Charles 'Chuckie' O'Brien, Hoffa confidant and suspect, dies at 86

The Detroit News
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The man who, for decades, called himself Jimmy Hoffa's foster son and who was believed to be involved in the disappearance of the labor leader has died.

Charles Lenton "Chuckie" O'Brien died Thursday, February 13, 2020 in Boca Raton, Fla., of a heart attack, according to his stepson Jack Goldsmith. He was 86.

Mr. O'Brien was a close aide and constant companion of the Teamsters Union leader in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. And after Hoffa's mysterious disappearance on July 30, 1975, Mr. O'Brien became a leading suspect in the investigation after the government publicly accused him of picking up Hoffa and driving him to his death. 

Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School, announced the news on the blog he co-founded, "Lawfare." 

Charles Lenton "Chuckie" O’Brien, who was a close confidant of Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, and was later suspected in his death, died Thursday, February 13, 2020 in Boca Raton, Fla. at the age of 86.

He described Mr. O'Brien as "a great father."

"He became my father when I was at a vulnerable point in my life at age 12," Goldsmith wrote. "Despite the unbearable pressures of the Hoffa investigation, Chuckie was a constant source of love, stability, encouragement and even inspiration."

Mr. O'Brien was born December 20, 1933 in Kansas City, Mo., to Sylvia Pagano and Charles Lenton O'Brien Sr. 

Mr. O'Brien lived in Kansas City until the age of six when he moved to Detroit with his mother after his father abandoned the family. His mother met Jimmy Hoffa in Detroit and grew close with the Hoffa family. Mr. O'Brien met Hoffa at nine and spent a lot of time during his teenage years with the labor leader, Goldsmith wrote. 

He began to travel with Hoffa on weekends beginning in 1952. In 1957, when Hoffa became president of the Teamsters union, Mr. O'Brien became his special assistant. From that point until Hoffa went to jail in March 1967, the two men were practically inseparable. They were so close, and Hoffa treated Mr. O'Brien with such affection, that many people thought Hoffa was his biological father. Mr. O'Brien was such a well-known loyal confidante that Mario Puzo used him as a model for the character of Tom Hagen, the adviser to Don Corleone, in “The Godfather,” Goldsmith said in his blog.

Over the years, Mr. O'Brien has been portrayed numerous times on TV and in movies about Hoffa's disappearance, most recently being played by Jesse Plemons in Martin Scorsese's Netflix hit "The Irishman."

"Chuckie’s life was full of tragedy and disappointment. But he had an enormously big heart, and everyone who knew him loved him despite his foibles," said Goldsmith. "He was funny, often hilarious; he was generous to a fault; he was a talker; and he was friendly with everyone. And despite setback after setback over the decades, and despite a great deal of anger, frustration and disappointment, he had an upbeat, even cheerful presence."

During a 2006 interview, Mr. O'Brien said he viewed Hoffa as a father figure. He was a child when Hoffa took him in, along with his mother. He had been questioned about the disappearance at least a dozen times by FBI agents. In 2001, the FBI matched a hair to Hoffa that was found in a car that Mr. O'Brien was driving the day Hoffa disappeared.

The car belonged to the son of reputed Mafia figure Anthony Giacalone, whom Hoffa was supposed to meet along with New Jersey Teamsters boss and mob associate Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano at a restaurant. Hoffa phoned his wife to say neither man showed, and that was the last anyone ever heard from him.

Mr. O'Brien adamantly denied having any role in whatever happened to Hoffa, or knowing anyone who did. 

"It's very frustrating. I have so much inside, my love for him and his family," Mr. O'Brien said during a 2006 interview. "How long can you keep talking to people and being honest with people?"

Hoffa was Teamsters president from 1957 to 1971. The FBI has said his disappearance was probably connected to his attempts to regain power in the union. Mr. O'Brien said in that interview it also was known that Hoffa intended to testify before the special U.S. Senate investigative panel, known as the Church Committee, about Mafia involvement in U.S.-backed plots to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"I think a disappearance is very hard. If somebody doesn't want you to be found, you won't be found," Mr. O'Brien said in the interview. 

In addition to Goldsmith, Mr. O'Brien is survived by his wife Brenda; his daughter Josephine and his son Chuckie; two other stepsons, Brett and Steven; and numerous grandchildren. 

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