They got Hoffa-ed: Lives turned upside down in search for Teamsters boss

Story highlights

Four decades after Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa went missing, the search for his body lives on

Michigan residents whose lives were upended by those looking for answers share their stories

From urban to suburban, rural to remote, variety of landscapes and people have been Hoffa-ed​

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in July 2014. Jimmy Hoffa disappeared 40 years ago – on July 30, 1975.

Detroit, Michigan CNN —  

The knock came for Pat Szpunar one afternoon in September 2012. At her door on a quiet corner in Roseville, a northeast suburb of Detroit, stood two local police detectives.

After some chitchat, she was hit with this doozy: They suspected a body was buried in her backyard.

Szpunar, a 74-year-old widow who has lived in the house since 1988, couldn’t help but laugh.

“What?” she asked. “You think Jimmy Hoffa’s buried back there?”

The detectives looked stunned but wouldn’t say who they were looking for. She was only joking, but then a local reporter who’d caught wind of the investigation showed up. He wanted to talk about the former Teamsters boss who, he heard, was underneath her property.

Soon, Szpunar says, all hell broke loose, turning her place “not into a three-ring circus” but “a five-ring circus.”

And thus Szpunar became part of an exclusive club that none of its members asked to join: those innocent Michigan residents whose lives have been upended in the search for Hoffa’s body.

Some of their homes are referred to as Hoffa houses. In grocery stores they might hear questions like, “Aren’t you the Hoffa lady?” From time to time, strangers lurk outside their properties and pull out cameras.

Four decades after Hoffa vanished on July 30, 1975, the search for his body and clues to his disappearance lives on.

In 2013, agents descended on an Oakland Township field in suburban Detroit and tore it up, looking for his remains.

“People say it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, but we’ve got a responsibility if a (credible) tip comes in to investigate and see if it pans out,” says Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe. “You have an obligation. It’s an unsolved homicide, and the bottom line is that’s what we’re paid to do.”

The tip that time around came from the 85-year-old son of a former mob boss, the Detroit Free Press reported. Hoffa had been hit with a shovel, buried alive and could be found beneath a slab of concrete, the paper said. But like all the previous digs, the much-hyped hunt came up empty.

Theories abound as to what happened to Hoffa. He was entombed under Giants Stadium. He was chopped up and tossed in a Florida swamp. He was run through an industrial shredder or incinerator. His disappearance has been the subject of countless books, movies and speculation – and an investigation that has spanned four decades, spawned leads outside Michigan and involved a multitude of agencies across various jurisdictions.

The FBI’s field office in Detroit alone has “files and files and files, as you can imagine,” says Supervisory Special Agent David Porter, a spokesman for the office.

There’s no way to quantify how many digs, how many tips or how many officials have touched the case, Porter says.

But one thing is for sure: Each time a search proves fruitless, investigators and media walk away, leaving shell-shocked property owners in their wake. Who are these people who’ve received knocks on their doors and unwittingly found themselves at the center of one of this country’s biggest criminal mysteries? What was the experience like for them?

We set out to hear their stories.

Some say they wouldn’t wish the ordeal on their worst enemies. There are those who’ve found humor in the bizarre experience, others who believe answers have been covered up and some who can’t shake the bitter memories of feeling violated. Then there are those, including the folks affected by the latest search, who simply refuse to speak about it.

’How ridiculous can you get?’

Szpunar recounts the events of two years ago with a mix of disgust and an appreciation for the absurd.

One reporter led to many. Helicopters buzzed overhead. TV satellite and microwave trucks filled the street, keeping Szpunar and some of her neighbors homebound. The phone, she says, rang so much it was “trying to walk across the kitchen floor.”

A tipster had sent authorities to her home, suggesting Hoffa was buried beneath the driveway. He described a previous homeowner as a bookmaker for a Detroit Mafia captain – someone suspected to have ties to Hoffa’s disappearance, the Detroit Free Press reported. The night Hoffa went missing, the tipster said he saw the bookmaker pouring fresh concrete.

Ground-scanning radar showed there’d been some disturbances under the concrete. Bright orange dots were painted to mark where they were. Detectives homed in on the dots inside a shed built on the driveway and said they’d be back to drill for samples. Fine by her.

Police drilled through concrete under a driveway shed at Pat Szpunar's Roseville, Michigan, home in the search for Hoffa.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Police drilled through concrete under a driveway shed at Pat Szpunar's Roseville, Michigan, home in the search for Hoffa.

The media floodlights shining onto her small lot and into her windows at 3 a.m. were no picnic, but it’s the gawkers who really got to her.

Her daughter told her to split and come stay with family. Szpunar wouldn’t have it. This was her property. If anyone should leave, it wasn’t her.

People would crowd and lean against her fence at all hours, staring at her driveway. They’d jockey to get closer, snapping photos, their eyes trained on the pavement.

“What’d they think? Hoffa was gonna jump up out of that ground and wave at them and say, ‘Hi! Here I am!’ Here I am!” she says. “I mean, how ridiculous can you get?”

When she’d just about had it, she marched out of her house and started taking pictures of them.

“They got angry at me,” she says with a smile. “But they got angry enough to go home.”

Authorities drilled two holes into the concrete under the shed and removed tubes of dirt reported to be about 4 inches wide and 6 feet deep. She takes a drag of her cigarette and points to the holes, now filled with dirt. They sit as reminders, next to her son’s Harley, of a two-week period she’d like to forget.

Apparently nothing came of the forensic analysis, because the search was called off.

“I have no idea what the results were, and I couldn’t care less,” she says.

Maybe a tree trunk or buried dog had caused the underground disturbance? Beats her.

She’s just grateful Jimmy Hoffa wasn’t there. If he had been, she would have moved to get away from the public stares.

“It’s over. It’s done with. Kaboom. Bye-bye.”

Crime scene dreams

Before he even knew about the bloodstained hardwood floorboards in his home, Rickey Wilson Sr. had premonitions. The dreams, he says, started after he and his family moved in and were always versions of the same scene.

Two or three men were fighting in the front hallway of the northwest Detroit house, and one of them got killed. Wilson would wake up in a cold sweat. He was so shaken by the visions that he wouldn’t use the front door of the family’s three-story French Tudor.

Then came the knock in spring 2004 that offered answers. It was a Fox News team from New York. The conversation that unfolded sounded a bit like what Pat Szpunar went through in Roseville.

“They told me that someone famous was killed in my home, and I said, ‘What? It’s not like it’s Jimmy Hoffa or anything?’ And they turned white as sheep,” he says.

It was an end-of-life confession. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a Pennsylvania Teamsters leader said to have Mafia ties, told Fox correspondent Eric Shawn and author Charles Brandt that he’d killed Hoffa in the house years before Wilson bought it in 1989. He described details about the house, including the exact spot where he said he’d shot Hoffa in the head.

Rickey Wilson Sr.'s northwest Detroit house became the scene of a 2004 search after blood was found on floorboards.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Rickey Wilson Sr.'s northwest Detroit house became the scene of a 2004 search after blood was found on floorboards.

All this was set to come out in Brandt’s biography of Sheeran, “I Heard You Paint Houses” – Mafia code for “I heard you kill men.”

Years earlier, not too long after Wilson and his family had moved in, a “Paul Bunyan king-sized waterbed” exploded and sent a wave down the stairs, ruining the main floor’s gold carpet. Pulling up the carpet, Wilson discovered the beautiful hardwood floor that had been hidden. It was perfect, except for some dark stains in the front hallway. That area he just covered with some peel-and-stick tile.

“I had no idea that we were preserving the evidence,” says Wilson, 56.

Because Brandt’s book would soon identify his house anyway, Wilson allowed Fox News to bring in a forensic team. They peeled up the tile, tested the stained hardwood, determined it was blood and tipped off authorities.

When Brandt’s book came out, the rest of the media swarmed. Wilson, his wife and four children avoided the brunt of the chaos. He says Fox News, set on having the exclusive, sent them off with a credit card to a five-star hotel, where they stayed for four days.

They slept undisturbed by calls or bright lights. The kids enjoyed the pool. Sometimes the family would drive near the house to get a quick glimpse of the commotion before scooting away.

After the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and FBI got involved, three large sections of the floor were removed and sent off for DNA testing.

Wilson and a friend briefly fantasized about cutting up the remaining bloodstained sections of the floor and selling them online. They never did.

Good thing because, in the end, the FBI determined that the blood, while human, wasn’t Hoffa’s. But Wilson – given the stains, the confession and his dreams (which stopped after the investigation) – doesn’t buy it. He’s convinced there was a mix-up, maybe even a cover-up. He wishes Hoffa’s family could get some answers.

“I believe he was killed there,” says Wilson, who sold the house in 2010. “They may find his body somewhere, but like I said, he was killed there. I’m sure of that.”

Swimming in an Olympic-sized mystery

One place where investigators went all out in the search for Hoffa’s body was an idyllic horse farm in Milford, northwest of Detroit.

The land was once owned by a Detroit Teamsters leader, Rolland McMaster, who’d once been a confidant of Hoffa’s – and, by some counts, had a falling out with him. The farm is a straight shot west, about 15 miles, from the suburban Detroit restaurant where Hoffa was last seen.

He’d gone there on July 30, 1975, to reportedly settle some feud with a New Jersey Teamsters leader and Detroit Mafia captain. He was stood up. And though his car was found in the restaurant’s lot, Hoffa was never spotted again.

An aging and ill federal prisoner who’d worked on the farm came forward with his own confession. He’d seen Hoffa being buried. And that’s how the owners of Hidden Dreams Farm suddenly found themselves, in May 2006, at the center of the search’s storm.

Tom Iannucci, 65, stands in the rebuilt horse barn, the previous one having been razed. He’s a CPA and was working in Ann Arbor the day he got a call saying the FBI was at the farm with a search warrant.

His life partner of 32 years, Tina Lessnau, was out of town. The farm – which they’d owned since late 1998 – had been her dream, ever since she read “Black Beauty” as a little girl. He dropped what he was doing and drove the 45 minutes to see the warrant himself.

A group of agents greeted him, he says, and handed him what looked like a “thin phone book.”

Overwhelmed, he started to read. An agent interrupted and suggested he just flip to the third page.

“‘We’re looking for the remains of James Riddle Hoffa,’” he remembers reading. “I’m sure everybody, the first thing they say is, ‘Aw, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ which is what I did, too.”

But, as an agent told one of his equally skeptical business partners on the farm, “The FBI doesn’t joke.”

About 50 agents, from Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere, became part of this multiweek search, Iannucci says. They were around, day and night. Lessnau brought them burgers and even lured some of the city slickers onto horses.

The tipster had passed a lie detector test. And a tree growing out of the side of a large red barn matched the description – and age – of the tree said to mark where Hoffa was buried, Iannucci says.

The body, agents believed, was underneath the enormous structure. Twenty horses were moved to temporary tents and in rolled an “old clamshell digger” truck, Iannucci remembers, which took the big red barn down in a matter of hours.

Demolition workers tore down a horse barn at Hidden Dreams Farm in May 2006.
Getty Images
Demolition workers tore down a horse barn at Hidden Dreams Farm in May 2006.

“Where we’re standing right now looked like an Olympic-sized swimming pool made out of sand,” he says. “They’d have the backhoe scrape away a foot or two, and then a bunch of the agents would jump in and dig around for a bit.”

This went on and on, creating a 6-foot deep hole the length of the massive structure.

Helicopters flew overhead. Media and gawkers tried to catch glimpses from along the vast farm’s guarded perimeter. A wedding party even showed up. A local bakery cashed in, making cupcakes decorated with small hands reaching out of chocolate icing made to look like dirt.

In the end, it was an empty search, like those before and after – and a pricey one at that. All told, it cost about $250,000, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Agents, who’d arrived so confident, disappeared quietly amid criticism of wasted taxpayer dollars. About five months later, Iannucci had a new barn. While he admits it was a nuisance, he looks around the rebuilt structure – which sits near a memorial bench for Lessnau, who died last year – and won’t complain.

In fact, he finds reasons to laugh.

Sometimes people show up at the farm not to see horses but to see the barn.

“People will say, ‘Oh, this is the Hoffa barn,’” he says, and he’ll answer, “No, no. It’s not the Hoffa barn. It’s the almost-Hoffa barn. Because if they’d found him, let’s face it, I’d be selling T-shirts and coffee mugs and not boarding horses anymore.”

A body, a briefcase and a big mess

Outside Bay City, a couple of hours drive north of Detroit, a body was found at Linda and Alan Foote’s place. But it wasn’t Hoffa’s.

At a table in the couple’s Essexville backyard, Linda Foote opens a large black folder full of documents, newspaper clippings and memories.

Their story, like many others, began with a convict’s confession. In this case it was Richard Powell, an imprisoned murderer who’d once lived in their home. The house changed hands five or six times before the Footes bought it about 14 years ago.

One day, Powell contacted Chris Hansen, then a correspondent with “Dateline NBC.” Powell said he buried a body for a friend in the house’s crawlspace. The network contacted local police, who showed up at the Foote’s front door in early 2003.

Linda took one look at the dogs they brought with them and asked: “What are you looking for, a body or drugs?”

Sure enough, buried in that crawlspace was an area man, Robert A. Woods, who’d been missing for 29 years. The Footes told police they were worried about their children. They didn’t know what ties Powell might still have and begged for discretion. There was no hubbub. Woods’ remains were quietly removed. The crawlspace was left cleaner than authorities found it, and that was that.

Except Powell also told “Dateline NBC” he’d hidden a briefcase in the backyard that contained evidence tied to Hoffa’s murder.

Inside, he said, was a hypodermic syringe used to sedate Hoffa, a deck of cards, notes from the suspects, $200 in cash and a book holding automobile codes.

Once again, authorities came knocking. This time it was the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, which Linda says was less discrete.

“We’ll be back in the morning, and we’re bringing ‘Dateline’ with us,” Linda, 51, remembers them saying.

She objected, but it didn’t much matter. By the next morning, the doors to pandemonium flung wide open.

A map to the Footes’ home appeared online. The three-quarter-acre empty lot next door filled with media trucks and onlookers. “Dateline NBC” brought in a cherry picker so they could shoot over the backyard. A SWAT team in camouflage, brandishing what looked to Linda like machine guns, lined the back of the property. Two helicopters hovered overhead.

All for a briefcase, she thought – although some ill-advised reporters kept talking about a body.

The Footes say someone from “Dateline NBC” approached that day and offered them $500 to talk. They declined. If they’d known what a zoo it was going to become, Linda says, they could have planned and made a killing selling Hoffa hot dogs and Hoffa hamburgers. Instead she served those at an end-of-summer family barbecue.

Powell, the convicted murderer, was delivered by helicopter, flown from Jackson State Prison to a nearby high school. A white limo then ferried him to the Footes’ home.

In handcuffs, he was led around the yard to show officials where to dig. He pointed to the Footes’ above-ground pool and said the briefcase was under it. He was then whisked away. The water was drained from the 26-foot pool and a backhoe rolled onto their lawn, breaking pavement along the way.

Investigators dug and dug and dug that day. What’d they find? Nothing more than a single silver fork, says Linda, who keeps it in a small plastic bag in her folder.

The authorities and media scampered off, leaving the Footes with a huge pile of dirt, a destroyed pool, a gaping hole in the ground, and a poolside deck to nowhere.

Alan, 52, says he still feels violated. For a long time, he says he’d stroll out back, think about the mess that was made, and just stew.

Eventually, the Footes were given a replacement pool and help moving the deck. But a cracked sidewalk and driveway, edging, permits, laying new electricity lines and more all fell on them.

People talked like they made money on the deal, but the two of them scoff. They were out at least $500 to $800, Linda says, leafing through receipts. If it hadn’t been for all the labor Alan did himself – he’s worked in maintenance and has electrical experience – they would have lost thousands.

A couple of years later, Alan gave Linda a metal detector for Christmas as a joke. She fetches another plastic bag from her house showing the loot she and her sister found in the backyard. An old tube of toothpaste labeled “Ribbon Dental Cream” and a bunch of rusted metal shards.

“We did better than Oakland County,” she says with a laugh.

Linda looks down at her tasteful and professional purple shirt and says she’d resisted the urge to wear a T-shirt that reads, “Gone Squatchin’” – an ode to the search for Bigfoot, or Sasquatch.

“I think they’ll find a Squatch before they find Jimmy Hoffa,” she says. “No offense to his family.”

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The long, strange search for Jimmy Hoffa