Photo of former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa taken days before his mysterious disappearance by photographer Tony Spina, July 24, 1975.
(Photo: Gannett/Detroit Free Press)
DETROIT -- A steady stream of curious onlookers snapped photos of a rural Oakland Township, Mich., field lined with yellow caution tape and TV news vans clustered in a nearby parking lot.
"It's national news," said Marjorie DiLiddo, 64, holding up a camera as her husband, Ron DiLiddo, walked their English springer spaniel named Zack nearby. "It's a big mystery for this area. I think it would be wonderful for the family if they could find closure."
STORY: Tipster to FBI: Hoffa was hit with shovel, buried alive
On Monday, investigators, a tipster and curious onlookers hoped for just that as the FBI led a search for Jimmy Hoffa's body in the field. But their optimism was tempered, given that it is the latest in a series of digs since the Teamsters boss went missing, setting off one of the 20th century's most vexing mysteries.
This property came under scrutiny in January after Tony Zerilli, 85, the son of reputed former Detroit mob boss Joseph Zerilli, told broadcast media that Hoffa, 62, was buried there. Zerilli claims Hoffa was struck with a shovel and then buried alive on the property, with a slab of concrete placed over the body.
Hoffa was kidnapped on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of what was then the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Mich.
"It's my fondest hope that we can give ... closure not just to the Hoffa family, but also to the community and stop tearing that scab off with every new lead and bring some conclusion," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said just after 11 a.m. Monday. "It's long overdue."
FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Foley III of the Detroit office said the FBI was executing a search warrant in the grassy field.
"Because this investigation is an open investigation and the search warrant is sealed, I will not be able to provide any additional details regarding our activity here," Foley said, as a truck carrying a backhoe arrived at the site behind him.
Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Crancer, a retired state judge in St. Louis, said the FBI called her Sunday to alert her of the search, and she's closely following it online. She said she hadn't heard Zerilli's story until he came forward several months ago.
"We never get our hopes up," Crancer said. "We'll just let the FBI do their job, and we'll see what happens. That's all we can do. I want everybody to know that I appreciate the FBI following up on this."
Sources at the scene said investigators were searching a concentrated area there. Tents were set up in the middle of the property, at least 500 feet off the dirt road.
Just after 7 p.m. more than a dozen cars drove away from dig site. The search was expected to begin again Tuesday morning.
Zerilli's lawyer, David Chasnick of Novi, Mich., said Zerilli has been waiting at least eight months for the FBI to follow up on his tip. Zerilli was in jail when Hoffa disappeared, but was the son of a mafia boss at the time.
Zerilli recently published a manuscript being sold online at HoffaFound.com, but his attorney says his claims aren't part of a ploy to sell it.
"Peace," Chasnick cited as the reason Zerilli came forward. "Wanting to get it off his chest, and get peace for the family. His age - he's 85 years old, he's getting older. ... I think the people who are written about in the manuscript are deceased."
Zerilli described himself as a good friend of Hoffa's. He said he learned about the disappearance from the "inner circle" of the Detroit mafia.
"There was an old house with an old barn on the property," Zerilli wrote, according to a copy of the manuscript handed out by a man at the site Monday. "As soon as they pulled near the barn, Hoffa was dragged out of the car, and bound and gagged. A shallow hole was already dug in the barn floor. He put up a fight, but he was easily overpowered. ... (One of the men) picked up a shovel and cracked Hoffa over the head with it. ... They threw him into the hole, and buried him alive. He wasn't shot, he wasn't stabbed, nothing like that. A cement slab of some sort was placed on top of the dirt to make certain he was not going to be discovered. And that was it. End of story."
Former federal prosecutor Keith Corbett, who also was at the site Monday, said Zerilli may be the most credible person to come forward with information on Hoffa's disappearance.
"He would have been somebody who would have been in the position to know," said Corbett. "Any time you make an assessment that there's reasonably credible information, it would be irresponsible not to follow that down. You can't say 'Well, the chance is 1 in 10.' If you miss that 1 in 10, what have you done? And the bureau has been looking for Hoffa for so long, this is a lead they have to pursue."
John Anthony, who worked the case as an FBI agent and later served as an FBI spokesman, agreed Zerilli was in a position to know secrets, including the fate of the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
But Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars who has been following Hoffa's disappearance for decades, said he's not sure he buys Zerilli's story and sees some holes in it.
"Why would they keep the trophy buried in the backyard?" Moldea said, referring to Hoffa's body. "You chop up a body. You burn a body. You don't leave it laying around for it to be found. I'm just kind of surprised that they would allow the body to remain intact."
Still, Moldea said Zerilli was part of the mob's inner circle and had insider knowledge, so his story shouldn't be ignored.
"I couldn't make a bet on this," Moldea said. "Maybe it's right. Maybe that's why we haven't been able to solve this thing because we've been looking at the wrong place ... I would not make a bet either way on this right now."
The FBI has theorized Hoffa disappeared after going to the restaurant for a reconciliation meeting with Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano, a mob-connected New Jersey Teamster official, and Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, a Detroit Mafia captain. The FBI thought Provenzano and Giacalone had Hoffa killed to prevent him from regaining the Teamsters presidency, ending the mob's influence over the union and its easy access to Teamster pension funds. Hoffa ran the union in 1957-71. Various theories - and numerous books and interviews - surmise that Hoffa's body was either incinerated or buried.
In September, Roseville, Mich., police and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality used sonar equipment seeking human remains under a driveway after a tip claimed a body, possibly Hoffa's, could be buried there.
Despite discrepancies in the timeline, Roseville Police Chief James Berlin said he'd take the same steps under identical circumstances - despite the media frenzy that chronicled the fruitless search.
"You just can't blow it off," he said. "You have to gauge the credibility of those involved and go from there."
In 2006, the FBI spent 14 days digging at a horse farm near Milford, Mich., looking for Hoffa's remains.
Tammy Stables Battaglia, Ann Zaniewski and Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press