"I Heard You Paint Houses"

August 6, 2008 - I Heard You Paint Houses (Charles Brandt). Charles Brandt tells the story of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, a mob hitman who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa on July 30, 1975. Brandt is a former prosecutor who recorded interviews with Sheeran over a period of five years or so. Much of the book is a transcription of Sheeran's words as he talks about his relationship with Hoffa and with the mob bosses who wanted him dead.

One of those bosses was Russell Bufalino, who made his home in Northeast PA. Other key figures in the story include Bobby Kennedy, Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, Frank Fitzsimmons and, of course, Jimmy Hoffa. The book takes its title from the first words that Hoffa spoke to Sheeran, a reference to Sheeran's work as a hitman.

Sheeran grew up Irish-Catholic in Philly. He was a bit of a hoodlum, but nothing serious. Then, he joined the Army and went to fight in World War Two. Sheeran and his unit saw some of the most intense fighting in Europe and that experience, Sheeran and the author contend, basically turned him into a killer. When he returned from the war, Sheeran found his way into some union jobs and quickly learned how to skim from the system. A chance meeting with Russell Bufalino eventually led Sheeran to deeper involvement with the mob, with the Teamsters and with Jimmy Hoffa.

Sheeran and Brandt paint a picture of Hoffa as a man who did good things for workers. He helped to organize organized labor and fought for pensions and higher pay for members of the Teamsters. But, he was also a man who, basically, couldn't leave well enough alone. He used the Teamsters' pension fund to funnel money to the mob; in exchange, the mob did favors that helped Hoffa consolidate his power and influence. When federal prosecutors, led by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Sheeran asserts that the mob orchestrated the assassination of JFK as a message to Bobby to back off) finally brought him up on charges connected to those business dealings, Hoffa got caught tampering with the jury when, in reality, he might have beaten the original charge without going to any illegal means.

In 1967, Hoffa ended up in the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA and named Frank Fitzsimmons to run the Teamsters in his stead. Hoffa was eventually pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971 with the condition that he stay on parole until 1973. An added condition, which Hoffa believed was unconstitutional, prevented Hoffa from having any association with the Teamsters until 1980. Hoffa didn't want to wait that long. When his parole ended, he announced plans to appeal the other condition and run against Fitzsimmons for Teamsters president in 1976. According to Sheeran, in 1974, Bufalino asked Hoffa to just wait it out until 1980. Hoffa, feeling that he had been betrayed by Fitzsimmons, refused and threatened to expose mob secrets.

In 1975, at a home in Detroit, Sheeran carried out an order to take care of Hoffa. Over the years, Sheeran had developed a friendship with Hoffa and Hoffa helped Sheeran rise through the ranks of the Teamsters. When Bufalino and the other reputed mob bosses decided that Hoffa needed to go, they counted on Hoffa's trust of Sheeran.

As Sheeran tells it, Hoffa was asked to go a restaurant near Detroit for a meeting with Tony Pro, a Teamsters boss from New Jersey. The two had been in Lewisburg together and that's where the bad blood started. The meeting was a ruse, and Tony Pro never showed at the restaurant. When Hoffa came out, Sheeran and two other men were waiting for him in a car. Sheeran said that the meeting had been moved to a house. Because Hoffa trusted Sheeran, he got into the car. When they got to the house, Sheeran walked in right behind Hoffa. Hoffa, he says realized what was about to happen, but there was nowhere to run. Sheeran shot him twice in the head and left the house. Sheeran says there were cleaners waiting in another part of the house. He says he heard later that they tidied up and took Hoffa's body to be cremated.

Is this an accurate accounting of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Brandt certainly believes so. He lets Sheeran tell his story in his own colorful way and uses material from FBI records and news accounts of the day to corroborate that account and to provide context for what occurred. Sheeran comes across as believable, and Brandt makes him out to be a man who wanted to confess before dying.

However, Brandt admits there are still some holes to be filled in. Blood spots found in the house where Hoffa supposedly died seemed to support Sheeran's account, but the blood turned out not to be Hoffa's. Brandt is also unable to connect all the dots concerning how that specific house came to be used. He's critical of the FBI for not releasing to him or to local prosecutors more of the 16,000 page file it gathered on the Hoffa case.

One more possible conflict with Sheeran's story also remains unresolved, namely, what happened to Hoffa's body? If, as Sheeran says, Hoffa's body was cremated, we'll probably never know. The ashes could be anywhere. They could have been combined with someone else's ashes, scattered to the wind or thrown in a dumpster.

But, in 2006, the FBI acted on a tip and started digging for Hoffa's bones on a farm in Michigan. The farm used to be owned by a Hoffa associate who is mentioned in Brandt's book. The edition I read includes an epilogue written in 2005, before the Michigan dig. So, obviously, Brandt doesn't mention that, and he doesn't challenge Sheeran's assertion that the cleaners took Hoffa's body to be cremated. Sheeran couldn't say exactly where it was taken and Brandt doesn't offer any concrete evidence that points to a specific crematory.

So, did Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran kill his good friend Jimmy Hoffa? I think so. But, ultimately, you just have to take his word for it.