Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Retired cop: Organized crime said 'Oops!' in Hoffa fiasco

LANSING - Thirty years ago, just days before Labor Day, Vincent Piersante found out - to his satisfaction, anyway - what had happened to the famous missing labor leader, former Teamsters President JimmyHoffa.

Vincent Piersante, now a hale and healthy 86, was a cops' cop, who had spent much of his career as a Detroit police detective, fighting organized crime.

He had known Hoffa since he had wrestled a baseball bat out of his hands as a young cop, back in 1941. And he knew Detroit's organized crime families and factions like most of his buddies knew the lineup of the Detroit Tigers.

When Hoffa vanished onto thin air outside a Bloomfield Hills restaurant on July 30, 1975, Mr. Piersante suspected the mob. "But every one of our informants went underground," he said, reminiscing on his sunny front porch in Michigan's capital.

When it happened, Mr. Piersante was head of the organized-crime division of the Michigan attorney general's office, in charge of a vast effort to solve the disappearance. But those who were talking didn't know.

Those who knew weren't saying. Finally, three weeks later, his best informant surfaced and gave him the story. They weren't supposed to kill him, said Mr. Piersante, who looks and acts much younger than his years.

They were just supposed to deliver a message. The message was that organized crime didn't want Jimmy Hoffa, recently released after years in federal prison, to try to make a comeback as president of the Teamsters.

The mob was happy with Frank Fitzsimmons, who had taken over the union when Hoffa went to prison. They sent three low-rankling hoodlums from New Jersey to deliver a message: "Jimmy, stay out of the Teamsters. Enjoy your retirement."

But that sent the hot-tempered Hoffa into a rage. He thought he was going to a meeting with two top mobsters, Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone of Detroit and Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano of New Jersey.

Instead, he wound up meeting only guys would have regarded as goons. They may not have killed him at all, Mr. Piersante said.

He isn't sure exactly how Hoffa died. "There was a fight. He might have had a heart attack. Or, yes, they may have shot him. In any event, he ended up dead. So they called for instructions.

"They said, 'Oops. We did an oops.'●" So they were told what to do. What happened next, he is absolutely certain, was that Jimmy Hoffa was not buried under Giants Stadium or sealed in a barrel filled with cement.

Instead, he was made into Crisco. Or something like it. The body was taken to a rendering plant in Wayne and essentially cooked down to animal fat.

They didn't even report him missing till the next day. By that time, he believes, the family had been told what had happened.

The case was never, of course, officially solved. Was it the biggest case of his life? "Biggest fiasco, I would say," he said, shaking his head.

Once, during that hot summer of Hoffa's disappearance, they got a tip that the body was buried at a site in Oakland County. The media were informed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Piersante established that the tipster was a phony.

He told that to Michigan's attorney general. "Thanks, Vince," said Frank Kelley, who always had one eye on his next election campaign. "But see all those reporters over there? See those [news] helicopters flying up there?"

"We better dig a hole."

So they did, finding nothing, of course. Every few years, there is a new rumor, a new claim made by some convict who wants a day out of prison, and headlines appear and somebody digs up a backyard.

And Vince Piersante chuckles.

He retired in 1985, having fought corruption his whole life. He fought the perception that an Italian boy from the East Side of Detroit couldn't investigate the mob. He battled corruption on the force, crooked police chiefs (a couple attempted to frame him), and even a crooked mayor or two.

He put more than a few of the bad guys in jail, and if he didn't quite wipe out organized crime, "well, at least I had the effect of making them always look over their shoulder."

He never made much money and never wrote that book he always talked about, in part because he thinks it would depress people. "At any time, about half the police force were honest and about half were open to do something for money," he said.

He had been a well-paid young executive at Ford Motor Co. when he decided to quit and become a policeman back one day in 1941. "My in-laws weren't too happy," he said with a laugh.

Would he do it all over again? "Oh, yes. You learn that you can never compromise with evil. Somebody has to fight it," he said. Let's hope that Vincent Piersante settles down to write that book after all.

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