Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? It’s one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries in American history. The Irishman, the new Martin Scorsese Netflix movie, will have many streamers wondering, Did Frank Sheeran kill Jimmy Hoffa? (Be forewarned that there are spoilers in this article for The Irishman because of the manner in which it draws from real life.)
The answer is clear: Although it’s true that Sheeran (a real-life person) confessed to killing the fabled Teamster boss, he was never accused of doing so by authorities, and the theory has its critics. Although not expressly proven false, it also has never been proven true. Some experts believe that Hoffa was killed instead by “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, a mobster affiliated with Tony Provenzano who is shown in The Irishman preparing the death house for the Hoffa hit.
The bottom line is that no one knows for sure who killed Jimmy Hoffa. In fact, his body has never been found. Jimmy Hoffa simply vanished in Detroit one day in 1975. However, the most widely accepted theories center around a small band of mobsters with whom Sheeran was clearly associated in real life. At the top of that chain: A Pennsylvania mob boss named Russell Bufalino. A list of a dozen possible suspects emerged in a memo authored by the FBI case agent investigating Hoffa’s disappearance in 1976. You can read that list later in this article. It’s known as the “Hoffex memo.” Sheeran is on it. People deviate on whether the Pennsylvania mob banded together with the Detroit mob on the hit, and on which mobster pulled the actual trigger, but it’s generally accepted that the Mafia took out Hoffa and that a small circle of mobsters was probably involved.
In the Netflix movie, Robert De Niro plays the labor union “goon,” Sheeran. The Irishman is based on the 2004 biography of Sheeran’s life called I Heard You Paint Houses by writer Charles Brandt. According to The Smithsonian, many historians have debunked Sheeran’s claims that he killed Hoffa, which were detailed in that book. Others believe the story. It’s clear that Sheeran knew the characters involved, including Hoffa. It’s also clear that many experts consider Sheeran’s story to be a tall tale.
The Charles Brandt book in which Sheeran confesses quotes Sheeran as calling Russell Bufalino “the other one of the two greatest men I ever met.” The famous Five Families of New York sought his counsel. The book says Bufalino didn’t want Jimmy Hoffa to run for union president again. Both were short men who were “solid muscle from head to toe.” They had an alliance and mutual respect that crumbled after Bobby Kennedy’s war against the mob and Hoffa’s subsequent attempt to regain control of the Teamsters. The mob thought Hoffa was a rat and their share of the pension system was in peril. Bufalino, Sheeran says, decided that Jimmy Hoffa had to go and asked him, a friend, to carry out the hit because Hoffa would be unsuspecting. He says this did happen; Jimmy Hoffa was lured to a Detroit home, erroneously thinking Sheeran was there as his protection, not his hitman.
In the book, Sheeran says bosses and captains “sent a guy to whack you who was your friend” because they could get “close to you in a lonely spot.” Also any evidence left could be more easily explained.
Russell Bufalino said of Jimmy, according to Sheeran in the book: “Your friend made one threat too many in his life… there won’t be a body. My Irishman, we did all we could for the man. Nobody could tell that man what it is. We get into Detroit together Wednesday night.” At the time, Hoffa was “as famous as Elvis.”
Sheeran said that, of all of the crime bosses he met, Russell’s “mannerisms and style” most fit those depicted by Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Yet his name was not widely known to the public, and he liked it that way.
A Slate article that attempts to debunk Sheeran’s confessions points out that, although he also confessed in the book to murdering Crazy Joe Gallo at a Little Italy Clam House, eyewitnesses described an Italian hitman who looked nothing like Sheeran. That article also questions whether Sheeran killed Hoffa.
“Not a single person I spoke with who knew Sheeran from Philly—and I interviewed cops and criminals and prosecutors and reporters—could remember even a suspicion that he had ever killed anyone,” the Slate author, Bill Tonelli, wrote, quoting people from Sheeran’s era as calling the claims “baloney.” That article says the Hoffa killer was likely Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, working at the direction of Tony Pro Provenzano, whose feud with Sheeran is shown in the Netflix movie.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Hoffex Memo Listed 12 Possible Suspects in Hoffa’s Disappearance
Here are the 12 suspects listed in the Hoffex memo. It was written by the lead FBI agent on the case, Robert Garrity, and gave Garrity’s preliminary conclusions, including possible suspects, in the Hoffa disappearance. Sheeran is on that list.
It starts: “James R. Hoffa, age 62, former president International Brotherhood of Teamsters, missing from Bloomfield Township, since July 30, 1975. Last seen at approximately 2:45 p.m. that date.”
The memo lists 6 local suspects and 6 suspects outside Michigan. Sheeran makes the second list.
Of him, the memo says: “Francis Joseph ‘Frank’ Sheeran, age 43, president Local 326, Wilmington, Delaware. Resides in Philadelphia and is known associate of Russel (sic) Bufalino, La Cosa Nostra chief, Eastern Pennsylvania. His vehicle seen at meeting of La Cosa Nostra figures in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, August 29, 1975, and also in Detroit December 4, 1975, during FGJ appearance of New Jersey teamsters. Known to be in Detroit area at the time time of JRH disappearance and considered to be close friend of JRH.”
Read the memo in full here.
Here are the others named in it:
Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, then age 58, “known New Jersey La Cosa Nostra member and Teamster Local 560 Officer. Served time in Lewisburg Penitentiary with JRH and reportedly had a ‘falling out’ with him while there.”
Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, described as age 57, Detroit La Cosa Nostra lieutenant and street boss “who was reported to have set up meeting with JRH, July 30, 1975, and never showed. Has alibi being at Southfield Athletic Club, July 30, 1975. Married to a Provenzano, who may be a relative of Anthony Provenzano.”
Salvatore “Sal” Briguglio, age 45, “trusted associate of ‘Tony Pro,’ reported by Newark source to be involved in actual disappearance of JRH.”
Charles L. “Chuckie” O’Brien, age 41, was raised by the Hoffa family and brought into the Teamsters by JRH and supported by him. Called Tony Giacalone “Uncle Tony” but was a known liar.
Vito “Billy Jack” Giacalone, age 53, brother of Tony, also Detroit La Cosa Nosa lieutenant, whereabouts unknown July 30, 1975. Believed to be with Tony, July 26, 1975 when meeting set with JRH for July 30, 1975.
Raffael “Jimmy Q” Quasarano, age 66, known Detroit La Cosa Nostra member considered by sources as likely to be involved in actual murder of JRH, because of violent activities in the past.
Paul Vitale, age 68, known Detroit La Cosa Nostra member and associate of Quasarano who sources believe is likely to be involved in JRH disappearance if Quasarano was.
Rolland Mc Master, age 61, former Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 299 under both JRH and Frank E. Fitzsimmons. After being released from prison, he was appointed administrative assistant to the president of Local 299 by Frank E. Fitzsimmons. He is suspect in numerous acts of violence within the Teamsters Union and in organization drives.
Stephen Andretta, age 42, trusted associate of “Tony Pro,” told Newark source Ralph Picardo that he did not participate in Hoffa hit, but was left in Newark to provide alibi for “Tony Pro.”
Thomas Andretta, age 38, brother of Stephen, trusted associate of Tony Pro, reported by Newark source to be involved in actual disappearance of JRH.
Gabriel “Gabe” Briguglio, age 36, brother of “Sal,” trusted associate of Tony Pro, reported by Newark source to be involved in actual disappearance of JRH.”
In 2004, an article in the Detroit Free Press discussed Sheeran’s confession. It stated that the FBI has “long suspected that Provenzano henchmen – brothers Thomas and Stephen Andretta and brothers Gabriel and Salvatore Briguglio – killed Hoffa to prevent him from regaining the Teamster presidency.” They were worried he would cut off “mob access to union pension funds,” according to the Free Press. Many experts believe the man calling the shots was Russell Bufalino, the Pennsylvania crime boss.
Sheeran claimed that Bufalino ordered him to kill Hoffa because national Mafia figures were sick of Hoffa threatening to cut the mob off from the union and thought he might be an FBI snitch. Sheeran claimed that Hoffa thought he would protect him and was driven by O’Brien. He implied the Andretta brothers and Sal Briguglio were at the death house, the Free Press reported.
He claimed that, brought to a house in Detroit, Hoffa realized it was a hit but it was too late. He said he shot him “in the back of the head behind his right ear. My friend didn’t suffer,” according to the Detroit newspaper. Sheeran said that Bufalino claimed Hoffa’s body was burned in either a trash incinerator or funeral home, according to The Detroit Free Press article. O’Brien wasn’t involved in the murder, he said. The newspaper said O’Brien denied Sheeran’s account and that those named had alibis.
Sheeran Was Definitely Linked to Bufalino & He Was Close to Jimmy Hoffa
News articles from the 1970s and 1980s make it clear that Sheeran was definitely tied to the mob (and especially Bufalino’s crew), and he was a Teamster official himself in Wilmington, Delaware. He was also close friends with Jimmy Hoffa and the feds thought he might be able to help them solve that case over the years. Sheeran was, indeed, known as “The Irishman” or “Big Irish Frank Sheeran.” A November 5, 1970 article in the Philadelphia Daily News reported that “the labor people of this town” were preparing to honor Frank Sheeran, described as “The Teamster.”
Sheeran testified that he knew Bufalino, described by authorities in an Associated Press story from February 22, 1980 as “an organized crime chieftain in northeastern Pennsylvania, for over 25 years.” A 1981 article in the News Journal said that Sheeran’s biggest worry was that the government thought he might know who killed Hoffa. It says that “Sheeran was in Detroit the same weekend Hoffa took a final trip.”
Three years before, he was “very big in the Teamsters.” He was running for the presidency of Teamsters Local 326 in Wilmington. Twice, the government brought him up on racketeering charges (convicting him in the second case.) The government alleged that Sheeran was responsible for murders.
Whether Sheeran murdered Hoffa is a theory that emerged in the Brandt book in 2004, although it’s not the first time that Sheeran’s name came up in connection with the disappearance.
The book jacket explains that “I heard you paint houses” were “the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Frank ‘the Irishman’ Sheeran. To paint a house is to kill a man. The paint is the blood that splatters on the walls and floors.”
The book continues: “In the course of nearly five years of recorded interviews Frank Sheeran confessed to Charles Brandt that he handled more than twenty-five hits for the mob, and for his friend Hoffa. Sheeran learned to kill in the U.S. Army, where he saw an astonishing 411 days of active combat duty in Italy during World War II. After returning home he became a hustler and hit man, working for legendary crime boss Russell Bufalino.”
The book claims that the real-life Sheeran killed Hoffa: “Eventually he would rise to a position of such prominence that in a RICO suit then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani would name him as one of only two non-Italians on a list of 26 top mob figures. When Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci on Netflix) ordered Sheeran to kill Hoffa, he did the deed, knowing that if he had refused he would have been killed himself.”
According to The Smithsonian, the real Sheeran was an Irish-Catholic WWII veteran and truck driver. He did “small jobs” for Bufalino. He claimed in the book that he was the “right-hand” man of Jimmy Hoffa (played on Netflix by Al Pacino).
Some Experts Don’t Believe Sheeran Killed Hoffa; Provenzano & Tony Giacalone Feature in Many Theories & Briguglio Was Named as a Suspect Within Months of the Murder
Hoffa vanished after “meeting two reputed mob figures” at a Detroit-area restaurant. A 2004 Associated Press article reported that Hoffa disappeared “from the parking lot of a Detroit restaurant while on his way to a meeting with Anthony Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamsters boss, and Anthony Giacalone, a Detroit mobster.”
In 2004, the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania reported that investigators looking into Hoffa’s disappearance had discovered traces of blood inside a home where Sheeran claimed he shot Hoffa. A prosecutor said the chemical tests were inconclusive, and the FBI was looking for Hoffa DNA.
The article reported that there were two confessions, including a purported deathbed confession in which Sheeran “said he flew to Pontiac on a small plane,” picked up Hoffa’s body from the actual killers and “drove it to a Hamtramck trash incinerator, where it was burned.”
Sheeran’s daughter claimed that confession was a forgery due to warring biographers, the article reported.
The article reported that “investigators believe Provenzano and Giacalone had Hoffa killed to prevent him from regaining the union presidency” and says he was declared dead in 1982. Some theories even have Hoffa entombed under Giants stadium.
A 2005 article by the Associated Press reported that blood on the floor of the home ended up not being from Hoffa.
Sheeran’s daughter Dolores Miller, told Cosa Nostra News: “I suspected my father was behind Jimmy’s death but I never asked him directly. My mother disagreed. She said he and Jimmy were as thick as thieves but my gut instinct told me otherwise.”
The site reported that Sheeran’s parents “were devoutly religious Irish-Americans” and that he lied about his age to go to war at 17, fighting under Patton. His wife was named Mary and she was an Irish immigrant. He had daughters Mary Anne, Peggy and Dolores with her and another daughter with his second wife, Irene.
Another person who claimed to know who killed Jimmy Hoffa was an FBI informant named Ralph Picardo, a convicted murderer who was a driver for Tony Pro Provenzano, according to Crime and Investigations. In the 1970s, he revealed that Anthony Giacalone, a Detroit gangster, had invited Hoffa to the restaurant meeting.
He claimed that Hoffa was then driven to the death house by Thomas Andretta, Salvatore Briguglio and his brother Gabriel, and he said that Sheeran was there. He claimed that Russell Bufalino ordered the hit and had told Provenzano to carry it out, although Provenzano was not the triggerman. He too farmed it out.
According to Fox News, Picardo told the FBI that Stephen Andretta had given him details of the murder, saying that Hoffa was placed in a 55-gallon drum that was loaded onto a Gateway Transportation Truck and then buried, although where was not stated.
Picardo believed that Salvatore Briguglio was the triggerman, but he was an associate of Provenzano, according to Fox News. Briguglio would later meet a bloody end of his own in a gangland ambush outside a Little Italy restaurant.
Many searches to find Hoffa’s body over the years have failed, including at a landfill in Jersey City.
A 1989 article in the Kenosha News alleged that a magazine article’s authors claimed Fat Tony Salerno, the powerful Genovese boss, gave permission to Tony Provenzano for the Hoffa killing. A 1994 article in the Sydney Morning Herald explained how a new book had alleged that Salerno ordered the execution after Hoffa punched Provenzano over an argument about whether Hoffa would again control the union after getting out of jail. Hoffa “threatened to exposure the Genovese family’s extortions from the union,” the article said, so Salerno decided he had to go. Other articles claim that it was Russell Bufalino who ordered the hit or that, as Netflix shows, it was Salerno and Russell Bufalino together.
All of the theories have their doubters. Mob historian Andy Petepiece wrote on Gang Land News in 2016 that he doesn’t believe Picardo was telling the truth.
He believes the Detroit mob took out Hoffa, with Tony Giacalone and his brother Vito leading the way. According to the author Dan Moldea, also writing for Gang Land, Salvatore and Gabriel Briguglio and Stephen and Thomas Andretta – all Provenzano associates – invoked the 5th Amendment when asked about Hoffa before a Detroit grand jury.
Vince Wade, the reporter who broke the story of Hoffa’s disappearance, wrote in a 2019 article in the Daily Beast that he doesn’t believe the Sheeran story about killing Hoffa is true.
According to Wade, Hoffa was urged by mob figures to “attend a peace meeting with Provenzano to clear the air” and told his wife that’s who he was meeting the afternoon he vanished. The “broker” of that meeting, according to Wade, was Giacalone, a mob enforcer from Detroit. Both men had alibis. It was documented that Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien was driving his car.
Wade reported that police think Hoffa was driven by O’Brien to the murder site but didn’t kill him. Hoffa’s hair and scent were found in the car.
In 1975, mob informant Picardo said that “trusted associates of Provenzano” killed Hoffa. According to Wade, Bufalino was the most likely high-level mobster to have ordered the hit. He reports that Salvatore Briguglio, a trusted Provenzano man, was believed to be the Hoffa killer. Garrity, the Hoffa case agent for the FBI, told Wade that Sheeran was interviewed, and Hoffa had called him the day before he disappeared, but that Garrity has “no indication he (Sheeran) was there.”
In August 2019, Bill Tonelli wrote an article in Slate Magazine called “The Lies of the Irishman.” The article calls the real Sheeran “a second-stringer—a local Teamsters union official.”
He “hung around with mobsters,” stood 6 foot 4 inches tall, and “died in obscurity, in a nursing home, in 2003,” Tonelli wrote. Sheeran told Brandt that he killed both Hoffa and mobster and Colombo family member Joe Gallo. Tonelli doesn’t buy it in either case. He’s not alone.
In 1996, The Daily Item newspaper in Pennsylvania ran an Associated Press article that described Sheeran as “Big Irish Sheeran, a former Teamster boss and Hoffa bagman.”
It said that Sheeran was planning to break his silence and solve the Hoffa case.
In that story, Sheeran claimed President Richard Nixon and Former Attorney General John Mitchell ordered Hoffa’s “assassination,” telling reporters, “This was purely a Republican, Old-Guard Nixon-Mitchell conspiracy to kill Jimmy Hoffa.”
He was described as a “dear personal friend” of Hoffa but also “for years a prime suspect in his boss’ disappearance.”
In 2005, the Detroit Free Press ran a column by Brandt who indicated that the “truth is that the Jimmy Hoffa mystery is solved by the confession of Frank (The Irishman) Sheeran as detailed in my book.”
He wrote: “Sheeran was a close confidant of Hoffa and was forced to kill his friend and mentor by his godfather, Russell Bufalino.”
Sheeran told Brandt, “If I had said no to Russell, Jimmy would have been just as dead and I’d have gone to Australia with him.”
The article said that Sheeran was “raised a devout Catholic” and suffered from guilt. Brandt wrote that, after their “last taping session,” Sheeran stopped eating “and was dead in six weeks at 83.”
Way back in December 1975, an article in the Orlando Sentinel reported that a then-mysterious informant had named three New Jersey teamsters with alleged Mafia ties in Hoffa’s disappearance. Salvatore Briguglio, 47, then of Paramus, New Jersey, and his brother, Gabriel, of East Rutherford, and Thomas Andretta, 38, of Hasbrouck Heights, were ordered to appear before a police lineup after being named by the informant.
Police and federal sources said that Hoffa’s disappearance was “approved by the highest echelons of organized crime.” Both Sally Bugs and Andretta had ties to the Genovese crime family in New York, according to the article. William Bufalino, the lawyer tied to Russell Bufalino, claimed in the story that none of the brothers had been in Detroit before the appearance.
It described Briguglio as “business agent of Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey,” once headed by Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano.
In 1978, the Associated Press quoted unnamed law enforcement officials as saying that Briguglio personally arranged the “contract murder,” of Hoffa and they hoped that his murder would result in a break in the case. That article, though, claimed the killers were a relative and close friend of Briguglio.
Sally Bugs was later gunned down by two men, the article states.
Two eyewitnesses said they saw O’Brien and Briguglio in the car with Hoffa, that article states.
A 1987 article in the Lansing State Journal reported that authorities still were “no closer to indicting those responsible” than they were when the abduction first occurred. A federal grand jury reviewed evidence without issuing an indictment.
Witnesses did put Hoffa at the restaurant in Detroit that day and his car was later found in the parking lot of the restaurant.
A special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office indicated to the Associated Press in 1977 that there were five primary suspects.
The Lansing State Journal article named the suspects as Provenzano, Salvatore Briguglio (by then dead), his brother Gabriel, Thomas Andretta, and Anthony Giacalone. Sheeran is not mentioned.
In his book on the Teamsters, journalist Steven Brill said that the two Briguglio brothers and Andretta carried out the murder at the order of Provenzano. Hoffa was then put into a “giant shredder-compacter- incinerator,” claimed Brill. But the FBI said they discounted the theory of what was done with the body but not the theory of who did it, according to Lansing State Journal.
The car of Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s foster son, was tested and the FBI found that a blood stain on its front seat was fish blood but they couldn’t verify if human blood was brought in. Trained dogs “detected Hoffa’s scent in the car and in the car’s trunk. A hair follicle covered with blood believed to be Hoffa’s was reportedly found in the car,” Lansing State Journal says.
READ NEXT: Frank Sheeran: The Real Story.