Hoffa's disappearance provides endless fuel for fiction

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, which has become perhaps the most prominent unsolved mystery in Michigan and the nation.

“Hoffa’s disappearance has become something approaching legend in this country. It’s part of our culture,” said Detroit native and New York Times best-selling novelist Steve Hamilton, of upstate New York, author of the Hoffa-themed “Riddle Island: An Alex McKnight Short Story.”

 Hoffa, 62, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was last seen around 2 p.m. on July 30, 1975, at the now-closed Machus Red Fox, a restaurant in Bloomfield Township. Hoffa – who had Mafia connections and spent time in prison for jury tampering, conspiracy and fraud (President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence) – was jockeying to return to power.

Portrait of Teamster Union leader, Jimmy Hoffa sitting in chair with unidentified men in background during newspaper strike of 1962 in Detroit, Michigan.

Allegedly, he was supposed to meet with two mob bosses, Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone. Both men – now dead – denied they were meeting Hoffa and were nowhere near the restaurant that fateful day, having provided authorities with solid alibis.

 Hoffa called his wife Josephine (who died in 1980) at their Lake Orion home from a payphone around 2:15 p.m., telling her nobody showed. Eyewitnesses later told investigators they saw him in the Red Fox parking lot that afternoon, appearing to be waiting for someone. Others stated they saw Hoffa willingly leaving the Red Fox in a burgundy-colored Mercury Marquis (owned by Giacalone’s son, Joseph) with three other men, while his car remained in the parking lot. 

 Hoffa hasn’t been seen since.

In Steve Hamilton's "Riddle Island," private eye Alex McKnight (the hero of 11 novels) investigates a case that has links to the 1975 disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

 His family declared him dead in 1982.

 So what happened to Hoffa?

 Nobody knows.

 And his disappearance has inspired countless theories rivaling Jack the Ripper’s true identity and the Kennedy assassination, spawning numerous books (fiction and nonfiction), movies (most notably, last year’s “The Irishman”), and websites.

 In “Riddle Island,” private eye Alex McKnight – Hamilton’s protagonist of 11 novels over 22 years – learns Hoffa’s fate. The longest short story Hamilton’s written, “Riddle Island” is currently available in ebook or audio format. It will be in print at some point, probably included in the next McKnight novel, said Hamilton.

“The first and most important thing, and this is even noted by Alex McKnight himself in the story, is that Jimmy Hoffa was a real human being who left behind a wife and two children (Barbara and James),” he said. “I can’t even imagine what they went through in the summer of 1975 – and in the case of the adult children – in the 45 years since their father disappeared. If there’s ever any resolution to this case, I can only hope it brings them some measure of peace and closure.”

New York Times best-selling novelist Steve Hamilton is a Detroit native and alumnus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The only hard forensic evidence in Hoffa’s disappearance was a small amount of blood and hair found in Giacalone’s car discovered to be Hoffa’s, per a DNA analysis in 2001. Also, search dogs detected Hoffa’s scent in the backseat and trunk.

According to Hamilton, “The Irishman” – based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa” – returned Hoffa’s disappearance to the fore of the public consciousness. Directed by Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), “The Irishman” starred Oscar winner Al Pacino (“The Godfather”) as Hoffa and Oscar winner Robert DeNiro (“Raging Bull”) as hitman Frank Sheeran, Hoffa’s friend. All three were nominated for Oscars for “The Irishman.”

“The Irishman” presents the scenario that Hoffa left the Red Fox with Sheeran (who died in 2003), mobster Sal “Sally Bugs” Briguglio (murdered in 1978), and Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s foster son who died Feb. 13. They drove Hoffa to a house in Metro Detroit for this supposed meeting. O’Brien and Briguglio dropped off Hoffa and Sheeran. Inside, Sheeran betrayed his friend and murdered him. 

“To whatever degree you believe what Sheeran had to say in that book – and I understand that there are good reasons to doubt him – the facts remain: Hoffa was waiting at the Red Fox, expecting to meet with two reputed mobsters. He left that location in someone else’s car, something that he most likely would not have done if he didn’t feel like he could trust at least one person in that other car. Sheeran was in town from Philadelphia that weekend for a wedding, so it’s possible that he was the trusted friend in that car,” explained Hamilton.

What happened next?

By his own admission, Sheeran didn’t know. He dropped the gun and left the house.

 “In the movie, we see a brief scene in which Hoffa’s body is cremated at a funeral home,” said Hamilton. “That’s an ultimate result that does make sense on paper. But for some reason, this idea has persisted – for 45 years now – that Hoffa’s body ended up somewhere else.”

Many have disputed Sheeran’s account of events, stated Michigan native Steve Drummond (which is an alias), co-producer of the podcast, “Finding Hoffa” (which will air an anniversary podcast Thursday).

“Hoffa’s family stated Sheeran was one of the few people Hoffa would trust to get into a car (to meet) with union and mob rivals. It would put Hoffa at ease,” said Drummond. “Records show it is entirely plausible Sheeran could have been with the other occupants in the car. Much of what Sheeran related to Brandt is disputed by what I refer to as the ‘Hoffalogists’… That includes the major journalists covering the story for decades. It is well-known, especially after the reaction from ‘The Irishman,’ many of them object to the Sheeran narrative and are of the opinion it’s not historically accurate.”

Although some events in “The Irishman” align with Drummond’s research, he stated the film took many liberties.

“(Nobody) has verified in what manner Hoffa died,” said Drummond. “We don’t know if there even was a ‘triggerman.’ So, I chalk it up as a great film depicting one of many plausible scenarios.” 

Drummond met Hamilton at a book signing 20 years ago. Drummond showed Hamilton his research claiming Hoffa’s body remained in Michigan and went up north. One theory has Hoffa’s body placed into a 55-gallon drum that was loaded onto a truck with many other drums and taken on the regular route that went through the Upper Peninsula to a steel mill in Canada. However, after Hoffa’s disappearance, the truck happened to make a special stop in the U.P. to unload a particular drum (hence, the basis for “Riddle Island.”).

“I was skeptical at first until I started looking at the information he put together, including multiple firsthand reports of certain events that all coincided on July 30, 1975,” said Hamilton. “I’ve stayed in touch with (Drummond) for two decades now. I did help him track down a few other pieces of information along the way, but – ultimately – this project is his. As ‘The Irishman’ was approaching, I came up with the idea of taking some of (Drummond’s research) and building a fictional story around it.”

Drummond stated Hamilton was interested in his research and checked it out for himself.

“The results of our initial meeting moved in a direction that from time to time would cause us to meet and discuss any newly discovered facts about my research,” said Drummond. “(Hamilton) used to work for IBM and there were times over the years he was able to help me verify information I had uncovered on the internet… I can tell you I’ve found (Hamilton) to be a trustworthy individual as well as a talented author. He is someone who – not just in the world of pulp fiction, but also with this very real mystery surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance – sees the value of my research.” 

“It was a unique experience, using someone else’s reconstructed events to build a story, instead of just making up my own timeline. A little challenging, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit,” said Hamilton. “(Drummond’s) contribution really arises from the information he’s developed, as laid out on his website and in his podcasts. Again, I just took the basic sequence of events and tried to construct a fictional story, with good ol’ Alex being the one who uncovers the truth.”

Hamilton reiterates that although “Riddle Island” is based on something that might be real, it is fiction.

“I can’t say ‘might’ strongly enough!” said Hamilton. “Because northern Michigan is Alex McKnight’s territory, I thought it was only natural to have Alex be the one who stumbles upon the answer.” 

‘Riddle Island: An Alex McKnight Short Story’

by Steve Hamilton