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How Will New Evidence Affect the Hoffa Case

Aired September 10, 2001 - 12:31   ET



JAMES P. HOFFA, JIMMY HOFFA'S SON: The FBI has announced that new DNA technology has detected his presence in a car that was involved in the disappearance.

This is startling news, and the good news is that they are projecting that there's going to be a prosecution in the disappearance of James R. Hoffa.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST (voice-over): 26 years after former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa vanished, investigators continue their search for clues. Will a strand of hair serve as the key to solving a quarter-century mystery?


(on camera): Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Well, this case has baffled the FBI for nearly three decades. Untapping the mystery could hinge on evidence which would fit on the head of a pin, a single strand of Jimmy Hoffa's hair.

On July 30th, 1975, the former Teamsters boss vanished. His family says he was supposed to meet with a New Jersey Teamsters official and mafia figure Anthony Giacalone. Neither man showed up at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant, site of the alleged meeting. Central to the investigation then, and today, is Charles "Chuckie" O'Brien. He was driving a car belonging to Giacalone's son on the day Hoffa disappeared.

In that car, investigators now say they've retrieved a strand of hair. Now, DNA technology, not available in 1975, has determined that hair belonged to Jimmy Hoffa.

On Friday, Hoffa's son was asked about a confrontation with Chuckie O'Brien which occurred just days after his father's disappearance.


HOFFA: His actions were so suspicious on this day, he couldn't account for where he was on this important day. Obviously, it brought suspicion on him. This was on the very day that my father disappeared, or the next day. I had a major confrontation to him to say where were you, explain yourself. His reaction was to run out of the room, and I haven't seen him since. I am certainly disgusted with him. I have no intention with talking with him.


COSSACK: Joining us today from Detroit, Michigan, is James Burdick, a former attorney for Chuckie O'Brien. Also in Detroit, reporter Dave Shepardson of "The Detroit News," who's story late last week returned the Hoffa case right back to the front pages. We are joined from New York by forensic scientist Larry Kobilinsky, and in Miami, former federal prosecutor Leonard Sands. Here in Washington, Dawn Peters, former FBI agent Steve Pomerantz, who worked the Hoffa case, and Ashley Huffman.

Dave, let me go direct to you. Give us a little history on the Hoffa case. What happened that day when Hoffa disappeared? What was he supposed to do, and who are the suspects?

DAVID SHEPARDSON, THE DETROIT NEWS: Well, like you said, he was supposed to meet with former Teamster official and an alleged mobster, that meeting never happened. It was believed, and the FBI has always said, that that meeting was to clear up bad blood between the Teamsters and organized crime.

Jimmy Hoffa had talked about getting back into control of the Teamsters, taking the presidency again, even though his presidential pardon prevented him from taking an official role at the Teamsters until 1980.

Now, this hair they found almost immediately afterward, about one week after the disappearance in the car that Chuckie O'Brien admitted driving on that day. They were never able to conclusively tie that to James R. Hoffa because of the lack of technology. Now, in the last year, they've used DNA testing to conclusively link that hair to a hair found in James R. Hoffa's hair brush that was at his house at the time.

COSSACK: Now, who is Chuckie O'Brien.

SHEPARDSON: Chuckie O'Brien was basically like an adopted son to James R. Hoffa. I mean Chuckie O'Brien has always said that he loved James R. Hoffa, would kill for him, would do anything for him. The FBI had alleged that in the years before the disappearance there had been somewhat of a falling out between James R. Hoffa, and that he wracked up some gambling debts that the mob may have helped him pay off.

COSSACK: Now you are talking about James R. Hoffa -- a falling out between Hoffa and O'Brien?

SHEPARDSON: And Chuckie O'Brien, right.

COSSACK: And it was O'Brien who had the gambling debts?

SHEPARDSON: Well, that's what the FBI has always suggested as a motive for his alleged involvement in the disappearance.

COSSACK: And the sense is, is that Hoffa and O'Brien were very close, and Hoffa trusted O'Brien without any questions. Isn't that it?

SHEPARDSON: Absolutely. That's another point they make, is that if Jimmy Hoffa was going to be abducted or taken from that restaurant, he wouldn't get into a car that he didn't feel comfortable in. He was always paranoid, I mean he did he have dealings with organized crime. He wouldn't have gotten into a car that he didn't know, the people he didn't know.

COSSACK: And Chuckie O'Brien from day one has denied any involvement, but there is a story at least that sounds almost a little bit out of "The Sopranos," but there was -- that he was delivering a 40-pound frozen salmon that day in the car, and that there was some salmon blood that had apparently dripped in the car.

SHEPARDSON: Yes, that was his alibi. In fact, the salmon was delivered. I mean the UPS driver did confirm that. He picked up a 40-pound salmon and delivered it to another Teamsters official house.

Now he said that some of that salmon blood leaked in the back of the car, the UPS driver said that was frozen, that it wouldn't have leaked. The FBI apparently did do tests on that blood, but we don't know whether that blood was human, whether those results were also able to link Hoffa to the car.

COSSACK: But Chuckie claimed also that day, because of what had happened with the salmon, that he took the car and had it completely washed and scrubbed for whatever the blood was, and whatever else was in that car. Is that right?

SHEPARDSON: Exactly. Although he wasn't able to produce the receipt for the car wash for another month and a half, and despite the cleaning, it was just eight days later that they searched the car, they were able to find this single hair in the back of the car.

It is important to note this was a borrowed car, that Chuckie's car had apparently been repossessed, and that Jimmy Hoffa shouldn't have had any reason to be in that car that was this mobster son's car.

COSSACK: All right. Steve Pomerantz, let's talk. You were at that time still a young agent...


COSSACK: But a younger agent in those days, and in fact did some investigation on this case.

POMERANTZ: That's correct.

COSSACK: All right. Tell us about the investigation. What was the FBI looking into, and were there any other suspects besides this Chuckie O'Brien? POMERANTZ: Well, we've just heard a very good synopsis of the investigation in its early stages. There's not a whole lot to add. I think that it's correct, when you look at what's been written about this case through the years, to realize that the focus of the investigation was on the meeting at the Machus Red Fox restaurant Mr. Hoffa's connection to organized crime. It was pretty clear from the outset that this was not a robbery, this was not a random act of abduction. And the fact that Mr. Hoffa, who was very concerned about his safety and always acted in a very secure manner would get into a car, there was no evidence of an abduction at the scene. It was pretty clear he left that parking lot voluntarily.

The story you just heard is a very good synopsis of the early stages of that investigation.

COSSACK: Now we know, or they told us is that the reason that Jimmy Hoffa was there that day was to discuss with this Giacalone almost a peace treaty. That there had been some bad blood that arose while, I think, they were both in prison. Is that right?

POMERANTZ: I'm not sure of whether it arose when they were both in prison, but this is the speculation. We know he was there that day to meet with those people, because his family said so, that that's the reason he gave when he left his home. There had been, of course, this long history of association between the union and the mob. That relationship though was interrupted to some extent by Mr. Hoffa's imprisonment. He came back out, indicated he was interested in getting back into the Teamsters presidency, which would have been a problem for the mobsters, given their relationship that they had been able to solidify while he was in prison.

So that was always the speculation as to the motivation for the abduction and presumed homicide.

COSSACK: Leonard, the problem that Hoffa was having at that time was that he was viewed by, I suppose, the other parties in the Teamsters, and perhaps even those who were attempting to control the Teamsters, as being too hot. He had had run-ins with Bobby Kennedy at that time, and had just gotten out of prison.

Is that the problem -- is that the sort of the situation that he found himself in?

LEONARD SANDS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It's my recollection that you are correct in that assessment. There may have been those in the organized crime community that thought he might be close to cooperating with the government and becoming some sort of witness.

COSSACK: Let's talk to James Burdick. James, you at one time represented Chuckie O'Brien. Was he the only suspect in this case?

JAMES BURDICK, FMR. ATTY. FOR CHARLES O'BRIEN: No, I don't think he was the only suspect. In fact, I never felt that the FBI seriously considered him a suspect. I thought that was just so much (UNINTELLIGIBLE). At the time, they were trying to drive a wedge, as you recall, between various factions of the Teamsters Union. This was an early opportunity for the government to do that. The government was intent at that time on taking control of the Teamsters Union, which they ultimately we able to do in 1988. It was an ongoing effort in driving a wedge also between various people in the Teamsters Union using Chuckie O'Brien as kind of a pawn, and leaking out information about him would also serve a criminal investigation and might get people talking.

But it was Chuckie O'Brien who told them that he had had Tony Giacalone's car that day. And it was Chuckie O'Brien who told him that he had had the fish in the back of the car. It was Chuckie O'Brien who told them that he had gotten the car washed, and it was Chuckie O'Brien who gave them the car wash receipt. They wouldn't have known any of those things if it hadn't been for Chuckie O'Brien's cooperation. They make it sound like this was the results of a long investigation, but it all came from O'Brien.

In order to believe that Chuckie O'Brien was somehow involved in Mr. Hoffa's disappearance or death, you really have to believe that this notorious alleged mobster, Tony Giacalone, decided to have Chuckie O'Brien, one person probably most indebted to Jimmy Hoffa in the world, go pick up the mobster's son's car, and take that car to use to kill the leading labor leader in the history of the United States, maybe.

It is all so absurd, it doesn't even -- it wouldn't pay out in Hollywood, it would be rejected as a script in Hollywood because it doesn't make any sense. Nobody would have done that.

COSSACK: All right. Let me take a little break right now, and when we come back, what can investigators do though with only a hair of evidence when 26 years have passed since the crime? Don't go away.


Denver police and detectives are reviewing the account of an AOL user who claimed on a web site posting that he/she witnessed the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

The Boulder Police Chief received an e-mail on August 8 from an AOL user telling him about the posted confession. JonBenet was found beaten and strangled in December 1996.




HOFFA: Hopefully the federal government can follow through with this. And I am urging them that they have our full cooperation with regard to this prosecution, and we shouldn't wait 30 months. We should bring to justice those people who were responsible for my father's disappearance. So we are happy on one hand that we can have closure on this important issue, but we are urging that we move ahead quickly to make sure these people are prosecuted so that we can have the nation know what happened.


COSSACK: 26 years ago, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared from a Detroit restaurant. Now, investigators have found a hair of evidence, and the FBI says it will be making prosecutory decisions in the next 24 to 30 months.

Let's go to Larry Kobilinsky now, and talk a little bit about DNA. Larry, one hair, 26 years later. What magic does it have in store for us that you could tell?

LARRY KOBILINSKY, FORENSIC SCIENTIST: Well, age is really not a problem for DNA analysis. In fact, DNA has been typed in mummies and archaeological specimens. So, that's really not an issue.

Gene for gene, there's probably 400 times more DNA in the structures called mitochondria than a nucleus. That is what they're looking at in a hair shift. They're looking at what we call mitochondrial DNA. This is a form of DNA that is inherited through the maternal line, and it's used for identification.

So, simply put, one can use that hair to compare it to known hair and determine if there's a common origin.

COSSACK: Larry, what can the hair tell us? Now, we're not exactly sure whether or not this is hair with a root or just a piece of hair. Does that make any difference?

KOBILINSKY: It does scientifically. If there is a root then we can do nuclearer DNA testing. If there is no root, we can then do mitochondrial testing. The question that we can't answer is when the hair -- when was the hair deposited.


KOBILINSKY: It could have been days or weeks earlier.

The other possibility that exists, that I haven't heard anybody discussed, is that the hair could have originated from Mr. Hoffa, but then could have been transferred to another individual who then dropped the hair in the vehicle.

COSSACK: Now I think there's going to be, when we talk more to the prosecutors and others, I think there's going to be great problems I think that the prosecutors face with this case, trying to decide if this hair was there because Hoffa dropped it that day, or how else it got there.

What's the difference between having the root, you said one kind of testing and one kind of -- does it tell you more if you have the root? In other words, it's my understanding that what you can do now is narrow it down and say yes, this came from Hoffa, but it also could have come from members of Hoffa's family.

KOBILINSKY: That's correct, Roger. Siblings, brother and sister, will share the same mitochondrial DNA. If we have a root, we can do nuclear DNA, and that's where you can generate statistics of one in billions or one in trillions if there's a match.

With mitochondrial DNA we can't get statistics like that, the best we can do is say we've looked at 2,000 profiles, and this is different. So, basically, the statistics are going to be much less interesting.

But nevertheless, the conclusion is, is that this hair, most probably, at least scientifically, came from Jimmy Hoffa.

COSSACK: Leonard, let's talk a little bit about the prosecution now, and the prosecutor's role. You now have a piece of evidence that apparently was not possible until recently. What does that do for the investigation as a former U.S. attorney?

SANDS: Well, it certainly brings back the case to life, and is going to make the government look at the case again. It's an interesting fact, but in and of itself, it certainly doesn't make for enough justification based upon what is out in the public domain right now, to file charges.

I have to say that I agree with Hoffa's daughter, who is now a judge in St. Louis, who has made public statements, or statements at least have been attributed to her that she would like to see a prosecution, like her brother and the rest of the family, but does not think that there's enough out there.

The one thing that the government is doing that's probably most significant, is that agents who are no longer with the bureau, who have a long institutional memory, have been brought back and are being consulted to see if there are other leads, things that maybe they remember that would help put this together.

But O'Brien's story certainly has a lot of holes in it and doesn't make sense, and the government's going to review the entire scenario to see whether or not there is enough to file charges against anyone.

COSSACK: All right, let's...

SANDS: But, based upon what I've heard so far, I don't think so.

COSSACK: OK. Let's take a break. When we come back, federal officials say they could have an indictment in this case by December 2003.

Could this be an answer to the 26-year-old question: Where is Jimmy Hoffa?

Don't go away.

(BEGIN Q&A) Q: A Pennsylvania couple has been charged with theft and has had a civil suit filed against them for allegedly stealing what item.

A: A fossil of a rare and nearly complete dinosaur. The couple is accused of having someone dig up the fossil in 1991 in Utah and selling it to a Japanese collector.



COSSACK: Jimmy Hoffa was last seen on July 30th, 1975. For the past 26 years, his disappearance has baffled the FBI.

Steve, let's talk a little bit about Chuckie O'Brien as a suspect.

James says, you know, he may be a suspect, but it doesn't add up. Does he add up?

POMERANTZ: Well, it is hard to say whether it adds up, I agree with your analysis. It will be very, very difficult to prosecute this case, regardless of how this specific piece of evidence is evaluated. But as a suspect, yes, I think he adds up, for a whole variety of reasons, most of which we discussed earlier.

These things often, these murders, are not committed by rocket scientist. These are very straightforward. They decide to hit somebody, they use somebody close to that person, that the person will rust, because most of the people associated in this kind of life are very suspicious and very cautious. They set it up using people that the potential victim will know and trust, somebody they have a good hold on, and I think we've heard a lot of reasons why Chuckie O'Brien may fit that profile.

COSSACK: Let me ask James about that. James, don't you think in some ways the strongest evidence for whatever value it is, and maybe it's not very strong at all. Perhaps I'm misusing that word. On a scale one to 10, it's a two, but the fact of the matter is, is that Chuckie O'Brien was a close confidant of James Hoffa. James Hoffa was concerned about his own safety, and there's just a limited number of people that he would be trust to get in the car.

BURDICK: He also knew Tony Giacalone very well. He was close confidante of his, and he was a close confidante of Tony Giacalone's son. He knew him very well. Why use one guy in the state whose notorious for being indiscreet? Why would anybody use him, Chuckie O'Brien? And also it's the one guy who owes more to Mr. Hoffa than anybody else in the world. He has a real deep debt to Jimmy Hoffa, who took him and his mother in off the streets virtually when his father, when Chuckie's father was killed, and I mean, you add preposterous on top of preposterousness, because you can make anything look like somebody's guilty of something.

But why would we go to FBI and say, here, this is the car we were driving, and this was the fish that we delivered, this is the fish blood. Here's a receipt for the car wash. Why would anybody do all of that if they were guilty? Believe me, it would not be a plan I could make up, I'm not that smart.

Chuckie O'Brien was being as forthcoming as he knew how to be, and I think if they had the least inclination that he was really the guy, they would have come down hard, they would tried to prosecute him. But right now, they've got a hair that they...

COSSACK: James, the reality is, they may have wanted to come down hard, they may have tried try to prosecute him, but the fact of the matter is, that even today, there doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of evidence that could convict him.

Ray, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": Should fraternities and sororities be forced to integrate? Alabama wants them to do it voluntarily, or be forced to. Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time. We'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.

We'll see you then.



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