On the morning of July 30, 1975, Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien (1933-2020) began his day making final preparations for a permanent move to Florida where he planned to reside with his wife Brenda and his stepchildren. But by the end of the day, his life was turned upside down due to the disappearance of his stepfather, former International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“IBT”) President James R. Hoffa (1913-1975), whose disappearance is still an unsolved mystery that has eluded investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) for decades. O’Brien was an easy target because of his proximity to Hoffa. The Netflix film ‘The Irishman‘ (2019) shows O’Brien (played by actor Jesse Plemons) driving Hoffa to his death. But is that what really happened? Jack Goldsmith once called O’Brien dad and later discussed Hoffa’s disappearance with his aging stepfather and this book is what he learned about the case directly from the man everyone knew as “Chuckie”.
Before proceeding, I must address the elephant in the room which is the story of Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) as told in the book “I Heard You Pain Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. The book is sensational but there are multiple issues with Sheeran’s story. Further, the FBI never charged Sheeran, nor did they consider him a serious suspect. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that Sheeran was one of the hitmen involved the murder of Colombo Family mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) on April 7, 1972. At the time of his death, Gallo was in a bitter inter-family feud with followers of boss Joseph Colombo (1923-1978) and had been blamed for the shooting at Columbus Circle in Manhattan on June 28, 1971, that left the mob boss in a vegetative state until his death. It is true however, that Sheeran did know Hoffa and oversaw his own Teamsters Local in Delaware. Readers will reach their own conclusions, but the facts indicate that Sheeran overstated his role in Hoffa’s life and role as a Mafia hitman.
Goldsmith is a former Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel and was directly involved with the controversy surrounding the Stellar Wind warrantless surveillance program during the administration of President George W. Bush. At the age of twelve, his mother Brenda married O’Brien to the displeasure of the overbearing Hoffa. Despite the adversity faced by the couple, they were determined to live a peaceful life away from the complicated relationships that existed in Detroit due to the influence of O’Brien’s famous stepfather. The author revisits his early life when O’Brien became a part of the family and his path in understanding why the FBI was always interested in what his stepfather was doing and what he knew about Hoffa’s disappearance. Their relationship goes through difficult phases in the book but eventually comes full circle. The crux of the book, however, is the role O’Brien may have played in the crime, if any. And this is where the story picks up in pace and pulls the reader in. Once I reached the section surrounding Hoffa’s role as IBT President and the impending doom, I could not put it down.
Readers searching for a “smoking gun” in the case will not find it here although O’Brien affirms what researchers have long believed about the case. And the key to understanding what did happen lies in the relationship between the Teamsters and the Italian American Mafia. While Hoffa was no gangster, he was not averse to working with controversial figures or groups if it meant the improvement to the status of the IBT and its thousands of members. At the heart of this nexus was O’Brien’s mother, Sylvia Pagano (d. 1970), who is too often omitted from the Hoffa story. Goldsmith explores her connection to Hoffa and O’Brien refutes a persistent rumor about their relationship. Further, the importance of Pagano to Hoffa’s wife Josephine (1918-1980) whose mental and physical conditions were the sources of turmoil and concern in his life. Filmmakers did not include Pagano or reveal the dark side of Josephine’s story in “The Irishman“. Goldsmith had access to FBI files which contained unsettling truths about Hoffa’s marriage and his connections to underworld figures who were not as “loyal” as one might think. This relationship did not go unnoticed, and Hoffa found himself the target of the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1929-1968). The bad blood between Hoffa and Kennedy is no secret but what is also shown in the book are the lengths to which Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa Squad” went to bring the labor leader down. The author presents moral and ethical questions about Kennedy’s actions and decisions which had unintended consequences, and inadvertently set the stage for the events which transpired on July 30, 1975. The vengeance with which the Department of Justice came after Hoffa produced important case law that would have crucial role int the author’s actions in the Bush Administration.
Hoffa was convicted in 1967 after Kennedy left the Department of Justice on charges of jury tampering. And this was the first stage in the next eight years in which Hoffa would go from contained threat to an unpredictable liability. And O’Brien was there to witness the events and divulged to Goldsmith as much as he was willing to say on occasion. There are things which ‘The Irishman‘ did get right and one of those things is the tension between Hoffa and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988). The mobster is only part of the story however, and we also learn about Goldsmith’s close relationship to Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001) who is like an uncle to the young teen and Vito William “Billy Jack” Giacalone (1923-2012). All three are suspected of having direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance or having played a direct role in the crime. There is no proof offered in the book that any of them did take part but if O’Brien is to be believed, “Uncle Tony” told him in uncertain terms that Hoffa had become a liability to the powers that be in New York.
In December 1971, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) with conditions. The intriguing story of how the pardon came to be is discussed within and it is a fascinating story which reveals the power and connections held by the labor leader even behind bars. Readers may wonder why Hoffa was pardoned if his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) was well-liked by the mob and the White House. A motive is discussed in and there is credence to it. Of course, secrets surrounding Nixon’s final decision are lost to history but what is clear is that Hoffa had no intention of relinquishing control over the teamsters to anyone, and intended to directly violate the pardon. And this stubbornness sets the stage for his final days. I cannot say what went through Hoffa’s mind when he decided to call out the mob publicly and blast Fitzsimmons in the media but the unbelievable story which Goldsmith revisits is astounding. As depicted in ‘The Irishman‘, people close to Hoffa were warning him to quiet down and back down. In fact, O’Brien reveals that Tony Jack himself was one of the people who tried to get Hoffa to understand the gravity of the situation. Those encounters and Giacalone’s status in Detroit are also omitted from the film. But from what we know about the “Commission”, New York’s Five Families were aware of the Hoffa problem in Detroit and there was too much at stake for the bad press to continue.
The inevitable part of the story we know is coming arrives, and when it happens, O’Brien’s world is shattered. The disappearance and the fallout compose the final part of the book where we see the FBI and others hound O’Brien mercilessly. Throughout the story he maintains his innocence and we learn that there were FBI agents who had ruled him out as a suspect. However, as stated by the author, O’Brien knew more than he was willing to say, but feared repercussions after decades of association with dark figures in the criminal underworld. But nowhere in the book is there solid information that O’Brien drove Hoffa to his death or wanted his stepfather to disappear. In fact, O’Brien shows nothing but love and praise for the man who raised him. Further, if Hoffa did not trust O’Brien with Local 299, I doubt seasoned mobsters would have trusted him with the plot to remove his stepfather from the picture. What I did see is that O’Brien was the victim of endless harassment and a smear campaign because of his relationship with Hoffa but not because the two were on bad terms. And the penalty that was paid by his family is staggering and may have broken a weaker person. But O’Brien never wavered in the goal to clear his name and this part of the story is also omitted from the Hoffa discussion. The author was with him every step of the way as he sought to preserve his reputation, and the actions by the Government are confusing on occasion. In the end, O’Brien is now gone and any secrets he possessed departed with him. But before leaving, he shared a wealth of information with Goldsmith who in turn presents a necessary side to the tragedy of James Riddle Hoffa.