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Jimmy Hoffa flashback, 2004: Was Hoffa killed inside northwest Detroit home?

12:35 PM, September 27, 2012  |  

Editor's note: This story first ran in the Detroit Free Press on May 29, 2004.

A deathbed confession by a Pennsylvania Teamsters official and scientific tests that may have detected blood in a house in northwest Detroit could help authorities solve the 1975 disappearance of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Or, maybe not.

A biography due in bookstores Tuesday says Frank (The Irishman) Sheeran helped lure Hoffa to the house in the 17800 block of Beaverland in July 1975 and then shot him twice in the head. The book says Sheeran, a longtime Hoffa loyalist, betrayed his friend because mobsters would have killed him if he hadn't killed Hoffa.

"My friend didn't suffer," Sheeran said in the biography, titled "I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran & the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters & the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa." The Free Press was given an advance copy.

Meanwhile, Fox News Channel reported Friday that a forensic team it hired in late March found "indications" of blood on the hardwood floor and baseboard of the home.

Oakland County Deputy Prosecutor James Halushka and Capt. Kirt Bowden of the Bloomfield Township Police Department led a forensic team to the house Friday morning. They left two hours later with three sections of floorboards from the vestibule and hallway. The FBI will test the sections for human blood and for DNA to compare with Hoffa's.

"I think it would be a miracle if we matched anything garnered from that house to Hoffa's DNA," Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca said Friday. He said it is even more unlikely that criminal charges would result from the DNA tests or from Sheeran's biography.

But he said he was obligated to pursue the latest leads.

Some Hoffa experts are excited about the developments.

"This could be the biggest break in the Hoffa case since he disappeared," said Dan Moldea, a Washington, D.C., author who chronicled the rise and fall of the legendary Teamsters official in his 1978 book, "The Hoffa Wars."

But others, including former FBI agents who worked the case, voice skepticism.

"There have been so many of these leads and none of them have panned out," said Joe Finnigan, a retired FBI agent who supervised the squad that investigated Hoffa's disappearance. "It's interesting, but I'm very skeptical."

The disappearance

Hoffa, 62, vanished on July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township. He went there to meet with Detroit Mafia captain Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamsters official.

The FBI has long suspected that Provenzano henchmen -- brothers Thomas and Stephen Andretta and brothers Gabriel and Salvatore Briguglio -- killed Hoffa to prevent him from regaining the Teamsters presidency and cutting off mob access to union pension funds. The FBI considered Sheeran a suspect, but didn't think he killed Hoffa.

Sheeran's biographer, Charles Brandt, says otherwise.

Brandt is a former Delaware chief deputy attorney general who helped Sheeran win a medical release from prison in 1991,where Sheeran was serving time for labor racketeering. Brandt said in the book that Sheeran told him he killed Hoffa, although Sheeran was a bit more cryptic in his quotes in the book.

Eric Shawn, a senior correspondent for Fox News Channel, said Sheeran told him the same thing in 2001. Brandt and Fox collaborated on the Sheeran-Hoffa story.

Sheeran pointed out the house to Brandt during a trip to Detroit in February 2002.

Shawn and his producer, Ed Barnes, said they pulled up adhesive tiles off the hardwood floor in late March of this year and paid a forensic team to test the floor with luminol. When the team sprayed the chemical on the floor, it glowed, indicating the possible presence of blood, Barnes said.

Experts said another substance may have triggered the reaction. If further tests show that the substance is indeed human blood and there's enough human material in the blood to create a DNA profile, it can be compared with Hoffa's DNA from hair samples taken from his home.

Sheeran, 83, died Dec. 14, 2003, at a nursing home in suburban Philadelphia.

In the book, Sheeran said he was ordered to kill Hoffa by upstate Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino, who was Sheeran's friend and mentor. Although Bufalino liked Hoffa, the book says he told Sheeran to kill Hoffa because mob interests in Detroit, Chicago and New York were tired of Hoffa's threats about ending the mob's control of the union and suspected he might have been cooperating with the FBI.

"Even though he was a boss, Russell himself had to do what he had to do," the book quotes Sheeran as saying. "They took care of bosses, too. . . ."

Sheeran's account

Sheeran said Bufalino had him stop at an airport in Port Clinton, Ohio, during a drive from Pennsylvania to metro Detroit to attend the wedding of the daughter of Teamsters lawyer William Bufalino Sr., who was no relation to Russell Bufalino. Their wives and Bufalino's sister-in-law accompanied them on the trip.

While the women were at a restaurant and Bufalino waited at the airport, Sheeran said he was flown in a small plane to an airport in Pontiac. After landing, Sheeran said, he got into a dusty gray Ford that was waiting in the parking lot, and then drove to the house in northwest Detroit using directions provided by Bufalino. He parked the Ford in the driveway on Beaverland.

Sheeran implied in the book that the Andretta brothers were in the house with Sal Briguglio when he walked in. The brothers were there to clean up the blood and had spread linoleum in the vestibule.

He said Hoffa's foster son, Charles (Chuckie) O'Brien, arrived a short time later and picked up Sheeran and Briguglio. O'Brien drove them to the Red Fox to pick up Hoffa. Sheeran said Briguglio was there to keep an eye on him.

When they arrived at the Red Fox around 2:45 p.m., Sheeran said, Hoffa was angry he had been kept waiting. Sheeran said Hoffa had asked him to be at the meeting as protection.

Although Hoffa questioned why Giacalone and Provenzano hadn't picked him up personally, Sheeran said, Hoffa got into the car because he trusted Sheeran and believed he would be driven to a meeting with Provenzano, Giacalone and RussellBufalino.

After arriving at the house on Beaverland, Sheeran said, he and Hoffa got out of the car and walked in as O'Brien and Briguglio drove away.

"When Jimmy saw that the house was empty, that nobody came out of any of the rooms to greet him, he knew right away what it was," the book quoted Sheeran as saying. "If Jimmy had taken his piece with him he would have gone for it. Jimmy was a fighter.

"He turned fast, still thinking we were together on the thing, that I was his backup," Sheeran continued. "Jimmy bumped into me hard. If he saw the piece in my hand he had to think I had it out to protect him. He took a quick step to go around me and get to the door. He reached for the knob and Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range -- not too close or the paint splatters back at you -- in the back of the head behind his right ear. My friend didn't suffer."

Sheeran said he glanced down the hall to make sure nobody would try to kill him, then drove the Ford he parked in the driveway back to Pontiac.

He then flew back to Port Clinton, rejoined Russell Bufalino and the women, and drove to Detroit for the wedding.

"The planners had timed the operation in Detroit to take an hour from start to finish," Sheeran said. He said Russell Bufalino told him afterward that Hoffa's body was taken to a trash incinerator or a funeral home and burned.

He said O'Brien, Hoffa's foster son, was an innocent bystander.

"All he knew was that he was taking us to pick up Jimmy," Sheeran said in the book, adding that O'Brien had no first-hand knowledge of what happened to Hoffa. "I always felt sorry for Chuckie O'Brien in this whole thing and I still do. If anybody deserves to be forgiven it's Chuckie."

O'Brien, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in Hoffa's disappearance, told the Free Press on Thursday that Sheeran concocted the story to secure his place in history. He declined to discuss Sheeran's claim that he drove Hoffa to the house.

William Bufalino II, a Clinton Township criminal lawyer who represented Sheeran and other suspects in 1976 grand jury appearances in Detroit, said he remembers seeing Sheeran at his sister's wedding rehearsal a day before Sheeran said he arrived in Detroit. Bufalino died Wednesday of complications from lymphoma,two days after the Free Press interview.

Giacalone, Provenzano, the Briguglios and the Andrettas all had alibis for the day Hoffa disappeared. Giacalone and Provenzano are dead. So are Sal Briguglio and Stephen Andretta. Gabriel Briguglio's and Thomas Andretta's whereabouts are unknown.

Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982.

Sheeran stopped short in the book of saying he pulled the trigger because he didn't want to be charged with murder, Brandt told the Free Press in a recent interview.

Brandt said Sheeran received absolution for his sins from a priest in suburban Philadelphia in 1991. Brandt said Sheeran began collaborating on the biography in 1999 to clear his conscience.

Moldea, who wrote an authoritative book about Hoffa and who has read Sheeran's biography, said he still thinks Hoffa was killed by Sal Briguglio, not Sheeran. But Moldea said he believes Sheeran witnessed the crime because of the details he provided for the book. He said the book provides important new information that he thinks could help investigators.

G. Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame University law professor and former Justice Department lawyer who investigated Hoffa for labor racketeering in the 1960s, expressed doubts about Sheeran's biography.

But he thinks Sheeran might have witnessed Hoffa's killing.

"I think he was a judas goat," Blakey said. "The question is whether he also was the hitter."

Sheeran's daughter, Dolores Miller of West Chester, Pa., said she was disappointed to learn from Brandt this week that her father claimed credit for killing Hoffa. She called the killing "the ultimate betrayal."

Miller said her father was an unhappy man whose conscience weighed on him for the rest of his life for what he did.

Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Crancer, a judge in St. Louis, said she's perplexed by Sheeran's claims.

"I don't know what to believe at this point," she said, referring to the various claims Sheeran has made over the years about Hoffa's disappearance. "I'm anxious to read this book so I can go through it in an analytical way."

Crancer's brother, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, declined to comment.

In 1975, Sheeran invoked the Fifth Amendment before a federal grand jury in Detroit in the Hoffa case. Sheeran said in the 1990s that he knew who killed Hoffa, but denied personal involvement. He blamed the Nixon administration and Vietnam mercenaries. Sheeran's former agent and manager, Harry Jay Katz, told a reporter in March that Sheeran confided in 1996 that he shot Hoffa in a car and drove him somewhere to dispose of the body.

The same month, Sheeran's former biographer, John Zeitts of Omaha, Neb., circulated a purported deathbed confession in which Sheeran said he went to a house in northwest Detroit to pick up Hoffa's body. Miller, Sheeran's daughter, called the confession a fraud and said Zeitts was trying to upstage Brandt's book. Zeitts said he is working on his own book about Sheeran.

Last July, acting on a tip from a prison inmate, Gorcyca and Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard went to Bay City on a fruitless dig for a briefcase said to contain a syringe that was used to inject Hoffa with poison.

Brandt said the title of his book -- "I Heard You Paint Houses" -- was taken from the first words Hoffa spoke to Sheeran when they met in the 1950s. It was a reference to the blood that gets on walls and floors when people are shot in houses and Hoffa was asking him if he was a hitman, Brandt said in the book. The 293-page book is being published by Steerforth Press of Hannover, N.H., and will retail for $25.

The owners of the home in northwest Detroit -- Ric and Helen Wilson -- bought the house in 1989. They had no idea until Fox News contacted them earlier this year that a crime may have been committed in their home.

Wilson, 46, a motor vehicle damage inspector, said he is shocked, humbled and in awe of the possible historical significance of his home. He said he has created a Web site ( that will contain a virtual tour of his home.

Asked Thursday how he felt about the prospects that Hoffa was killed there and the swarm of reporters, gawkers and others who are likely to descend on his home, Wilson said: "I feel like I'm sitting on a nuclear bomb -- and it's about to go off."

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