Why Are We Still Looking for Jimmy Hoffa?

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One of America's most intriguing cold cases heated up this week when a tip from a retired mobster sent FBI and Michigan law enforcement officials wielding shovels and bulldozers to a suburban Detroit field in search of decades-old remains. Two days and no bones later, the only thing unearthed was the fact that the country is still fascinated by the disappearance and alleged murder of former Teamsters president James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa nearly 38 years ago.

In American pop culture, a good whodunit is irresistible—and as such, exploring the unsolved mystery of what happened to the notoriously corrupt labor leader with mob ties has become practically a national pastime. Almost four decades, hundreds of FBI agents, zero convictions, dozens of theories, books, one Oscar-nominated film, countless jokes (“Yo momma's so fat, she rolled over and they found Jimmy Hoffa”), and a whole lot of digging later, the as-yet fruitless search for the labor leader's remains has become the stuff of legend.

But why do we keep searching? On Monday, Oakland County, Michigan Sheriff Michael Bouchard said he would like to provide closure for the Hoffa family. "It's long overdue," he said. "It’s been one of those open wounds for a long time." After the FBI called off its investigation on Wednesday, spokesman Simon Shaykhet gave another reason. "It remains an open investigation," he said. "As long as cases remain open, the FBI remains committed to the pursuit of justice."

According to Frankie Bailey, associate professor at the University at Albany's School of Criminal Justice, "[The FBI] isn't obliged to follow up every alleged lead, but if the agency has information from a credible source, it may well feel obliged to try to finally close the case," she told MSN News. "And one would think that after all these years, the FBI would like to solve this mystery. It would be a triumph to finally find Jimmy Hoffa."

During the past four decades, a number of plausible stories have come to light as to who killed this real-life Mr. Boddy, where it happened, and with what sort of weapon. Here are five popular leads that have been investigated since Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.

The Purple Gang. In the field. With the shovel.

This is the most recent lead, provided by former mafia captain and now octogenarian Anthony Zerilli this year. Zerilli, son of reputed Detroit-based Purple Gang leader Joseph Zerilli, told the FBI that Hoffa was clubbed with a shovel and buried under a concrete slab in a field on what was then his cousin's land in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. After two days of excavation, law enforcement officials said they were unable to find anything.

Tony the Greek. Under Giants Stadium. With the Gun.

In 1989, Donald Frankos (a.k.a. Tony the Greek) got the nation's attention when he told Playboy magazine that Hoffa was buried beneath Giants Stadium after a mafia hit squad (of which Frankos claimed to be a part) shot him, dismembered him, froze him, shipped him to Jersey and buried him near the western end zone in East Rutherford—fondly dubbed the “Jimmy Hoffa Memorial End Zone.” The FBI found no evidence that any of Frankos' claims were true, and no remains were unearthed when Giants Stadium was torn down in 2010. Jimmy Hoffa, however, is nonetheless jokingly referred to as the biggest fan of New York football, having “attended” every game since 1975.   

The Hitman. In the Swamp. With the Meat Grinder.

In 1982, Charles Allen—who described himself as a former hitman for the mafia—told members of Congress that Hoffa was murdered on the orders of mob boss Anthony Provenzano, ground up into little bitty pieces, and shipped to Florida, where the remains were tossed into a swamp.

The Irishman. In the house. With the paint.

Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, a former Teamsters official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa, confessed on his deathbed to killing his old pal on mafia orders (in addition to claiming involvement in the JFK assassination). Law enforcement officials found some blood in the house in which Sheeran claimed to have murdered Hoffa, but it was not Hoffa's blood, and there hasn’t been enough evidence unearthed yet to support the confession. Sheeran said Hoffa had used him as muscle during his Teamsters days to intimidate and assassinate uncooperative union members and rivals. He confessed all this to author Charles Brandt in 2003, who wrote a book about it called I Heard You Paint Houses. That was supposedly the first thing Hoffa ever said to Sheeran, which is code for “I hear you're a contract killer. (And that when you shoot people in the head blood splatters everywhere like paint.)”    

The Iceman. In the car. With the hunting knife.

Richard Kuklinski, another self-described mob hitman, confessed on his deathbed in 2006 to killing Hoffa. And another author, Philip Carlo, catalogued the misadventures in mafia murder in a book called, Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer. Kuklinski said he was paid $40,000 to nab Hoffa from the restaurant parking lot, after which he claims he punched Hoffa’s lights out and stabbed him in the head with a hunting knife. Then, he drove the body to New Jersey and left the car in a scrap metal yard. Which, according to Kuklinski, probably means the body of Jimmy Hoffa could actually be in the body of your car.

There are many more theories about what happened to Hoffa, including the possibility that he was disintegrated in a fat-rendering plant, or buried under a horse farm, a suburban driveway or beneath General Motors HQ in Detroit. What we do know for sure is that the search for the truth continues on.

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June 21, 2013 - 9:30am
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