Once again, no answers were found. On Wednesday, June 19, 2013, the FBI announced a search for Jimmy Hoffa had ended without finding the labor leader who had disappeared nearly four decades earlier.
The second of four children, James Riddle Hoffa was born on Feb. 14, 1913, in Brazil, Ind. His father died of a respiratory disease acquired while working as a coal driller when Hoffa was 7. Despite having a B average, Hoffa left school after ninth grade and took a full-time job as a department store stock boy. His first labor organizing experience came while working as a freight handler in a Kroger Grocery and Baking Company warehouse in Chilton, Ind. Frustrated with the low pay and poor working conditions, Hoffa led the other workers in a strike. The company was forced to agree to the workers’ demands after they refused to unload a shipment of perishable strawberries. In 1932, Hoffa left the warehouse to become a full-time organizer in Detroit for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, taking with him the four coworkers who had helped him organize the warehouse strike. The four would remain on Hoffa’s staff for the rest of his career.
Labor organizers in the 1930s often faced violent opposition. Hoffa claimed to have been beaten up 24 times during his first year. The Teamsters were loosely organized during the Great Depression, but that began to change in 1937 when Hoffa joined forces with Farrel Dobbs, the Trotskyite leader of the Minneapolis local Teamsters. A socialist, Dobbs was successfully unionizing drivers in the Midwest, and Hoffa helped him organize long-haul highway truck drivers under the Central State Drivers Council. This didn’t prevent Hoffa from later helping the federal government suppress the Trotskyites.
Hoffa was also making other business contacts: organized crime figures. After using Detroit mobsters known as the East Side Council to help run a rival union out of town in 1941, Hoffa began regularly dealing with professional criminals. He didn’t hide these dealings but never admitting doing anything illegal and would later say that he was no different from banks, insurance companies and politicians.
Rising through the Teamsters ranks in the 1940s, Hoffa was eventually named president of the Teamsters Joint Council 43 in Detroit. He was elected an International Teamsters vice president in 1952, and by the next year he was president of the Central Conference of Teamsters. In that position, he was the chief negotiator for truck drivers in 20 states. He spent the next decade working to centralize the Teamsters and created a national bargaining unit that grew powerful enough to produce the trucking industry’s first national contract in January 1964.
By the time of that contract, however, Hoffa had endured several years of legal difficulties. Allegations of labor racketeering had led the U.S. Senate to begin investigating several labor unions in January 1957. The Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field – also known as the McClellan Committee – conducted nationally televised hearings and over two years found pervasive corruption in the Teamsters. President Dave Beck resigned and was later convicted of larceny, embezzlement and income tax evasion. Hoffa replaced Beck as president in 1957 and held the position until 1971. Under Hoffa’s leadership Teamsters members won higher wages and enormous bargaining power.
As Teamsters president Hoffa was questioned for months by Senator John F. Kennedy and the McClellan Committee’s chief counsel, Robert Kennedy. During the obviously hostile hearings, the committee claimed Hoffa had used union funds for his personal profit, taken payoffs from trucking companies and associated with John Dioguardi, a convicted labor racketeer. Hoffa admitted to none of the charges. FBI agents arrested Hoffa shortly before one of his scheduled appearances and charged him with attempting to bribe a lawyer to leak him confidential memos. Robert Kennedy was so skeptical about Hoffa’s chances in court that he announced intentions to jump off the dome of the Capitol if Hoffa was acquitted. Although Hoffa was acquitted after a four-month trial, the McClellan Committee’s scathing report resulted in the Teamsters being expelled from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The report also led to stricter legislation regarding unions being passed.
The bitter feud between Hoffa and Robert Kennedy didn’t end with the hearings. After being appointed attorney general in 1960, Kennedy spent significant Justice Department resources on prosecuting Hoffa. Hoffa was indicted several times but not convicted until 1964. He was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of jury tampering, and at a second trial that year received an additional five-year sentence for fraud and conspiracy in the handling of a Teamsters benefit fund. Appeals kept him from beginning his sentence until March 1967. While incarcerated in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, Hoffa continued running the Teamsters.
Three attempts for parole failed, but President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence in December 1971. There was a catch, however: Hoffa had to abstain from union activities until 1980. Despite his attorneys’ efforts, Hoffa still hadn’t regained power when he drove to a suburban Detroit restaurant to meet crime boss Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano on July 30, 1975. It was the last time Hoffa was seen alive.
Many theories about Hoffa’s fate have surfaced over the years, including one that he was buried underneath the goalposts at the Meadowlands football stadium in New Jersey. Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, by then an associate circuit court judge in Missouri, filed a lawsuit during the 1980s in an unsuccessful effort to force the FBI to release the records of its investigation into her father’s disappearance. Retiring as FBI sheriff in Detroit in 1989, Kenneth P. Walton told reporters that he knew who Hoffa’s killer was but to protect the security of FBI sources and informants the case would never be prosecuted. The investigation was reopened after the Detroit News reported in September 2001 that DNA evidence placed Hoffa in a car a longtime friend had driven on the day he disappeared, but it went nowhere. The FBI announced in March 2002 that it was ending its efforts to find and prosecute those responsible for Hoffa’s disappearance. Instead, the case would be referred to state officials for potential charges.
In early 2013, Tony Zerilli, who led a Detroit organized crime family from 1970-75 but was in prison when Hoffa disappeared, told New York’s NBC 4 that Hoffa was buried in a field about 20 miles north of where he had been last seen. Zerilli claimed that Hoffa had been hit with a shovel and buried alive. After months of investigating Zerilli’s claims, FBI agents began digging in the field in Oakland Township, Mich., on Monday, June 17. Two days later, with nothing found, the search ended.