Skip to Content
Weekend
Edition

Best of the news
from abroad
Every
Saturday

Arriving at
6:00 AM

December 28 2019
Back to the issue
Hoffa has been missing since 1975. No one really believes he’s on a remote island in the South Pacific.

Truth never shows itself directly. It always hides behind falsehood. Perhaps the only route to truth is by way of falsehood. Take the salmon. Fresh, on ice. Stories can be best defined by the fetish objects that inhabit them. Here, it’s the iced salmon.

July 30, 1975, is an incredibly hot and humid day—90 degrees, the high forecast in the Detroit morning newspapers. Jimmy Hoffa is pacing up and down in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox. In short sleeves—better to display his massive forearms. (Can you be a labor boss without massive forearms?) Back at Hoffa’s home on Square Lake, a note is taped to a lampshade on his desk. It’s an itinerary or, if you like, a to-do list. One item reads, “TG 230 Wed 14 Mile Tel Fox Rest Maple Road.” “TG” are the initials of Tony Giacalone, “Tony Jack,” a captain in the Detroit Mafia. The Machus Red Fox is a restaurant located in a busy shopping plaza at the intersection of Telegraph Road and West Maple, just north of 14 Mile Road.

“MACHUS is a name synonymous with sumptuous foods and pastries in the Birmingham-Bloomfield,” boasts an old menu I found online. In addition to the famed salad offerings, they had a healthy selection of meats, ground and otherwise. They also had a dress code: jacket and tie.

But Hoffa, in his short sleeves, never tried it.

A Frozen Salmon Was Involved

So much has been written, filmed, and speculated about what exactly happened to Hoffa—most recently in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Jack Goldsmith’s In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth—yet the mystery endures. One thing that pretty much everyone agrees on is that a frozen salmon was involved. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to what was apparently Jimmy Hoffa’s last day.

Earlier that afternoon, Hoffa drove his dark-green Pontiac Grand Ville to Airport Limousine Services, a transportation company run by his old Teamster buddy Louis Linteau. At a get-together at Hoffa’s house the previous weekend, Hoffa had told Linteau that he had arranged to meet with Giacalone at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 30, but did not tell him what the meeting was about. Hoffa arrived at Linteau’s place around 1:30 p.m., perhaps thinking that Linteau would join him for the meeting. But when he discovered that Linteau had already left for lunch elsewhere, he grew “very loud and was obviously upset,” Goldsmith reports, and “his eyes were in a rage.”

On July 30, 1975, Hoffa left the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant, in Bloomfield, Michigan, but his car—this 1974 Pontiac—did not.

There is a weird discrepancy about whether the meeting was set for 2:00 or 2:30, but the uncertainty simply contributes to the argument that something strange was going on: Hoffa’s friends and family were incredulous that he would wait any amount of time; he was known to be extremely punctual and intolerant of those who weren’t. What compelled Hoffa to continue to pace around the sweltering asphalt outside the Machus Red Fox? Was he hoping to get high-level Mafia approval of his attempts to regain control of the Teamsters?

What happens next is a matter of conjecture, of inference—a collision between unimpeachable data such as phone calls, the unreliability of witness testimony, and fish-delivery times. We do know several things for certain: there’s a real world out there, a real asphalt parking lot, a real phone booth, and a real Machus Red Fox (now called Andiamo). And Jimmy Hoffa was there, left, and never came back.

What happens next is a matter of conjecture, of inference—a collision between unimpeachable data such as phone calls, the unreliability of witness testimony, and fish-delivery times.

None of the many theories about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa after he got picked up include the possibility that he’s alive and living on some remote island in the South Pacific. In all of them, he’s dead—very dead. Most likely he was killed shortly after leaving the Machus parking lot. Accounts of what happened to the body diverge––cremation at a local funeral parlor, crushing into 50-gallon oil drums at a New Jersey dump, burial under Giants Stadium, road fill for one interstate highway or another, and the like. A cornucopia of horror-movie scenarios.

But here is the central question that should concern us: Did Chuckie O’Brien—Hoffa’s “foster son” and, as it happens, Jack Goldsmith’s stepfather—pick up Hoffa from the Machus Red Fox that afternoon in (Tony’s son) Joey Giacalone’s car, as is portrayed in most accounts? (Or did someone else?) Did Chuckie, wittingly or unwittingly, chauffeur Hoffa to his death?

In almost every version—including the one featured in The Irishman (an adaptation of the book I Heard You Paint Houses)—Chuckie is driving the car that picks Hoffa up for his appointment in Samarra. Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush, says it couldn’t have been Chuckie. With In Hoffa’s Shadow, he attempts to clear his stepfather’s name. (The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.)

Can you be a labor boss without massive forearms? Jimmy Hoffa on ABC News Close Up, 1974.

ERROL MORRIS: Does truth matter here?

JACK GOLDSMITH: I’ve read many reviews that said The Irishman and the underlying book are based on a true account. Scorsese was asked if it matters whether his portrayal of Hoffa’s death is true. “I don’t really care about that,” Scorsese said. But it does matter to my stepfather, obviously.

MORRIS: And it matters to you.

GOLDSMITH: It matters to me. It matters to me primarily for him. I’m fatalistic about these things. Chuckie’s been tagged with this for 44 years. So this is just the latest in a series of humiliations for him.

MORRIS: The book made me cry several times. It was a book about honor, a book about family, a book about guilt. The irony of the connection between the prosecution of Hoffa, by Bobby Kennedy, and Stellarwind—the domestic-surveillance program revealed in detail by Edward Snowden [and described in part by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of articles for The New York Times in December 2005], which came as a complete surprise. Who would have imagined such a connection?

GOLDSMITH: The Hoffa decision was at the foundation of the doctrine that became part of the justification for Stellarwind. Amazing, really. Hoffa was convicted in 1964 of tampering with the jury in an earlier case. The government got him by putting an informant, Edward Partin, into his inner circle. Hoffa appealed. And the Supreme Court ruled over a very persuasive dissent by the chief justice, Earl Warren, that when you voluntarily tell someone information, you’re basically giving up your rights. That is a precedent for the modern doctrine that in giving up our metadata to phone companies and Internet-service providers, we basically forfeit our rights over that information. It was a precedent that I relied on in upholding parts of Stellarwind.

Stellarwind was part of a domestic telephone and e-mail surveillance program authorized by John Ashcroft, George W. Bush’s attorney general, in 2001. My interest in Jack Goldsmith goes back to March 2004 and an intensive-care unit at George Washington University hospital.

The cast of characters is extraordinary. The attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, lying under blankets, in horrible pain, suffering from acute pancreatitis. Also in the room: Mrs. Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales (White House counsel), James Comey (acting attorney general), Jack Goldsmith (head of the O.L.C.), and Andrew Card (White House chief of staff). Card and Gonzales urging Ashcroft to re-authorize the domestic-surveillance program. Ashcroft, Goldsmith, and Comey refusing. Robert Mueller (director of the F.B.I.) arrived slightly later, and Card and Gonzales left in defeat.

I tried to make a movie about this in 2013. Comey couldn’t do it because he had just become head of the F.B.I. I still want to tell this story; Jack Goldsmith and I talked at length about it. I’ll share one detail from our conversation: When Card and Gonzales finally left Ashcroft’s hospital room without the signature they had come for (he refused to re-authorize what he considered an illegal program, deferring the decision to Acting Attorney General Comey), Mrs. Ashcroft stuck out her tongue at them.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy at the Valachi hearings on labor racketeering in 1963.

MORRIS: I don’t even know where to begin. The book is fantastic. All of this labor history, the rise of the Mob and the fall of labor. You’ve got Nixon, you’ve got John Dean … you’ve got everybody in there.

GOLDSMITH: Even Rudy Giuliani has an appearance. Comey, Mueller. It’s a good group. This is not what I set out to do. It turned into something much larger, obviously. I set out to figure out what happened to Hoffa, and it turned into all this other stuff.

MORRIS: The ending of the book is sublime. For someone who loves ambiguity, one could never do better.

GOLDSMITH: Thank you. I have to tell you about that conversation. I didn’t even want to talk to Chuckie about the Hoffa disappearance anymore because it was so clear that it was hurting him. I told myself, I’m not going to push him anymore because it’s not worth it to me. If he tells the truth and destroys himself, it’s not worth it to me. So, my compromise was, I’m going to ask him one more time. If he doesn’t tell me, I’m never going to speak about it again. And I haven’t. It’s been years now. [Yes, Chuckie O’Brien is still alive.]

We were in this restaurant and he says, “Yeah, of course I know more, dumbass. What do you think?” And I said, “I can’t believe you’re not going to tell me about it. I can’t believe you’re taking it to your grave.” And he says, “Believe it.” And at that moment, I was so impressed with him. And I was so happy, believe it or not. He says, “I know you’re mad.” And I wasn’t mad. I was happy for him. Does that make any sense at all? Because even for me and at the end of his life, he wasn’t going to do it. And that was so important to him. And I came to honor that and I came to admire that. But it’s a fucked-up principle, covering up details about the crime of the century.

“He says, ‘Yeah, of course I know more, dumbass. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I can’t believe you’re not going to tell me about it. I can’t believe you’re taking it to your grave.’ And he says, ‘Believe it.’”

MORRIS: There’s this idea—it’s the detective’s dream—if you work long enough and hard enough, you’ll be able to crack a case. And it’s not true. There are millions of reasons why cases can’t be cracked. Crucial evidence can be lost. Documents can be altered.

GOLDSMITH: At the end, I didn’t want him to tell me. I don’t know the truth still, even about Chuckie. I’m 99.9 percent sure. I don’t think that he knew what happened that afternoon. But he might, he might well.

Chuckie O’Brien—Hoffa’s foster son and author Jack Goldsmith’s stepfather—has been implicated in the Teamsters leader’s disappearance. O’Brien wasn’t talking then, and he isn’t talking now.

MORRIS: Do you feel that you know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

GOLDSMITH: There are lots of things about that afternoon that make zero sense. I tend to believe the F.B.I.’s current theory that it was a local job that happened that afternoon. But there are so many bizarre things about it. Why would Hoffa wait an hour and a half in that parking lot? And more importantly, why would the hit men be an hour and a half late? There was some kind of giant screwup. It’s called the most perfect crime. But I’m pretty confident that they got lucky. And I think they got very lucky with Chuckie having to be there, because it’s pretty clear to me that the focus on Chuckie was great for them. It took the heat off some other people that may have been pursued.

MORRIS: Your stepfather’s presence in the parking lot the day of Hoffa’s disappearance?

Crazy Circumstantial Evidence

GOLDSMITH: His presence that morning and the next morning in that very parking lot. That happened to be the place where Chuckie was catching a ride. He was literally a couple of hundred yards away from where the disappearance happened on the day of the disappearance and on the day after the disappearance. All that crazy circumstantial evidence that pointed to him is insanely unlucky if he wasn’t involved. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever, ever, ever know what happened. There’s not a single bit of evidence about what happened to him. Nothing. Not a single thing. It’s complete darkness.

MORRIS: I carefully read the appendix. I’m endlessly fascinated by the salmon. I’m a filmmaker, and I imagine a close-up on the dead, nacreous eye of the salmon. It’s staring fixedly at nothing.

GOLDSMITH: Yes, the salmon. The headline in the Detroit Free Press on August 10 was “FBI Seizes Hoffa Case Car; Bloodstains Found on Seat.” Next day, the paper tells us the blood is fish blood.

MORRIS: And the car?

GOLDSMITH: A 1975 Mercury Marquis with a maroon exterior and a dark, Christmas-green interior. Chuckie told the investigators that—and there’s a lot of confirmation for this—the reason he was out by the Machus Red Fox on the afternoon of Hoffa’s disappearance, at least ostensibly, was to deliver this fish. It turns out the F.B.I. never found fish blood in the car, despite the reporting. Everyone to this day says there was fish blood in the car. Chuckie said he put a salmon in the car. They found no traces of fish blood, any blood. But there was a salmon in the car.

MORRIS: This you know?

GOLDSMITH: This I’m sure of, 100 percent.

There’s a Receipt for the Salmon

MORRIS: Why are you so sure?

GOLDSMITH: There are enough people who saw it who have no reason to lie. And it went before the grand jury and they saw it from different contexts. They saw him taking the fish and putting it in the car. They saw him taking the salmon out of the car and dripping blood on the floor as he carries it into Violet Holmes’s house. [The salmon—apparently just a gift—was addressed to Violet’s husband, Bobby, at his Teamsters office; Chuckie was delivering the fish because Bobby was out of town.] Violet Holmes, this very credible person, testified and told the F.B.I. that she sliced up the fish while Chuckie chitchatted when he was supposed to be picking up Hoffa, supposedly. So I believe that there was a salmon in the car. And I’ve got the receipt of the salmon being delivered. There was a salmon delivered that day to the Teamsters Union that Chuckie took to the suburbs.

MORRIS: And why does the salmon become important? Is the salmon an alibi?

GOLDSMITH: The salmon wasn’t important to the story as a piece of evidence, because the F.B.I. didn’t actually find any blood in the car. But it is important to Chuckie’s story, because Chuckie claims that he went to the Jax Kar Wash to clean the floor and clean the car.

Chuckie was a well-known clean-car nut––when he had a car. He didn’t actually own a car at this time. He had a membership at Jax Kar Wash. He would go there all the time. Joey Giacalone was his friend. It was a relatively new car and it was absolutely a mess. And he had made the mess worse. So he claims that after he left Violet Holmes he went to the Jax Kar Wash where no one, no witness claimed to have seen him.

That’s why this thing is relevant. Also, it’s just too good. It’s just too perfect. He was out in the suburbs delivering a salmon in the car of the son of the lead Mob guy in Detroit, who organized the crime. Pretty good story.

MORRIS: And why is there no record of him going to Jax Kar Wash?

GOLDSMITH: There is a record of him going to Jax Kar Wash. He has a gas receipt dated that day. I didn’t put this into the time line and the appendix, but it’s unlikely that he would have been able to go there any other time in the day. But the receipt doesn’t specify a time.

“Everybody Loves the Damn Appendix”

MORRIS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, how come it’s not in the time line?

GOLDSMITH: The appendix at the end is designed to show that it’s not about what Chuckie said, it’s about what others said Chuckie was doing. Based on what others said before the grand jury about where Chuckie was seen, he wouldn’t have had time to do what he did. That was the purpose of that time line. That time line was based on grand-jury information that’s never been talked about in public. I have reason to think that information is one of the reasons the F.B.I. no longer suspects Chuckie. And it’s one of the reasons why they told me it was impossible that Chuckie O’Brien was at the Machus Red Fox that afternoon.

MORRIS: I love the appendix.

GOLDSMITH: Everybody loves the damn appendix. But I was surprised that people thought this appendix was important. I thought the other evidence was so conclusive. When I showed the appendix to a very important F.B.I. official who worked on the case, he was extremely excited. I was very careful not to overstate the evidence; I was super-careful to understate it. He thought I understated it, but he said to me point-blank, “This is more important than anything you’ve written in the book, in terms of exonerating Chuckie.”

The northwest-Detroit home where Hoffa might—or might not—have met his end.

If the frozen salmon is at the heart of this story, many questions remain. No one, not even the F.B.I., has found evidence of fish blood in the Mercury Marquis. And yet we know that Chuckie did pick it up and deliver it in Joey Giacalone’s Mercury Marquis. There is a receipt from the Airborne Freight Corp., which handled the shipment of the salmon from Seattle to Detroit. Seattle fish dealer Al Halela said he shipped a 40-pound frozen salmon that arrived in Detroit on the day Hoffa was last seen. It was delivered to the Teamsters Local 299 around 11:00 that morning, hours before Jimmy Hoffa began pacing up and down in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox.

But why did Chuckie pick up the salmon? Some people found it odd he’d have the time: he was cleaning out his desk at Local 299 in preparation for his move to Arkansas to rejoin his family. (And why did the Detroit Free Press report on blood, if there was no blood to be found in the car?)

The Irishman joins in the controversy. In the movie, after dropping off a fish for a Teamster co-worker, Chuckie picks up two mobsters and takes them to the Machus Red Fox to meet Hoffa. And the back seat is wet. The Chuckie character (Jesse Plemons) explains first to his mobster friends, then to Hoffa himself, that he picked up a fish, although he is at a loss to explain what kind of fish. This detail seemingly provides proof that Chuckie is an idiot: “What kind of fish? I don’t know. The kind you eat.” It is a storytelling oddity—call it a “spandrel”—left over from reconciling a fictional narrative with Chuckie’s account of what happened. But in the real world, it is an exculpatory detail. It explains where Chuckie was and what he was doing that day. Who delivers a frozen salmon when he is scheduled, wittingly or unwittingly, to drive a getaway car?

My Favorite Theory

But all of you are still wondering what really did happen to James R. Hoffa. Here’s my favorite theory, based on—I hesitate to say considerable research, so let’s say some research and some hints in Jack Goldsmith’s book. It involves a Detroit mafioso, Anthony Palazzolo (Tony Pal). The Web site aboutthemafia.com reported after his death in January 2019:

Former Detroit mob underboss turned informant Tony Zerilli fingered Palazzolo as a member of the hit team that took out Hoffa. According to Zerilli, he was driving the car that picked up Hoffa from the Bloomfield Township, Michigan restaurant parking lot and was one of the men who killed him. Then in the 1990’s while in control of Detroit’s Canadian rackets Tony Pal was caught talking about the Hoffa hit on a wiretap. According to court records during the investigation a Canadian undercover cop working with the feds got him to admit his role in the Hoffa murder saying that he disposed of the body by running it through a sausage auger at the Eastern Market headquarters of the Detroit Sausage Company.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman explores the Hoffa mystery. From left: Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O’Brien, Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa.

And here’s what the Eastern Market Web site says about the Detroit Sausage Company, Inc.:

Since 1928, we have been providing the Midwest with the very best in quality sausage. We carry an array of gourmet and specialty sausages as well as the exceptional classics. We are best known for our outstanding fresh Original Detroit Sausage Brand Breakfast Sausage and our delicious Nino’s Brand Italian Sausage.

There is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents––his famous adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”—in which Barbara Bel Geddes clubs her cheating husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, roasts it, and then feeds it to police investigators, handily disposing of the murder weapon before it can be identified as such. Imagine a happy Detroit family. Everyone smiling. Mommy says, “I have an extra surprise for all of you … Original Detroit Sausage Brand Breakfast Sausage.” “Oh, Mommy, you know how much I love that!”

Errol Morris, a filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL

Back to the issue