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Archive for Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Labor leader Jimmy Hoffa’s fate remains a mystery, perhaps forever

September 3, 2002

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First of all, he's dead. On that, pretty much everyone agrees.

But 27 years after James Riddle Hoffa set off for lunch and found oblivion, instead, his remains have not been found. No one has been arrested for the union leader's murder. His final moments remain a secret, kept by a few and their ranks have been thinned by death, natural and not.

Like Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa may be missing forever.

"Unfortunately, this has the markings of a great 'whodunit' novel without the final chapter," prosecutor David Gorcyca said last week. New DNA evidence, he said, was not enough to support state criminal charges in Hoffa's disappearance.

There have been allegations that his body is entombed in concrete near section 107 of Giant Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands (almost certainly not), or ground up and thrown to the fishes in a Florida swamp (could be), or obliterated in a mob-owned fat-rendering plant that has since burned down (who knows). After more than a quarter century, the Hoffa trail is a cold one.

The 16,000-page FBI file on Hoffa's disappearance case number HQ 9-60052 remains open. At this point, the feds have been investigating his death nearly as long as they investigated him in life.

Infamous leadership

The Teamsters have a storied history of corrupt leaders: Dave Beck, who took the Fifth Amendment in congressional testimony 142 times; Roy Williams, convicted of conspiring to bribe a U.S. senator; Jackie Presser, who died before he could face charges that he embezzled $700,000 from a Teamsters local.

But none had Hoffa's notoriety.

A ninth-grade dropout, he led his first job action at age 18 when a boss at a food warehouse fired two of his co-workers for getting dinner. Hoffa's men refused to unload a perishable shipment of strawberries, and management soon capitulated.

Hoffa took charge of the Teamsters in 1957. He earned the loyalty of his members with contracts that improved their standard of living dramatically. It was under Hoffa that the Teamsters won their first national trucking contract.

He also earned the enmity of Robert F. Kennedy. First as counsel to a congressional committee investigating the unions, then as attorney general, Kennedy went after Hoffa. In those early days of television, viewers watched the baby-faced Kennedy spar with the brutish, fireplug-like Hoffa, whom he accused of corruption and mob connections.

It took a while, but Kennedy won. In 1967, Hoffa went to jail, sentenced to 13 years for jury tampering and fraud, but he refused to give up the Teamsters presidency. Only after he quit the job in 1971 did Richard Nixon pardon him.

Not welcomed back

From the moment he was released, he agitated to get his job back.

That may have doomed him. The mob had worked out a comfortable arrangement with Hoffa's successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, and was resistant to change.

It is believed that "Hoffa was killed by the mob because he wanted to make a comeback and recapture the presidency," says crime writer Thomas L. Jones.

Jones says at about 1:15 p.m. of June 30, 1975, Hoffa left his summer home at Big Square Lake, 40 miles north of Detroit.

He told his wife, Josephine, that he was going to meet with Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone, a figure in the Detroit mob; it is also believed that Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamsters leader, was in on the meeting.

Hoffa went to the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township and waited in the parking lot. At 2:30 p.m., he called his wife had Giacalone called to say he was going to be late?

And then Hoffa vanished.

"Maybe he took a little trip," said Giacalone when he heard the news.

An FBI memo theorizes that Hoffa got into a 1975 maroon Mercury Brougham owned by Joey Giacalone, Anthony's son, and driven by Chuckie O'Brien, a trusted friend whom Hoffa had taken in as a child.

O'Brien denies it he says he used the car to deliver a frozen salmon to a local Teamsters official. But a year ago, the FBI found that DNA taken from a hair found in the car matched hair taken from Hoffa's brush.

Unseemly fate

Hoffa's vanishing act has been fodder for humorists.

Johnny Carson claimed that when they removed evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker's makeup, they found Jimmy Hoffa underneath. Someone penned a mafia Valentine: "Lie down with me It's my final offa, Or you'll be lying wit' Jimmy Hoffa."

More recently, there was the Jimmy Hoffa computer virus: Once infected, your program will never be found again.

And that, more and more, seems to be Hoffa's fate.

Tony Pro and Tony Jack are dead Provenzano of a heart attack in prison, Giacalone of heart and kidney problems at age 82. Salvatore Briguglio, listed by the FBI as a suspect, was rubbed out in front of a Mulberry Street restaurant in New York's Little Italy in 1978.

Even Machus Red Fox is gone it folded in 1996.

Only the Hoffa mystique remains, embodied most prominently in his son, James P. Hoffa, the current president of the Teamsters. He's a lot more polished than his dad he's a lawyer, not an outlaw, and he was even a guest of President Bush at this year's State of the Union address.

At 61, he's just a year younger than his father was when he stepped off the face of the Earth.

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