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Who really killed Jimmy Hoffa? The true history behind The Irishman’s ‘true story’

The Irishman stars Al Pacino (right) as union leader Jimmy Hoffa
The Irishman stars Al Pacino (right) as union leader Jimmy Hoffa Credit: Film Stills

Is Martin Scorsese’s epic film about a mafia hitman based on truth or ‘baloney’? Chris Harvey weighs the evidence

Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman arrived in cinemas and on Netflix this month trailing five-star reviews. Reuniting the director with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and marking Scorsese’s first-ever collaboration with Al Pacino, the film has been heralded as a late-career masterpiece. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours, it creates a rich, troubling, transfixing tableau of America at a time when the Mafia’s influence reached high and low. Off screen, though, The Irishman has ignited the literary equivalent of a mob war.

Bang! In September, a targeted hit was carried out by the New York Review of Books on the source material for the film, a 2004 book by lawyer Charles Brandt, which documents in compelling detail the late-life confession of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played in the film by De Niro), a Delaware-based union organiser and violent convicted criminal with connections to the Italian crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra.

The book’s title, I Heard You Paint Houses, refers to gangland slang for an assassination, and Brandt unmasks Sheeran as a long-serving hitman for a prominent Mafia boss, putting him centre stage in one of America’s most enduring mysteries: who was responsible for the disappearance – and likely murder – of union leader James Riddle Hoffa (played by a volcanic Pacino) from a Detroit restaurant parking lot in July 1975. The NYRB article, by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, claimed the idea that Sheeran had killed Hoffa was “preposterous”.

Bang, bang! A lethal volley of wild shots aimed at Sheeran and Brandt was fired off in August by the online magazine Slate in a piece headlined The lies of the Irishman. Bill Tonelli, author of several books on the Italian American experience and the birth of organised crime, quoted FBI and underworld sources labelling Brandt’s account “baloney beyond belief”. Tonelli’s verdict: “Frank Sheeran never killed a fly”.

Now, in this article, Brandt comes back at his critics, all guns blazing. “How do I personally feel,” he says, over the phone, when I ask for his response to the accusations of lies. “I laugh at ’em.”

Jimmy Hoffa, president of the US truckers' union, the Teamsters, in 1959 Credit: Hank Walker/LIFE Images 

He brings up his experience as a homicide prosecutor and chief deputy attorney general for Delaware. “How many actual crimes have these people ever investigated?” he asks. “Have they ever investigated a shoplifting case? The answer is: no.”

First, some background. Brandt crossed paths with Sheeran in 1981, when the former was working as a defence attorney in Delaware and the latter was facing racketeering charges. Brandt was retained by Sheeran but quit after a dispute over his fee. Sheeran was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison – later extended to 32 years on a separate charge.

In 1991, though, Brandt, by then working as a medical malpractice lawyer, was able to secure Sheeran’s early parole on medical grounds. He knew that the 6ft 4in heavy was a historic suspect in the Hoffa disappearance and had made a deal with him to write a book telling his side of the story.

During a five-hour interview, after celebrating his release from jail with copious glasses of chianti, the Irishman told Brandt his version of events, initially without notes or tape recording. Their subsequent interviews were recorded on micro-cassette tapes, says Brandt, except for the odd unexpected phone call.

“I almost always had the tape recorder running, that’s where [Sheeran’s words] came from, but also from my memory of hearing them over and over, as an interrogator.”

The irony of Sheeran’s former defence advocate attempting to prove “he did it”, while his detractors fight for his innocence may be neat, yet Sheeran was known to have made earlier false claims about what happened to Hoffa. Was Brandt concerned he would do that to him?

“I never interrogated a suspect who didn’t make false claims,” he says, “so I was satisfied that I knew how to deal with them.”

The publisher’s advance, of $20,000, was split between Brandt and Sheeran’s daughters, as are any royalties.

Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses alleged that Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa in 1975

To research the Hoffa mystery is to step into a murky well of half-truths, mob gossip and unsupported theories. Facts are scant and everything is shrouded in omerta.

Hoffa, former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was declared legally dead in 1982. This tough, 5ft 6in organiser, who had helped to build up the trucker’s union to more than a million members by the Fifties, had intimidated his way to power, fame and influence in the US before being jailed for jury tampering in 1964.

As early as 1957, he had been suspected of using the Teamster pension fund as a private bank providing loans to the Mafia. Some of Las Vegas’s most famous casinos had been built that way. “The Teamsters weren’t tied to organised crime,” author Steven Brill told the LA Times in 1992. “They were organised crime. And when Hoffa started to act independently, the Mob simply killed him.”

In 1971, Hoffa secured early release from jail in a deal with President Richard Nixon by resigning his union presidency. Although barred from standing for the top job again until 1980, the defiant Hoffa wanted his union back and planned to stand in 1976. He had been warned off by the Mafia, who found his replacement Frank Fitzsimmons a more compliant source of funds. Hoffa responded by threatening to go public with the Mob’s involvement with the Teamsters. It would cost him his life.

In Brandt’s book, Sheeran told how he was introduced to Hoffa in the late Fifties by Pennsylvania Mafia boss Russell Bufalino. Sheeran maintained that he carried out murders on behalf of Hoffa, who became a close friend. “The first words Jimmy ever spoke to me were, ‘I heard you paint houses.’ The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, ‘I do my own carpentry work, too.’ That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.”

The Irishman was not strictly an Irishman. Sheeran was born in Pennsylvania to a first-generation Catholic Irish father and a mother of Swedish extraction. Over “hundreds of hours” of interviews which Brandt conducted in the five years up to his death in 2003, he described a brutal upbringing, in which his father would put him in fights with much older boys, and bet on him to win.

Sheeran would later become a combat-hardened veteran of the Second World War, who admitted to shooting unarmed prisoners and taking part in the reprisal killings of concentration camp guards after the liberation of Dachau.

Scorsese’s film briefly traces the postwar criminal career that brought Sheeran into contact with Bufalino. It also touches on other episodes in which Sheeran claimed direct or indirect participation, such as the failed US invasion of Cuba and the revenge slaying of mobster “Crazy” Joey Gallo in 1972. But it moves inexorably towards the Irishman’s betrayal of Hoffa in the mid-Seventies.

It is widely believed that Hoffa was killed on the orders of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a New York mafioso, who had been feuding with Hoffa since they were in jail together. A meeting at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in a Detroit suburb had apparently been set up to broker peace. A witness who made small talk with Hoffa that day recalled, under hypnosis, that Hoffa had said he was “meeting [Anthony] Giacalone and Tony Pro”. Neither showed up. Hoffa, who hated bad timekeepers, was furious.

What happened next is the contested bit. According to Sheeran, it was he who met Hoffa at the Red Fox, in a car driven by Hoffa’s foster son Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, accompanied by one of Tony Pro’s hitmen. They drove to a detached house in Detroit, where Sheeran executed Hoffa. “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.”

In his New York Review of Books piece, Goldsmith refutes that narrative. He’s a former counsel in the Bush administration, who also happens to be the stepson of Chuckie O’Brien (on whom Mario Puzo modelled the character of consigliere Tom Hagen in The Godfather). O’Brien was originally placed in the frame by the FBI after an eyewitness reported seeing a swarthy, heavyset man, driving a maroon car leaving the Red Fox.

Sheeran with Hoffa in 1974, the year before Hoffa disappeared Credit: Sheeran/Brandt/Splash

The eyewitness recognised Hoffa as one of four men in it, in the back seat with his hands behind him, as if they were tied, leaning forward, apparently yelling at the driver, whom, he later agreed, looked like photographs of O’Brien. There’s no dispute that O’Brien was driving a maroon Mercury borrowed from Giacalone’s son that day; a hair taken from that car was identified in 2001 as matching the DNA of Hoffa.

Goldsmith was 12 when Hoffa went missing and has recently published his own book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, about his search for the truth. He hasn’t seen The Irishman, but he intends to. I ask him how angry he is that the film cements the idea that O’Brien, who is now in his eighties, drove Hoffa to his death. “I’m not angry,” he says. “I’m bummed for Chuckie if the movie repeats the account in the Sheeran confession that Chuckie picked up Hoffa and drove him to his killers, because it is simply false.

But Chuckie has been living with this untruth – repeated in a dozen books and thousands of articles, based on an early FBI theory of the case that it has now repudiated – for 44 years. The FBI knows that Chuckie was not involved that day, and I hope one day it reveals the truth.”

Brandt tells me that he believes “unequivocally” that Goldsmith is wrong, and O’Brien was involved, as investigative reporters continue to attest. Goldsmith remains forthright. “Nothing Sheeran adds to the known but false public narrative rings true,” he says. “I don’t think Sheeran was involved in any way. Nor does the FBI.”

Details which Sheeran describes, such as the fact that the floor of the car O’Brien was allegedly driving was wet from a fish that he had delivered earlier, Goldsmith says, were easy to find. “It has been publicly known since 1975 that Chuckie was delivering a fish that day.”

Robert De Niro plays Sheeran in The Irishman Credit: Alamy

I confront Brandt with the explicit criticisms of his book and Sheeran’s account, in a sometimes heated conversation. Sample: why does he think that Sheeran was never considered to be a hitman by law enforcement? “What the hell are you talking about? What kind of a silly question is that? Considered a hitman? It isn’t something you put on your back and say, ‘Hey, I’ll murder for hire.’”

I want to know how he responds to Tonelli’s Slate article, which puts forward the view that “the guy made it all up”. “It’s a joke,” says Brandt. “Read the book.” He dismisses, too, FBI agent Quinn John Tamm, who told Tonelli that “Sheeran never killed a fly” – “I don’t know why he’s saying that, but he had nothing to do with the Hoffa investigation,” Brandt tells me. “His [investigation of Sheeran] was a labour law investigation.

“The FBI agent who would know best is Bob Garrity. He was the agent in charge of the Hoffa case from the day Jimmy disappeared for the next two years.” Brandt says Garrity told him at a book signing, “We always liked Sheeran for [the murder]”. (When contacted by Tonelli, Garrity said that, “for a number of reasons which are personal”, he had no comment to make.)

The former FBI man then told Brandt that “the Hoffa family thought the sun rose and set on Frank Sheeran.” That guilt about betraying Hoffa’s trust was what Brandt exploited, he confesses, to get Sheeran to talk about what had happened. “Can you imagine how bad he felt,” Brandt asks.

The author didn’t admit to using that emotional leverage in the first edition of his book (which has been republished with an updated conclusion to tie in with the film), he says, “because I was afraid that I would be killed. I’m serious. I was afraid that somebody would read that and decide that I had taken advantage of Sheeran’s conscience, and that I needed to be put away.

“I kept it limited to Frank Sheeran desiring to confess, so that any mobster who read it would not think that I worked him over.”

It was De Niro who fell in love with the book and the character of Sheeran as far back as 2006, when he was reading it as reference material for a film Scorsese was then planning to make. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Schindler’s List, Steve Zaillian, was brought in to write the script, while Brandt added background details that hadn’t been published. Many of Sheeran’s words recorded by Brandt make it into the screenplay, and De Niro, he says, is “a dead ringer for the Irishman”.

I ask the executive producer, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, whether the film has been compromised by the attacks on the source material – especially given that one of the principal players in the narrative, Chuckie O’Brien, is still alive. “We’re telling one man’s version [of events] and we’re standing behind the decision to make the film 100 per cent,” she says.

Brandt remains unbowed: “There’s nobody who can read that book and come away thinking, ‘that is not true’, unless they have their own axe to grind.” Can he offer an explanation as to why Sheeran would have chosen to confess to him? “Are you kidding me,” he asks. “Read the book again. That’s what the whole movie’s about, what the whole book is about. That’s how his life ended, with a strong desire to confess.”

The Irishman is in cinemas now, and on Netflix from today