The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

June 19, 2013

Hoffa mystery still fascinates after 4 decades

OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The latest possible resting place of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa is an overgrown farm field where the normal calm of chirping crickets is being drowned out by a beeping backhoe, the chop of an overhead news helicopter and the bustle of reporters and onlookers.

Over nearly four decades, authorities have pursued multiple leads into Hoffa’s death that yielded nothing. Yet the mystery endures, fueled by a public fascination with mobsters and murder.

“It’s one of those things you’ve always heard about,” said Niki Grifka, who, at 37, was just an infant when Hoffa vanished.

Over the past day and a half, Grifka and a few dozen other Oakland Township residents gathered a couple of hundred yards from where FBI agents wearing hard hats and carrying shovels sifted through about a half-acre of red dirt for the remains of a man who became as large in death as he was leading one of America’s most powerful labor unions.

Hoffa’s rise in the Teamsters, his 1964 conviction for jury tampering and his presumed murder are Detroit’s link to a time when organized crime, public corruption and mob hits held the nation’s attention.

Hoffa was last seen July 30, 1975, outside an Oakland County restaurant where he was supposed to meet with a New Jersey Teamsters boss and a Detroit Mafia captain. His body has never been found.

But over the years, authorities have received various tips, leading the FBI to possible burial sites near and far.

In 2003, a backyard swimming pool was dug up 90 miles northwest of Detroit. Seven years ago, a tip from an ailing federal inmate led to a two-week search and excavation at a horse farm in the same region. Last year, soil samples were taken from under a concrete slab garage floor north of the city. And detectives even pulled up floorboards from a Detroit house.

No evidence of Hoffa was found.

Other theories have suggested he was entombed in concrete at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, ground up and thrown in a Florida swamp or obliterated in a mob-owned fat-rendering plant.

Detroit’s long tradition of organized labor and auto manufacturing means the Hoffa saga still resonates with countless Michigan families.

“Everyone has a connection with Hoffa and the unions,” said 47-year-old George Newton, of Oakland County’s Rochester. “I was in high school when he got abducted, and my grandfather was in the union.”

To Newton, it would be exciting if Hoffa’s remains are finally found, but he doubts that ever will happen.

“I just think it’s a tightly held secret,” Newton said. “I do want closure, first for Hoffa’s family and, I think, in a way for Michigan.”

The latest tip about Hoffa’s remains came from a reputed Mafia captain Tony Zerilli, who, through his lawyer, said Hoffa was buried beneath a concrete slab in a barn in the Oakland Township field.

The barn is gone, but FBI agents pored over the field Tuesday for a second day. Forensic anthropologists from Michigan State University were bought in to help, along with state police dogs, which were led through the high grass in hopes that their sensitive noses might sniff out a clue.

Authorities suspended the search late Tuesday afternoon, but expected to resume their efforts Wednesday.

Zerilli, now 85, was in prison for organized crime when Hoffa disappeared. But he told New York TV station WNBC in January that he was informed about Hoffa’s whereabouts after his release. His attorney, David Chasnick, said Zerilli is “intimately involved” with people who know where the body is buried.

Details are in a manuscript Zerilli is selling online, $7.99 for a mailed copy and $4.99 for an electronic version.

Zerilli’s mob connections give his story more credibility than tips that spawned past searches, according to Keith Corbett, a former federal prosecutor.

“You have a witness who is in a position to know, who says he has specific information,” Corbett said Monday.

“Anytime you look for somebody and don’t find the body, it is embarrassing. The thing the public isn’t aware of but police know is there are a lot of dead ends in an investigation.”

 

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