Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa

Hoffa in Prison

On Valentine's Day 1970, a small airplane towing a long banner flew low over Lewisburg Federal Prison in central Pennsylvania.  The banner proclaimed, "Happy Birthday, Jimmy!"  It was Jimmy Hoffa's fifty-seventh birthday.  He had been incarcerated almost five years.

President Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon
(Library of Congress)

Hoffa received lots of birthday cards from loyal rank and file members and Teamster officials in addition to the usual stream of encouraging letters.  But the support that Hoffa was getting through the mail was deceptive.  Though he was still a hero to the workers he had represented, the corrupt Teamster leadership was just as happy to have him on ice.  Hoffa's handpicked successor for the presidency of the union, Frank Fitzsimmons, was much more to their liking.  Fitzsimmons didn't merely take cues from the gangsters; he practically gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with their union positions.  The even-tempered Fitzsimmons was also much easier to get along with than the pugnacious Hoffa.  In addition he was a friend of President Nixon and a frequent guest at the White House.  Fitzsimmons's air of respectability was the perfect cover for the corruption lurking beneath the Teamsters.  Hoffa, on the other hand, was now a con, not the most desirable image for a front man.

But Hoffa was undaunted.  He was determined to regain his seat of power even though the Landrum-Griffin Act stipulated that a convicted felon could not hold office in a union until five years after his release.   Hoffa knew he would have to bide his time.  His plan was to finish his sentence and wait out the mandatory exclusionary period, then mount his campaign against the lackluster Fitzsimmons who consistently disregarded Hoffa's suggestions for the Teamsters in favor of the mob's wishes. 

Anthony
Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano

Hoffa was confident that he had the support of the rank and file, and he believed they would sweep him back into office, but while in prison he also tried to shore up his mob alliances.  A high-ranking mobster with close ties to the Teamsters happened to be serving time at Lewisburg on an extortion conviction, Hoffa's old friend Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano.

 Provenzano was a capo in the Genovese crime family as well as an International Brotherhood of Teamsters vice president, controlling the most corrupt local in the country, Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey.  Provenzano's position with the union was a longstanding quid pro quo devised by Hoffa himself who had been seeking to solidify his mob support.  Local 560 eventually became Tony Pro's personal piggy bank, allowing him easy access to union funds for his own illegitimate purposes. 

In prison Hoffa and Provenzano were initially close allies.  Provenzano was a de facto power within Lewisburg, carrying his mob rank with him, and he provided Hoffa with protection.  At one point, Provenzano was paralyzed with a painful stomach ailment, and it was Hoffa who raised hell on his behalf, convincing prison officials to get Provenzano the medical attention he required.  But over time their relationship deteriorated.  Provenzano wanted Hoffa's help in securing a loan from the Teamsters for a restaurant he wanted to open, but Hoffa couldn't deliver for him.  Provenzano was upset over this, and later Hoffa was overheard telling Provenzano, "It's because of people like you that I got into trouble in the first place." 

(After they were both released from Lewisburg, a federal informant claimed to have witnessed a violent confrontation between Provenzano and Hoffa at a chance meeting at an airport.  According to Lester Velie in Desperate Bargain: Why Jimmy Hoffa Had to Die, "Hoffa and Provenzano went at it with their fists, and Hoffa broke a bottle over Provenzano's head."  Provenzano angrily threatened Hoffa's grandchildren, swearing "I'll tear your heart out!")

Hoffa opposed Provenzano's intention to return to his old position with Local 560 after his five-year exclusionary period, and likewise Provenzano opposed Hoffa's desire to recapture the presidency of the Teamsters.  They became each other's problem, but Provenzano had a reputation for making his problems disappear.

Salvatore
Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Briguglio
(courtesy of The Detroit News)

In 1963 a prosecution witness in Provenzano's extortion trial was gunned down shortly before he was scheduled to give testimony.  In 1972 a man involved in a counterfeiting operation with Provenzano simply disappeared.    In a case uncannily similar to the Hoffa disappearance, Anthony Castellito, the secretary-treasurer of Provenzano's Local 560, was lured to a location in upstate New York where he was met by a short, slight, and bespectacled loanshark named Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Briguglio who allegedly murdered Castellito and transported the body back to New Jersey.  Castellito's remains were never found.  Conveniently Provenzano was in Florida at the time of Castellito's disappearance.  The setup was nearly identical to Hoffa's disappearance.  When Provenzano returned to the Garden State, he appointed Briguglio, who previously had no official connection to the Teamsters, to the victim's former position as secretary-treasurer of Local 560. 

In 1985 the FBI released a memo summarizing the Hoffa case and cited Salvatore Briguglio as a prime suspect along with Briguglio's brother Gabriel, the brothers Stephen and Thomas Andretta, Chuckie O'Brien, "Tony Pro" Provenzano, "Tony Jack" Giacalone, and the mob boss of western Pennsylvania, Russell Bufalino.

 

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