Millions of Australians, mostly those born after the mid-1970s, would never have heard of Jimmy Hoffa.
But he was one of the most powerful characters in the US, the head of the National Teamsters Union, a major figure in American crime and a buddy of prominent politicians — until one day in 1975, when he simply vanished.
Soon to be released is a new Martin Scorsese film called The Irishman, based on a book by former prosecutor and investigator Charles Brandt, called I heard you paint houses.
That was a US underworld term for a hitman.
It tells the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, as well as the role Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran apparently played.
Even today the nefarious doings of the mafia continues to fascinate the public, something Scorsese is well aware of and The Irishman purports to offer insights into the fate of one of the most noteworthy organised crime figures in American history while giving viewers glimpses into the underworld itself.
James Riddle Hoffa, born in 1913 and better known as Jimmy, was a major labour organiser in the 1930s and became head of the National Teamsters Union in the 1950s.
He built a centralised organisation, often associating with members of Detroit’s underground along the way.
Hoffa’s business quickly expanded across the country and he gained the attention of the FBI as early as 1957.
He was charged with attempting to influence a lawyer who worked for Senator John McClellan, in the hopes of swaying a labour racketeering investigation. He was acquitted, but remained under suspicion.
Right up to the mid-70s, Jimmy Hoffa was a rock star of organised labour, as well known as Elvis.
His rapid rise through the ranks of the Teamsters union was made possible, in part, by friendships forged with high-ranking organised crime figures across the country.
They helped keep Hoffa in power. In return, he allowed the mob to use the Teamsters pension fund as its own bank.
The fund, which started making large loans to Las Vegas, allowed mob figures to expand their casinos, including the Desert Inn and Stardust and to build Sunrise Hospital and the Boulevard Mall.
Pension fund millions also built Caesars Palace and many other resorts.
In the early 1960s, Hoffa was indicted several times by the Justice Department and in 1964 he was found guilty of jury tampering.
After a series of appeals failed, Hoffa was given a 13-year prison sentence in 1967.
He served just five years, however, before being pardoned . . . by who?
President Richard Nixon.
He also got a Teamsters’ pension of $1.7 million, a settlement until then unheard of.
Suspicion was soon raised that a deal had been made for Hoffa’s release in return for the Teamster’s support of Nixon, which included an allegation of up to $1 million being secretly paid to Nixon.
Hoffa was forbidden from taking on any other union leadership positions until 1980. He didn’t take the news well and planned to fight the ruling.
But before he could do much, he disappeared from a restaurant parking lot in Detroit in July, 1975.
On that day, Jimmy Hoffa was supposed to meet with Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano for lunch at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Detroit.
Giacalone was part of a well-known Detroit syndicate, while Provenzano was a Teamster’s boss from New Jersey.
Once allies, Hoffa and Provenzano had a falling out and it’s speculated that they were going to try to mend fences that day.
That’s where Frank Sheeran enters the picture, although he and Hoffa were the best of mates.
It was while working as a driver for Russell Bufalino that Sheeran was put to work for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Hoffa needed a hitman and Bufalino recommended Sheeran.
The Irishman recalled the first words Hoffa said to him on the phone before hiring him: “I heard you paint houses.”
He replied, ‘yes, I do my own carpentry too.’ Which translates in mobster lingo to: I also get rid of the bodies.
While working for Hoffa, Sheeran claimed he went from Puerto Rico to Chicago to San Francisco all in one day, finally meeting up with Jimmy to “give him a report” on the “matters” that he had handled.
He is said to have handled between 20 and 30 ‘matters’ for Hoffa and Bufalino before being told by Bufalino to get rid of Hoffa as well.
One of the reasons Jimmy Hoffa had to be removed was because of his plan to reassert his control of the Teamsters.
Hoffa made no secret of the fact that he was planning on running for Teamster president again.
He had accused Frank Fitzsimmons, the acting head of the Teamsters while Hoffa was in jail, of insurance fraud, and the FBI was investigating embezzlement from the Teamster’s pension fund.
Next thing, Fitzsimmons’s son almost died after his car blew up on July 10, 1975.
By then, the underground leaders had reached breaking point and ordered Hoffa’s end.
So Sheehan showed up at the Red Fox that day, instead of Giacalone and Provenzano.
They drove to a nearby house in Hoffa’s Mercury Brougham and Sheehan put two bullets in the back of his mate’s head as soon as they got past the door.
Waiting inside were two ‘cleaners’ – brothers who thoroughly cleaned the house, then took Hoffa’s body to a nearby funeral parlour, where, within an hour, it was cremated and reduced to dust.
Sheeran loved Hoffa and said he was ‘one of the two greatest men’ he had ever met.
Despite that, Frank Sheeran claimed he had no choice but to end Hoffa’s life.
“I felt nothing,” he said.
“The decision was made to ‘paint the house’ and that was that.”
According to author Charles Brandt: “Frank could not blink, much less say no to targeting Hoffa, or else they both would have been taken out.”
Sheeran did later express remorse and sadness that Hoffa didn’t take steps to stop the hit from happening.
From Sheeran’s perspective, Hoffa “thought he was untouchable.”
His body was never found, despite an intense FBI probe, and Jimmy Hoffa was officially declared dead in 1982.
The FBI seized a maroon 1975 Mercury Marquis that was seen to leave the Red Fox the day Hoffa disappeared.
The description of the vehicle perfectly matched one owned by Anthony Giacalone’s son, that was being used by Hoffa’s friend Chuckie O’Brien at the time.
Sniffer dogs detected Hoffa’s scent inside but no other evidence was found until 2001, when a strand of hair found in O’Brien’s car was DNA tested and identified as Hoffa’s, finally confirming the original theory that he was in the vehicle.
The FBI continues to follow up on leads and still has the 1975 Mercury.
Sheeran, meanwhile, did jail time for labour racketeering. Then, crippled by arthritis and living in a nursing home, he confessed to killing Hoffa to three priests as well as to Charles Brandt.
He died in 2003, aged 83.
“Frank sought forgiveness and, to his way of thinking, died in a state of grace,” Brandt said.
There are other theories about Hoffa’s final destination:
Joseph Franco, an associate of Hoffa, claimed that Hoffa was pushed out of a plane over the Great Lakes while Marvin Elkind, a syndicate driver, claimed Hoffa was kidnapped and put into the wet concrete forming the foundation of the Detroit Renaissance Centre.
Other tales claim Hoffa was buried in cement at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, pressed in a trash compactor in Detroit, or fed to alligators in the Florida Everglades.
But Brandt recorded Sheeran saying that he stood behind all of his ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ assertions while holding up a copy of the book for all to see.
The Irishman screens on Netflix and stars Al Pacino and Robert de Niro.
Pacino reprises the role played by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 film Hoffa directed by Danny DeVito.