Jimmy Hoffa ranks as contemporary history’s most famous vanishing act. His disappearance on July 30, 1975 has invited speculation from every quarter as to his fate. Everyone knows Hoffa is dead, and everyone pretty much accepts the fact that he met his end at the hands of the mob. But the who, how, and where still generate questions more than four decades later. It seems a wry sort of coincidence that Jimmy Hoffa’s middle name was Riddle.
James R. Hoffa was born in 1913 and demonstrated a natural ability to organize and lead at an early age. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Teamsters union in the 1930s and 40s, helping to bring the disparate local and regional unions together into a national organization. By 1957, Hoffa was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the most powerful labor unions in the United States.
Hoffa didn’t gain power and political muscle through grit alone. He was a friend of the working man, but he also made friends in organized crime as well. During the early days of the Teamsters, Hoffa used mob muscle to win strikes and earn favorable contracts. In return, as the Teamsters grew, the Mafia was free to draw “loans” out of the large Teamster pension funds. This unholy alliance led to heightened government scrutiny and high-profile federal investigations.
In 1964, Hoffa was convicted of fraudulent use of the Teamsters pension fund and attempting to bribe a juror. He appealed the convictions, but was went to jail in 1967 to serve a thirteen-year sentence. President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence in 1971 in exchange for Teamster support in the 1972 election. Hoffa’s freedom had a bigger price tag for him – banishment from union activity for ten years. He tried unsuccessfully in court to remove the ban, and he also attempted to rally support among his union and Mafia connections.
Things had changed while Hoffa had been away, though. His replacement as president of the Teamsters, Frank Fitzsimmons, was considered by business and government as easier to work with than Hoffa. Mob connections liked Fitzsimmons in the top seat because he did not invite controversy, and he was reportedly more pliable than the bold, brash Hoffa.
Hoffa tried to rebuild his influence in the Teamsters from the ground up. In the process, he ran afoul of Anthony Provenzano, a Teamster vice president from New Jersey who also happened to be a major Mafia figure. Hoffa agreed to meet with Provenzano and another Mafia leader, Anthony Giacalone, to work out their problems.
The meeting was set for 2 p.m. July 30, 1975 at the Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield, Mich., outside of Hoffa’s hometown of Detroit. Hoffa cooled his heels in the parking lot for several minutes waiting for the two men to arrive. He called his wife at 2:15 p.m. to complain about them being late. He supposedly also called union confidante Louis Linteau, who set up the meeting, at around 3:30 p.m. saying that Giacalone and Provenzano never showed. It was the last anyone ever heard from Jimmy Hoffa.
Hoffa was reported missing the next morning. Some witnesses at the Red Fox reported seeing him leave the parking lot on the afternoon on July 30 in a burgundy Mercury Marquis with three other men. Police dogs found traces of Hoffa’s scent in the car, and closer examination pulled up a single strand of hair. There was no DNA technology at the time, but in 2001 the hair was identified as belonging to Jimmy Hoffa. Unfortunately, the trail had gone ice cold long before then.
Both Provenzano and Giacalone had ironclad alibis on July 30. Numerous searches were performed in the area surrounding Detroit, including known mob dumping grounds. Tips were investigated by local law enforcement and the FBI. Interviews were conducted with Hoffa associates and mob members in and out of jail. It all led to nothing.
Jimmy Hoffa was declared dead on July 30, 1982, but that did not stop the stories. His disappearance had become the stuff of legend, and over the years numerous theories circulated as to what happened to his body.
Hoffa’s body was put through an industrial shredder in a mob-owned garbage facility that was later burned down. He was killed and buried on a horse farm. He was stuffed in a drum, compacted, and sent to Japan to become part of non-union-made automobiles. His body was shipped to New Jersey so he could be encased in cement in Giants Stadium. He was tossed out of an airplane over the Great Lakes. He was dumped in the Florida Everglades and eaten by alligators.
Whereas no mobsters would talk about Hoffa following his disappearance, several Mafia hitmen would claim to playing a role in his death in later years. For many, it was a last chance to grab a piece of fame, to attach themselves to a legend. Among them were Richard “the Iceman” Kuklinski, a jailed killer who was believed to have killed over 200 people for the mob, and Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran.
Sheeran confessed before his death to murdering his old friend Hoffa at the behest of his mob bosses. Investigators found traces of blood in the house where Sheeran said the killing took place, but DNA testing proved it was not Hoffa’s. Sheeran’s tale will soon be getting the Hollywood treatment in what is sure to be a blockbuster film, The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.
The upcoming film will be a must-see for mob movie fans, and it will further cement the legend of Jimmy Hoffa. It might shed some light on the mystery behind his disappearance, but it will probably further obscure the truth. Hollywood has a tendency of doing that.
The truth is we will never know for sure what happened to Jimmy Hoffa beyond the fact that he was rubbed out by the Mafia for being a liability to their involvement in the Teamsters. The lack of closure is what makes Hoffa’s disappearance and his legend endure after all these years. He was 62 in 1975, so he would no longer be with us today in any event, but because he left this world the way he did, he achieved a level of immortality that the Mafia can never kill.