November 19, 2017
Outside of Lee’s Tavern, in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of Staten Island, a 1970s Thunderbird was wired to explode.
It was October 2017, but Hancock Street looked like it had time-tripped to 1975 — and morphed into Detroit. The facade of Lee’s had been done up with an awning that read “Nemo’s.” Next door, Karina’s barbershop had been adorned with a hand-painted logo on its window. Men in period-appropriate garb strolled the block. And Martin Scorsese orchestrated the whole scene.
The director has been shooting his next movie, “The Irishman,” around the tri-state area. A boat was blown up in Hempstead Harbor on Long Island, and stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci broke bread in character at the Italian eatery Colandrea New Corner in Dyker Heights. “[Pesci] asked if it would be OK to go out a side door in the kitchen to smoke cigarettes,” Joe Colandrea, the founder’s great-grandson told The Post. “He wanted to make sure nobody would bother him out there.”
It’s all to tell one of the most notorious stories of the late 20th century: the 1975 disappearance and presumed murder of Jimmy Hoffa, once the most powerful union boss on Earth.
Over the years, many people have speculated about what happened to Hoffa (played in the film by Al Pacino) and the whereabouts of his body, which has still never been found. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played by De Niro) claimed to have been the killer. Scorsese’s movie is based on a book by Sheeran’s lawyer, Charles Brandt, titled “I Heard You Paint Houses” — mobster code for “I heard you kill people.”
Sheeran allegedly shot his friend Hoffa in the head after luring him to a house in Detroit.
The book was published in 2004, the year after Sheeran died and nearly 29 years after the murder was committed. While it was too late for law enforcers to do much — Brandt said that they “dug up floorboards [of the murder site in 2013] for analysis and found human blood but could not tie it to one person” — Sheeran occupied a place on the FBI’s shortlist of possible suspects.
His confession to killing a man whom he called a friend illustrates the hard choices that come with a life dedicated to the Mafia. “Frank whacked guys,” Brandt said. “I estimate that he killed 25 to 30 people. He learned right away that you don’t say no.”
Unlike a lot of men who wind up killers for the Mafia, Sheeran was not bred for the life. He had a rough-and-tumble childhood in Darby, Pa., but no criminal connections. After joining the military in 1941, Sheeran was sent to Italy where he developed a knack for killing — a skill that would come in handy off the battlefield.
”His lieutenant told him that when you are commanded to ‘interrogate somebody and hurry back,’ you are going to kill the guy,” said Brandt.
In 1945, Sheeran moved to Philadelphia, where he would marry, have three daughters and get a job as a truck driver for a grocery chain. Two years later, he had his first brush with the law when he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct after beating up two men in an altercation on a trolley.
In 1955, he had a chance meeting with Russell Bufalino, boss of the northeastern Pennsylvania crime family that bore his name. In short order, he began doing tasks for Bufalino, chauffeuring him and making deliveries.
Coincidentally, this was around when Sheeran was making extra dough by collecting money for small-time Philly loan sharks. Seduced by the lifestyle, Sheeran said yes when a local mobster called Whispers offered him $10,000 to burn down the office of Cadillac Linen Service, which was competing with a company that Whispers had an interest in.
But Sheeran was spotted while scoping out the place — and it turned out that Cadillac was owned by a friend of Bufalino’s.
“Because Frank had been seen in [Bufalino’s] company, the friend did not have Frank killed,” said Brandt. “But Frank was told to make it right by killing Whispers. That night was his first hit.”
In 1957, as a reward for pulling off the job, Bufalino introduced Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa. The president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union, Hoffa was notorious for Mafia ties, corruption and violence.
Hoffa needed somebody who could use muscle to silence enemies. He told Sheeran, “I heard you paint houses.” Sheeran replied yes and added, “I also do my own plumbing” — meaning, he disposed of the bodies too.
Sheeran grew close to Hoffa and received a lucrative union-boss job as president of the Local 326 in Wilmington, Del. That position had him rolling in under-the-table rewards for mob favors. More notably, he served as Hoffa’s muscle: beating up enemies, killing people trying to start rival unions, and running guns. Sheeran claimed to have transported rifles from Brooklyn to Florida for the killing of John F. Kennedy, adding credence to theories that Hoffa and the mob played a role in JFK’s assassination. The president, along with his brother Robert F. Kennedy, had strong disdain for the union corruption that Hoffa stirred up.
Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa (Associated Press)
When Hoffa went to prison on racketeering charges in 1967, Sheeran continued working for the union chief who replaced him, Frank Fitzsimmons, as well as for Bufalino.
Per the book, one of Sheeran’s biggest hits happened in Little Italy on April 7, 1972: the murder of Colombo family mobster Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo, at the behest of Bufalino.
It was known that Gallo would be celebrating his birthday at Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street. Sheeran said that he walked inside, dressed casually, posing as a truck driver who needed to use the bathroom.
Then he detoured toward the to the table where Gallo and his crew sat. Although startled by the presence of a woman and little girl at the table, Sheeran had his marching orders and began shooting. Gallo headed for the door, making it outside before being taken down by three bullets.
Sheeran escaped in a waiting car. A day later, tales of the shooting dominated New York City tabloids. “Joe Gallo Slain” read The Post’s front page, complete with a photo of Gallo’s newlywed wife and her young daughter, both of whom had ducked for cover and emerged unscathed.
THE year that Gallo was murdered, Hoffa came out of prison eager to regain control of the International Teamsters. But Mafia kingpins didn’t want him back.
Heat on the persistent Hoffa leaked over to those in his camp. In the spring and summer of 1975, Hoffa supporter Dave Johnson, president of the Local 299 union in Detroit, started to receive hang-up calls at home. Then a bullet was fired through his window at union headquarters. Driving the point home, somebody blew up his 45-foot cruiser, docked in the Detroit River. Suspicions centered on Hoffa adversaries.
Revenge appeared to come on July 10. when Richard Fitzsimmons, son of Hoffa’s replacement, left Nemo’s, a Detroit bar popular with union big shots. As he walked to his new, white Lincoln Continental, it exploded. He narrowly escaped injury.
When Hoffa still refused to acquiesce, the mob turned to the one man who could lure him to a vulnerable location. In late July 1975, Sheeran flew from Ohio to Pontiac, Mich., to murder his mentor. He says in the book that he “felt nothing.”
“Frank could not blink, much less say no [to killing Hoffa],” said Brandt. “Or else . . . they both would have gotten killed.”
Sheeran drove with a few other associates to pick up Hoffa at a restaurant called the Red Fox. Sheeran claimed that his presence helped put Hoffa at ease about driving to a meeting at a Detroit house.
They arrived and entered the vestibule of a home that was obviously empty. “When Jimmy saw . . . that nobody came out of the rooms to greet him, he knew right away what it was,” Sheeran said in the book, adding that Hoffa tried to flee. “Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range — not too close or the [blood] splatters back at you — in the back of his head . . . My friend did not suffer.”
Soon after, Sheeran claimed, Hoffa’s body was turned to ash at a crematorium.
But not everyone buys his story. Dan Moldea, author of the deeply researched “The Hoffa Wars,” insists that Sheeran did not kill Hoffa.
Moldea — who interviewed mob figures, investigators and prosecutors for his book — agrees that Sheeran flew to Pontiac and lured Hoffa into the car. But he believes that the murder was committed by Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, an enforcer for the Genovese crime family. Moldea bases this on interviews with parties including the owner of a New Jersey dump where some believed Hoffa’s body was disposed.
“This is a one-source story about a pathological liar,” Moldea told The Post of Brandt’s book on Sheeran.
He voiced his displeasure about the De Niro-starring flick when he met the actor at a dinner in 2014.
“De Niro had a lot of pride that he is doing the real story,” said Moldea. “I told him that he’s been conned.”
But Brandt sticks by his story. After Sheeran served 13 years of a 32-year prison sentence, convicted on labor racketeering, and was crippled by arthritis and living in a nursing home, he confessed to killing Hoffa to three priests as well as to Brandt.
“Frank sought forgiveness and, to his way of thinking, died in a state of grace,” said Brandt. (He alleged that Sheeran committed suicide, in 2003, at age 83, by starving himself to death for six weeks.)
Whatever the truth is, De Niro, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are going for Brandt’s version of it.
“This summer I spent two months on call to the three of them at the Ameritania Hotel in Midtown,” said Brandt who this past Friday answered a question from De Niro on the caliber of gun used to kill Gallo (it was a .38). “They sent up scripts and I kept meeting them to answer questions. I felt like a groupie and was the only one in the room who hadn’t won an academy award.”