Crime

Lengel: Time For Feds to Clear Chuckie O'Brien in Hoffa Murder


December 04, 2019, 9:25 PM by  Allan Lengel

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Chuckie O'Brien in Florida in 2018. (Family photo)

It’s time for the feds to give Chuckie O’Brien a letter of clearance that says he’s no longer a suspect in Jimmy Hoffa's murder. 

Why? Because the evidence is overwhelming.   

For nearly 45 years, a cloud has hung over O’Brien, Hoffa’s confidante, “surrogate son," driver, gofer and conduit to the mob. O’Brien, now 85 and in declining health, lives in Boca Raton, Fla. 

Shortly after Hoffa’s disappearance July 30, 1975, O’Brien was named as a suspect by the FBI, something he’s had to live with ever since. For decades, the feds theorized that O’Brien picked Hoffa up outside the Machus Red Fox restaurant on Telegraph Road and drove him to his death. Hoffa was supposed to meet Detroit mobster Anthony Giacalone, who never showed for lunch.

Now his stepson, Jack Goldsmith, a former Justice Department official who teaches law at Harvard, has written “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” a book that lays out a pretty convincing case – including a timeline of his whereabouts that day – that O’Brien couldn’t have been involved.

Of course, O’Brien was no Boy Scout and was described by the FBI in 1976 as a pathological liar. Still, the facts strongly favor him.

The 368-page book, released in fall, has interviews with ex-FBI agents and a current federal prosecutor who believe O’Brien had nothing to do with the murder. Some, including current Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric M. Straus, had hoped to give O’Brien the letter officially clearing him of the crime.

But in 2014, after several years of trying, Goldsmith writes that then-U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade nixed the idea. She declined to comment for Deadline Detroit, as did the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Hoffa, 62 when he disappeared, had been released from prison in 1971 and was bent on reclaiming his throne as Teamster president. And he was willing to do almost anything, including expose the mob’s ties to the union and its pension fund, which organized crime essentially used as its private bank for loans. Some predicted Hoffa would get killed crossing the mob, which was happy with the leadership of Frank Fitzsimmons. They were right.

On the day he vanished, Hoffa was supposed to meet Anthony Giacalone for lunch at the Machus Red Fox. Giacalone not only stood him up, he made sure everyone saw him hanging out at the Southfield Athletic Club.

O’Brien surfaced as a suspect quickly.

New Agent on the Case

FBI agent Andrew Sluss, now retired, picked up the case in 2003.

He entered the investigation with the institutional belief that O’Brien was the likely wheelman for Hoffa’s last ride. But “within a year,” Goldsmith writes, “Sluss had concluded that this belief was erroneous and that Chuckie was not at the Machus Red Fox parking lot that afternoon. …Sluss also apparently studied the timeline of Chuckie’s activities during the afternoon of July 30 more carefully than the original investigators, and concluded that it was practically impossible for Chuckie to have picked up Hoffa...based on his known whereabouts that afternoon.”

As for Goldsmith’s account of the Hoffa investigation, Sluss tells Deadline Detroit: “I think it’s 100 percent accurate.” And he says with “no hesitation” that O’Brien is entitled to be formally exonerated with a letter.

Going with the timeline, Goldsmith writes that Hoffa was likely picked up at the Machus around 3:30 p.m. But witnesses testified they saw O’Brien at Teamsters Local 299 on Trumbull Avenue in Corktown at 4:15 p.m. or earlier.

“Chuckie would have had practically no extra time to pick up and deliver Hoffa,” Goldsmith writes, adding the chances of him doing so was “small to non-existent.”  

Goldsmith says he hopes the feds decide to do the right thing.


Jack Goldsmith: "Appointees in the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t want to take the political heat." (Photo: Harvard University)

“I very much hope that the government will do the right thing and give Chuckie the letter it promised him,” Goldsmith tells Deadline Detroit.

“It would mean a ton to Chuckie, who for 44 years has proclaimed his innocence. Imagine if you were publicly, but falsely, accused by the government of picking up your father figure and driving him to his death; imagine if you would want exoneration.”

Experts Agree

Hoffa experts Scott Burnstein of Metro Detroit and Dan Moldea of Washington, D.C., concur about O’Brien’s innocence, and say the driver at the Machus was most likely the late mobster Vito Giacalone, brother of Anthony, who was supposed to meet with Hoffa. Vito died in 2012 and Anthony in 2001.

“I love Jack Goldsmith’s book,” says Moldea, author of “The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa.” “Jack has made a real contribution to the case by providing the necessary details for final vindication of Chuckie O’Brien.”

Burnstein, who operates The Gangster Report site, tells Deadline Detroit:

“Chuckie O’Brien ... would have never been trusted to be involved in a high-profile mob hit. And (they) were not on good terms at the time.”

He said O’Brien was going around town saying Hoffa was cooperating with the feds, and Hoffa was refusing to back O’Brien for an executive position in Local 299, Hoffa’s old local.

“Having Chuckie O’Brien driving the car would not only have raised suspicions, but Hoffa’s blood pressure, too.”  

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Anthony (l) and Vito Giacalone (right)

In February 1995,  Sluss sent O’Brien a letter hoping that he’d cooperate in the probe: “I am well aware that you are probably not the biggest fan of the FBI, but nonetheless your assistance in this case will be helpful.” He then noted, “I do not consider you a suspect.”

Distrust of the FBI and some other circumstances kept O’Brien from taking the polygraph. Then on May 2, 2013, Assistant U.S. Attorney Straus emailed Goldsmith and local attorney Mayer Morganroth, saying that he envisioned offering a letter to O’Brien stating that he was not a subject, target or suspect as long as the government was satisfied that he made truthful statements, and took a polygraph if necessary.

A meeting took place a few days later. O’Brien, who had flown in from Florida, told Goldsmith, “I want that fucking letter.”

They met at the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Fort Street in downtown Detroit. The feds in the room included Straus, FBI agents Louis Fischetti and the agent overseeing the case, Marc Silski. (Sluss was no longer assigned to the case.)

Four-Hour Interview

During the four-hour interview, Straus asked O’Brien if he saw Hoffa on July 30, 1975. “If I were with him I wouldn’t be here today,” O’Brien answered.

Fischetti then asked if he ever drove Anthony Giacalone from Detroit to Miami, or the other direction. Sure, he said, describing details of trips with “Uncle Tony.” Fischetti later said that he had been following Chuckie on two of the trips. Straus then said there was no need for a polygraph test that day. All seemed good.

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Ex-U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade

Several months passed, and attorney Mayer Morganroth called Goldsmith to tell him Straus said the U.S. Attorney’s Office was prepared to issue a letter clearing O’Brien. Straus said he was waiting for the FBI to sign off that day.

But it couldn’t have come at a worse time, Goldsmith writes. Robert Foley, then head of the FBI’s Detroit office – was going to retire in a few months and had been humiliated by a dig for Hoffa’s body in Oakland Township that turned up empty. Straus suggested, according to Goldsmith's account,  that Foley didn’t want to add to the humiliation by admitting the FBI had been pursuing the wrong man in the Hoffa probe for nearly 39 years.

Goldsmith said they now had to wait for the new FBI head, Paul Abatte, to come to town in October. In March 2014, ten months after the interview, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade called off the agreement, saying that Sluss had never been authorized to contact O’Brien and offer a polygraph to clear his name.

But “Chuckie’s agreement to interview with the government, and the expectations surrounding that interview, had nothing to do with Sluss,” Goldsmith writes. 

On March 11, 2014, Goldsmith flew to Detroit to meet with McQuade and Straus.

“Mr. O’Brien was promised consideration by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and he received that consideration,” she said, according to the book. “I’m sorry it did not work out, but my decision is final.”

Abatte, who is now third in charge of the FBI in Washington D.C., deferred questions to the agency’s chief spokesman, who did not immediately respond to an email for comment. 

Goldsmith writes:

“Chuckie had been so close to receiving the exoneration he had sought for thirty-nine years. He had fallen short even though the career officials who had been working the case for many years thought he was innocent. And he had fallen short, it seemed, only because political appointees in the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t want to take the political heat from admitting the government errors during the last four decades.”

It’s hard to eliminate politics from big decisions like this. But it’s pretty obvious the Justice Department is not doing O’Brien justice.

I say, give the guy his letter before he dies.  It’s only right. 

More about the book:



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