Late in July 1975, Stan Hunterton, a young attorney with the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force in Detroit, was enjoying a trip to London when he saw a big newspaper headline: “Labor Leader Missing.” The story reported that former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa had disappeared. Hunterton thought to himself, “This is major news here. This is how big this story is.”
It was – and is. Forty years later, Hoffa is legally dead, but no body has ever been found. Theories abound as to what happened and why. And Hoffa’s life and legacy, both in his impact and in his disappearance, are still important.
Born in 1913, Hoffa became a union organizer as a teenager working for a grocery chain. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he moved up to become head of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, then vice-president and finally, in 1958, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He excelled at organizing, expanding the union by consolidating local and then regional groups into the Teamsters Union.
Hoffa also owed his rise to the mob. He worked hand in glove with organized crime, which heavily influenced the trucking industry. Among other connections he developed, Hoffa helped put the union’s pension fund under the control of a Chicago businessman, Allen Dorfman, whose stepfather had been a right-hand man of another noted entrepreneur from that area, Al Capone; Dorfman made numerous loans to builders and operators of Nevada casinos, which financed other mob operations.
Hoffa’s ties to the mob caught the federal government’s attention. In 1957, John McClellan of Arkansas led a Senate investigation of labor unions, and committee counsel Robert Kennedy targeted the Teamsters. He went after Hoffa specifically. Later, as attorney general in his brother’s administration, Kennedy kept up the heat. Finally, in 1964, Hoffa was convicted of attempted bribery of a grand juror and sentenced to eight years in a federal prison. He exhausted his appeals and went to prison for more than four years.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence and allowed his release. Why Nixon did so remains the subject of speculation, including that the president received a payoff. He certainly benefited politically: in 1972, the Teamsters union endorsed him for reelection, breaking with its tradition of supporting Democrats – although Hoffa had backed Nixon against John Kennedy in 1960 because he and Bobby Kennedy despised each other. (Neither the mob nor the union was pleased with the attorney general’s campaign against them; and Hoffa has come up as possibly having been involved in JFK’s assassination through his organized crime connections). But Hoffa was unhappy with Nixon because his release included a condition: that he could play no role in the union until 1980.
Hoffa’s hand-picked successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, welcomed the opportunity to keep Hoffa from returning to power. Many of the union’s top officials felt similarly, since Fitzsimmons gave them more independence than Hoffa did. But none of this stopped Hoffa from trying to regain power. He sued over Nixon’s provision but lost. He began working with his old friends at Local 299. He worked on an autobiography and he talked with some of his old organized crime allies.
It was this reunion with his old allies that led to his disappearance. Two of his former friends, Anthony Giacalone, a Detroit mob leader, and Anthony Provenzano, a New Jersey gangster who had been active with the Teamsters in that state, were to meet Hoffa for lunch at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in a Detroit suburb on July 30, 1975. Neither showed up. As investigative reporter Dan Moldea has pointed out, it is suspicious that despite their aversion to public attention, each man took great pains to make sure he had an alibi for the time in question.
Hoffa did show up. But what happened next remains one of the great mysteries of American history. According to a witness, he may have left the restaurant’s parking lot sitting in the back seat of a car. But no one knows for sure. His wife later reported him missing and, seven years later, a probate judge declared him legally dead.
No body has ever been found and nobody has been charged with Hoffa’s murder. The mystery hasn’t stopped either speculation or claims. Shortly before he died, a mob hitman, Frank Sheeran, said that he had pulled the trigger that killed Hoffa. Another Mafia gunman also claimed to be the killer; he added that Hoffa’s body was compacted in the trunk of a car. Reporter Moldea, who has been investigating the case from the beginning, points to Provenzano as giving the order, several mobsters being involved in the actual murder, and the body being buried on land then owned by a Teamster official, Rolland McMaster, who had been a Hoffa ally until he backed Fitzsimmons in the struggle for control of the union The FBI looked for the body in that area, but Moldea says the agents looked on the wrong side of the parcel.
Whether the mystery will ever be solved is debatable. What is less debatable is that if organized crime interests killed Hoffa, it was payback for years of doing business with them, alternately aiding them financially and receiving help from them. And the Teamsters and the mob paid for Hoffa’s and the union’s mob ties, too. In the early 1980s, federal prosecutors tied together Teamsters union president Roy Lee Williams, who took over after Fitzsimmons died; Dorfman, who was murdered in 1983 before he could snitch; mob bosses in Chicago, Kansas City, and Milwaukee; and various Las Vegas casino operators as part of an international web of mob activity. Several of those involved, including union president Williams, went to prison.
The Teamsters weren’t the only union or Hoffa the only labor leader with mob ties. But he was the only one to disappear completely with no conclusive explanation of what happened or why. Hoffa affected the development and public perception, for good and ill, of the American labor movement and of organized crime. Forty years later, the story is, indeed, big.