The Irishman: Who Really Killed Jimmy Hoffa?

We examine Frank Sheeran’s claim of whacking Jimmy Hoffa, the basis of The Irishman, and every other "confession" to the deed.

The Irishman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino

This article contains small The Irishman spoilers.

Do you remember where you were on the night Hoffa disappeared? Not if I can plead the Fifth.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, hit theaters on Nov. 1 and Netflix over Thanksgiving. The film is bookmarked by a drive from Kingston, Pennsylvania to Detroit to attend a wedding on Friday, Aug. 1, 1975. Sheeran, crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives were scheduled to arrive in Detroit on Tuesday, July 29, the day before Hoffa disappeared “to Australia—down under,” as they say in the film.

Fourteen people claimed to have done the job on Hoffa. No one was ever convicted or even charged. Most people think the mob ordered the Teamster boss’ disappearance. Personally, this writer suspects President Richard Nixon ordered the hit. He’d pardoned Hoffa on the condition he not return to the brotherhood on wheels, and the first thing Hoffa did when he got out of prison was to kick the tires. That’s also what Sheeran told newspapers in January 1995. He said the contract was carried out by Vietnamese mercenaries on orders from the president and Attorney General John Mitchell. Sheeran changed his story for I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, which The Irishman is based on.

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Sheeran told Charles Brandt he killed Hoffa at a house in Detroit. Sheeran’s former agent and manager, Harry Jay Katz, said his client admitted in 1996 to shooting Hoffa in a car. There are multiple published reports that Sheeran sent a signed confession saying he only disposed of Hoffa’s body to an author named John Zeitt. Sheeran’s daughter, Dolores Miller, said the letter was a forgery, and there is no record of Zeitt’s biography being published, but it is indicative of the tangled web around the death of the man who built the biggest union in the country.

Before writing a book on Sheeran’s apparent confession, Brandt was a medical malpractice attorney and former Delaware deputy attorney general who helped get Sheeran get out of jail in 1991. Sheeran agreed to cooperate with Brandt on the condition that the book be published after Sheeran’s death.

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Hoffa was last seen on July 30, 1975, at Machus Red Fox restaurant in suburban Detroit. He was there to meet Detroit Mafia enforcer Anthony Giacalone (Patrick Gallo) and Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), a powerful Teamsters official from New Jersey who was later convicted in another murder case. The film and movie follow Sheeran’s story that Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien (Jesse Plemons), Hoffa’s stepson, drove the car that picked up Hoffa from the parking lot of Machus Red Fox restaurant.

Sheeran said he carried out the killing on behalf of Bufalino, as the Philadelphia family boss was the one who initially set Sheeran up with the Teamsters International President. As depicted in the film, Russ introduced Sheeran to Hoffa by phone at a bar in South Philly where Hoffa opened the conversation by saying, “I heard you paint houses.” Paint is the blood that gets on the wall when you shoot somebody. Sheeran responded that he also does his own carpentry work, which as he explained in the book “refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.” Hoffa, who became a close friend, used Sheeran for muscle, including the assassination of recalcitrant union members and members of rival unions threatening the Teamsters’ turf.

Sheeran said Hoffa called him and told him about the meeting, which was supposed to take place at 2:30 pm. The union official asked the man who painted houses to get there early and bring a “friend,” a slang term for a gun even used by Bruce Springsteen in the song “Meeting Across the River.” That morning, Bufalino drove Sheeran to a Port Clinton, Ohio, airport where he took a private plane to an airport near Detroit, got into a Ford with keys in it, and drove to a home in Detroit where Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio (Louis Cancelmi), Steve Andretta (Joseph Russo), and another man were waiting. Hoffa and Sheeran walked in the front door. Hoffa saw the place was empty and realized he was set-up. Sheeran drew his weapon, and Hoffa “got shot twice at a decent range” in the back of the head.

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Sheeran was on the original FBI list of possible suspects. New Jersey Teamsters and reputed Genovese crime family mob associates Stephen Andretta (who died in 2000) and his brother Thomas (dead in 2019) were also named by the FBI as suspects.

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Richard Kuklinski, who was nicknamed “The Iceman,” told author Philip Carlo for his 2006 book The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer that Hoffa is “part of a car somewhere in Japan right now.” The New Jersey hitman claimed the Mafia paid $40,000 for Kuklinski to drive to Detroit with four other gangsters and meet Hoffa in a suburban restaurant. The men rushed Hoffa into a car where Kuklinski knocked him unconscious and stabbed him in the head with a hunting knife. Kuklinski then drove the body back to New Jersey in the boot of the car. Kuklinski claimed Hoffa’s body was placed in a 50-gallon drum and set on fire for “a half hour or so.” The drum was welded shut and buried in a junkyard.

According to Kuklinski’s confession, one of the other men was talking to the Feds, so they dug out the drum, placed it in the trunk of a car, and compacted it into a 4 × 2 foot rectangular cube. It was then shipped as scrap metal to Japan to be used to make new cars. Patrick Kane, a cop who worked the Kuklinski case, is on record as saying he believed Kuklinksi is telling the truth about killing Hoffa.

The book The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob by T.J. English cites a November 1989 Playboy interview saying Donald ″Tony the Greek″ Frankos was asked to kill Hoffa but was in jail at the time. Tony the Greek claims he told the FBI in 1986 that Hoffa was killed by alleged Irish mob boss Jimmy Coonan in a house near the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens. Frankos also fingers Chuckie O’Brien, who was one of the few men Hoffa trusted, as the man who lured him to the car. Frankos says Coonan shot Hoffa twice in the forehead with .22-caliber pistol with a silencer and “exploded his brains.” Frankos told the magazine that hitman John Sullivan helped Coonan carry Hoffa into the basement, put his body on a table, cut him up with a bucksaw and a meat cleaver, and put the parts in black plastic bags. He told the magazine Coonan severed Hoffa’s head and cut a lock of hair with a pocket knife, which he “kept for good luck.”

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Frankos told Playboy the body was placed in a meat freezer and several months later was trucked in an oil drum from Michigan to the East Rutherford, New Jersey. Frankos alleges Joe ″Mad Dog″ Sullivan buried Hoffa’s body near the end zone in Giants Stadium in New Jersey, underneath the artificial turf near Section 107. No human remains were found when the stadium was demolished in 2010.

 

In 1982, the same year Jimmy Hoffa was declared legally dead, hitman Charles Allen testified before a U.S. Senate committee investigating Anthony Provenzano that Hoffa was killed shortly after his disappearance, his body was ground up, dumped in a steel drum, and brought down to Florida where it was dumped in a swamp.

According to Robert Sullivan’s 1998 book The Meadowlands, Hoffa was interred in a burning landfill under the Pulaski Skyway. The New Jersey toxic waste site was owned by Genovese crime family associate, Phillip “Brother” Muscato, who was also connected with mob enforcer Salvatore (Sally Bugs) Briguglio. Muscato confirmed the story to investigative reporter Dan Moldea, according to The Daily News.

In January 2013 Tony Zerilli, a reputed gangster who denied any responsibility for or association with the disappearance, said Hoffa was hit on the head with a shovel and buried in a shallow grave in a field in northern Oakland County, Michigan, not far from the restaurant. He says the executioners planned to move the body to a second location, but never got around to it.

In 2017, James Buccellato, a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University, suggested Hoffa was probably killed at the house of Carlo Licata, the son of mobster Nick Licata. Carlo’s house which was less than two miles away from the Machus Red Fox. Licata was a co-owner of Central Sanitation, the mob-run sanitation company where it is believed Hoffa’s body was incinerated.

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The 1987 book Hoffa’s Man: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa As Witnessed by His Strongest Arm, by Joseph Franco and Richard Hammer, told the story of Joseph Franco, who worked for Hoffa for 30 years as an organizer and strong-arm man, and served a prison term with the union boss. Franco said Hoffa was shoved alive out of an airplane over one of the Great Lakes by a couple of federal agents.

The disappearance made for a mythic ending to a legendary life. Robert Blake played Hoffa in the 1983 TV miniseries Blood Feud. In the 1992 film Hoffa, he is played by Jack Nicholson. Sylvester Stallone plays a fictionalized version of Hoffa in the 1978 film F.I.S.T., directed by Norman Jewison. Treat Williams plays a Hoffa-inspired union organizer in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which also starred De Niro.

Scorsese’s new film will cement the legend of Sheeran’s involvement as fact for many future Hoffa enthusiasts, but the truth will remain buried as one of the great mysteries, up there with rumors that Elvis Presley didn’t die in the 1970s or the Beatles’ Paul McCartney did die in 1966. In 1977, Saturday Night Live said Hoffa played R2-D2 in Star Wars. That’s the one we’re least sure of.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.