For 38 years, the mystery of what happened to former Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa has done nothing but deepen. Now, the man whom the FBI has long believed knows the answer is ready to talk. As a matter of fact, 85-year-old Anthony Zerilli has not only talked, he has taken NBC crime reporter, Marc Santia, formerly of Detroit, to the Michigan field where he claims Hoffa lies buried in a shallow grave.
Jimmy Hoffa was the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) union from 1958 to 1971, a time when unions had a lot of political clout. He was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964. In 1967, after the appeal of his convictions failed, Hoffa began serving a 13 year prison sentence. As part of a deal struck with President Richard Nixon in 1971, Hoffa resigned from the presidency of the Teamsters, and was then pardoned and released. While part of the deal required Hoffa to stay out of union activities until 1980, he was trying to overturn this provision and regain power in the organization.
On July 30, 1975, Hoffa went to a suburban Detroit restaurant, the Machus Red Fox, for a reputed meeting with two crime bosses: Anthony Giacalone, part of the Detroit La Cosa Nostra family, and Anthony Provenzano, a mafia member and leader of the Teamsters union in New Jersey. Both Giacalone and Provenzano denied ever arranging a meeting, and both had alibis. However, Hoffa did show up, was seen at the restaurant by a number of witnesses, and then just vanished. His car was found in the restaurant parking lot after his wife reported him missing.
A 56-page report prepared by the FBI in 1976, called the “Hoffex Memo,” details the difficulty law enforcement had in obtaining any substantial evidence from persons of interest, listed as the “Cast of Characters.” But the report – interesting reading in itself – also demonstrates the agency’s belief that Hoffa’s death was due to a power struggle for union control, and especially for control of the Teamsters’ pension fund. The two prime suspects died long ago–Tony Giacalone in 2001 and Tony Provenzano, while in prison, in 1988.
Although the FBI has continued to follow up on leads, there’s never been much hope the case would be solved – until Tony Zerilli decided to speak up. Former U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett, who headed the Eastern District of Michigan’s Organized Crime Strike Force and prosecuted organized crime for 20 years, said of Zerilli:
“The bureau had a short list of people they wanted to talk to about that and I can’t think of anybody on that list who was more highly placed then Anthony Zerilli. This is certainly the most interesting and attractive lead that has come up since I’ve been involved with this — and I think the bureau would react the same way.”
Zerilli was the underboss of Detroit’s Cosa Nostra Family when Hoffa disappeared, but his father, Joe, was the big boss. Tony Zerilli was in prison when the incident happened, but he was part of the inner circle and would surely have been told the details once he was released. In the interview with NBC, Zerilli denies being involved with the Mafia, but he told the reporter:
“If I wasn’t away I don’t think it ever would’ve happened, that’s all I can tell you. I would’ve done anything in the world to protect Jim Hoffa.”
He claims to have loved Hoffa but, even though he is revealing the location of Hoffa’s body, he says he’s not naming any names of who was involved, adding:
“I’m not a stool pigeon.”
So where is Hoffa’s body? Zerilli drove with reporter Marc Santia down a dirt road to a snow-covered field in northern Oakland County, Michigan, about 20 miles from where Hoffa disappeared. Asked how certain he was that the Teamster boss was buried there, Zerilli replied:
“As certain as I could possibly be…If I had any money…I’d like to bet a big sum of money that he’s buried here.”
Zerilli gestured toward a corner of the field and continued:
“The master plan was…that they were going to put him in a shallow grave here…and they were going to take him from here to Rogers City, upstate…for final burial. Then I understand that that just fell through. Once he was buried here, he was just buried and they let it go.”
Perhaps the plan fell through because of the intense scrutiny by law enforcement following the disappearance, a scrutiny which has never let up. While every lead has been pursued, including one just three months ago, Hoffa’s body has evidently remained in this shallow grave for almost four decades.
What is Tony Zerilli’s motivation for coming forward at this time? He says he wants closure for himself and for Hoffa’s family; Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, is currently president of the Teamsters’ union. Zerilli says about that closure:
“It means a lot to me. What happened, happened while I was in jail. And I feel very, very bad about it and it should never have happened to Jim Hoffa. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
Of course, he made this statement as well:
“I’m dead broke. I got no money. My quality of life is zero.”
Zerilli is writing a book and has established a website, www.hoffafound.com. He thinks he’ll make a lot of money once the FBI uncovers Jimmy Hoffa’s remains; he’s just waiting for their next move. The profit motive can be powerful, but it would be a mistake to use it to discount the man’s words. After all, the feds have been waiting for 38 years to hear Anthony Zerilli speak. Their next move is sure to be lightening fast–before anyone else discovers that field.