cited in the Bibliography web page as well as sources named above for information contained in this article.
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