Interview: Charles Brandt, author 'I Heard You Paint Houses'

Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa (Photos courtesy of Charles Brandt, Getty Images)

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran had long been a suspect in Jimmy Hoffa disappearance.  Shortly before his death in 2003, Sheeran confessed to the crime in a memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses,” co-authored by Charles Brandt.

An associate of Philadelphia mafia boss Russell Bufalino and a Teamsters official, Sheeran had been a Hoffa ally. But when Bufalino and other organized crime figures turned on Hoffa, Sheeran sided with his organized crime mentor.

According to his confession, Sheeran came to Detroit on July 30, 1975 ostensibly to attend the wedding of Bufalino’s niece to the son of criminal defense attorney William Bufalino (no relation). Sheeran claims he used that opportunity and his friendship with Hoffa to lure Hoffa from the Machus Red Fox parking lot to a house where he ultimately killed.

While law enforcement has never verified Sheeran’s story, his name appears in the FBI’s “Hoffex” memo.

ClickOnDetroit interviewed Sheeran's co-author Charles Brandt, about his confession and life.

In “I Heard You Paint Houses,” you describe Russell Bufalino as possibly the most powerful crime boss in America at one time, though he was less known than Carlo Gambino or Sam Giancana. Sheeran portrays himself as Bufalino’s go-to muscle. Who were these men and how did they enter Jimmy Hoffa’s orbit?

Jimmy Hoffa was more in their orbit than they were in his. Presidents were elected by delegates at a convention, not by the rank-and-file. Fat Tony Salerno, the boss of the Genovese family, which sat on the ruling Mafia Commission at the time of Hoffa’s murder, controlled a large block of delegates. After Hoffa was killed Fat Tony Salerno was picked up on a wiretap dictating to the Teamsters Union whom their next President would be. Salerno was prosecuted for that in the Mafia Commission Case.

Russell Bufalino was the boss of Pennsylvania, excluding Philadelphia; and the boss of New York State excluding Buffalo and most of New York City. Nevertheless, his holdings in Manhattan were extensive: restaurants including the Vesuvio Restaurant in the theater district, his hangout; two jewelry stores in the diamond district on 47th Street; and the Copacabana nightclub.  Bufalino had final script approval of the movie The Godfather.

While Bufalino did not sit on the Ruling Commission, his status within the Mafia was enormous and no major undertaking was done without his approval or his planning and leadership of the operation.

Bufalino kept a suite at the Hotel Consulate and went to Manhattan with Frank Sheeran every Thursday. Lin DeVecchio, the FBI Supervisor of the Mafia Commission Case that liquidated the Mafia’s Ruling Commission for all time, told me for our co-authored book, "We’re Going to Win This Thing" that he had Bufalino’s Hotel Consulate suite bugged and his phone tapped but Bufalino was so old school that he never talked business in his suite or on the phone.

Undercover FBI Agent Joe Pistone, the real Donnie Brasco told me for our co-authored book, "Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business" that he hung around at the bar at the Vesuvio on Thursday nights posing as a jewel thief trying to listen for intelligence, but Bufalino kept to himself even though Bufalino did a lot of business with jewel thieves.

There are several circumstantial reasons to believe Sheeran’s story. The FBI mentions him prominently in the Hoffex memo, for instance, and the two men had been close. At the same time, there have been many Hoffa stories. What convinced you Sheeran’s account was credible?

"In the parking lot Sheeran lured Hoffa into a car driven by Chuckie O’Brien and containing Sheeran and Sal Briguglio who worked for Provenzano. Frank told Hoffa the meeting location had been changed and that Hoffa’s ally and Frank’s Mafia boss Russell Bufalino would be at this meeting."

I am a professional interrogator. I know when a subject has a need to confess. I taught interrogation to cops and cross-examination to other lawyers. I didn’t have Frank on the witness stand for an afternoon; I had Frank to myself for close to five years.

Frank was truly remorseful. Frank was raised a strict Roman Catholic. His father had studied for the priesthood and his mother went to mass every morning. Before his 411 combat days in World War II, Frank had never done anything wrong in his life.

Following his final and most significant confession to me done on videotape, a remorseful Frank Sheeran took Communion from the priest and committed suicide by refusing to eat. He was dead in six weeks. Since publication in 2004, Frank’s confessions have been corroborated by others.

Looking at Sheeran’s story critically, he puts himself at so many significant organized crime events. He claims he delivered guns to Dallas before the Kennedy assassination, that he killed Crazy Joey Gallo, that he took Bufalino to Apalachin, that he delivered a bribe to John Mitchell. Do we have to separate fact from some fiction here, or do you think Sheeran was on the level?

On the level in every way. After Big Billy D’Elia corroborated Sheeran, the FBI’s Detroit office interviewed me by phone and subpoenaed my tapes. In a nearly five-year period I questioned and re-questioned Frank on tape to ensure that it was all true.

When you’re as close as he was to two of the most powerful men of that era you are going to be exposed to a great many things.

The Gallo integrity test is the best demonstration of Frank’s integrity. Frank confessed to that hit in the face of an overwhelming number of claims that three Italians did it.

Interestingly, the bribe to John Mitchell was the one item that my publisher Chip Fleischer had a little trouble with. In visiting his parents he told them about the book he was eager to buy, but not being alive during Watergate he had trouble imagining that an Attorney General would take bribes. Chip’s father had been a very prominent attorney in Kansas City. His parents told Chip that a close family friend told them during the relevant period that Kansas Senator Bob Dole had told the family friend that he was concerned about the tons of cash that Nixon and Mitchell were taking in as if they were preparing, as future Presidential candidate Dole put it, “to finance a coup.”

As a former prosecutor, have you seen evidence that strengthens or weakens your belief in Sheeran’s story in the 11 years since “I Heard You Paint Houses” was published?

HOFFA – In 2006, the Bufalino family boss who succeeded Bufalino on his death, the former underboss to Russell and Russell’s nephew, Big Billy D’Elia, a man who didn’t like me and didn’t trust me to be traveling with Frank in Mafia circles, got arrested for ordering hits on two government witnesses on tape. For a reduced sentence Big Billy D’Elia became a cooperating witness for the FBI. The first question the agents asked him in jail was what happened to Hoffa and he told them Sheeran had told the truth. When "I Heard You Paint Houses" came out in 2004 Big Billy D’Elia had inscribed it to one of his men, Frank Pavlico: “Sometimes you can believe everything you read.”

GALLO – In 2004 a top editor on the New York Times saw Frank’s photo in I Heard You Paint Houses. It gave her “chills.” She had been at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy the early morning that “Crazy Joey” Gallo was shot to death. She fled with her friends and over the years had not read any accounts.

The prevailing story was that Gallo had been killed by three Italian shooters. There are several books and two movies that portray the murder as the work of three Italians. During my sessions with Frank, I challenged him with these stories when he told me that he’d killed Gallo and that he did it by himself.

This NY Times editor eyewitness positively identified a photo of Sheeran as the shooter and said that Frank had no one else with him. Frank was directly in front of her while shooting. With her face hidden she later picked Frank out on camera for PBS television’s Histories Mysteries.

The Gallo case belonged to NYPD Det. Joe Coffey, who had founded the NYPD Organized Crime Homicide Division. He agreed that Frank was the lone killer of Gallo. He explained that he had allowed that story of three Italian men doing the shooting to circulate unanswered to serve as what law enforcement calls an “integrity test.” Any street informant who came forward to sell information about the three shooters would be instantly dismissed for failing the “integrity test” because it was a lone gunman who was very large and not Italian. Frank and I passed the test.

Based on Sheeran’s account, of the other alleged players in the Hoffa murder, who else was actually involved and how? Tony Provenzano? Tony Giacalone? Chuckie O’Brien? Sal Briguglio? Frank Fitzsimmons?

Provenzano and Giacalone were part of the set up to lure Hoffa to a meeting at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomington Township to square a personal beef between Hoffa and Provenzano and to enlist Provenzano’s support in Hoffa’s upcoming 1976 union election.

In the parking lot Sheeran lured Hoffa into a car driven by Chuckie O’Brien and containing Sheeran and Sal Briguglio who worked for Provenzano. Frank told Hoffa the meeting location had been changed and that Hoffa’s ally and Frank’s Mafia boss Russell Bufalino would be at this meeting. In Hoffa’s mind having Russell there would be good news. The car took Hoffa to what Hoffa thought would be a meeting with Bufalino at a house in Detroit where instead he was killed on walking in.

The cleaners who took the body to a crematorium were brothers Tom and Steve Andretta. Frank wasn’t involved in the cremation and so he doesn’t know which cemetery Hoffa’s body was taken to. A Taylor, Michigan police officer Jeff Hansen did his own investigation and wrote a book about his search and his conclusions, "Digging For the Truth."

As Frank put it to emphasize that the body was cremated and not buried: “If there was a body to be found, the FBI would have found it a long time ago.”

Fitzsimmons played no role. All are dead, but O’Brien. He is living in Boca Raton, FL and Tom Andretta who is living in Las Vegas NV. Because these two are still alive it remains an open FBI case.

 

What did Sheeran understand as the motive for the hit?

There were three interconnected motives.

First, when Hoffa went to jail, courtesy of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s personal crusade against Hoffa, Hoffa put a weakling Frank Fitzsimmons in charge as President with Hoffa still calling important shots from jail. The Teamsters Central States Pension Fund was a billion dollar fund in 1960s money that Hoffa had made available over the years for loans in real estate development, mostly Las Vegas casinos. The Mafia, often through Bufalino helped builders get these loans and took a ten percent finder’s fee, which was split with Hoffa under the table.

Under Hoffa the loans were legitimate, collateralized and repaid into the pension fund. Under the weakling Fitzsimmons the loans were not so legitimate and the Mafia misused the billion-dollar fund. When Hoffa was released from prison on a pardon by President Richard Nixon in 1971, Hoffa announced publicly and repeatedly that he was going to run for President against Fitz in 1976 and that once he got his hands on the Pension Fund records he was going to expose all the bad loans Fitz had made to the Mafia.

This was loose talk, “puffing” that Frank [Sheeran] did not believe Hoffa intended to put into action. Nevertheless, that talk and talk like it that was just as threatening to the Mafia, sealed Hoffa’s fate. Both Frank and Russell tried to warn Hoffa at a meeting at Broadway Eddie’s in Philadelphia in 1974. But Hoffa couldn’t be talked to. When Frank told Hoffa “what it is”, meaning Hoffa would be killed if he didn’t drop out of the race, Hoffa replied, “They wouldn’t dare.”

Second, capo Tony Provenzano and his boss Fat Tony Salerno of the Genovese family controlled Fitz, and even if Hoffa had controlled his incendiary language they were not about to let Hoffa run in the next election and take away their golden goose, an election Hoffa likely would have won.

Third, Pro and Hoffa had a deep feud going back to their days in jail together in the 1960s. At a meeting in Miami, when both were out of jail, held to square the prison beef, instead, Pro threatened to kill Hoffa’s grandchildren and rip out Hoffa’s guts.

But the main motive was control of that billion-dollar pension fund. As Frank put it: “I don’t have to tell you how much juice comes out of a billion dollars.”

The FBI’s files on the Hoffa disappearance mention Sheeran prominently. It seems like they understood what happened. Why do you think the Feds were unable to crack this case and make arrests?

Bob Garrity, the Hoffa Case Agent, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation from day one and the author of the Hoffex Memo, cracked the who-done-it part very quickly, but could not learn what the participants did. Nobody talked. Nobody could even be interrogated. The 1966 Supreme Court decision of Miranda v. Arizona took power away from law enforcement when it came to picking up suspects for interrogation. Miranda put into the hands of the criminal a mute button on the remote control. Press the button and the cop who picks you up can’t ask a single question. As a result, picking a suspect up for questioning has pretty much gone out of style except in old movies. For example, Frank was in jail with one of the infamous 1950s Brinks Armored Car robbers. From informants the Boston Police knew who had done the job, but had no proof. For eight years the police picked up the suspects and interrogated them. Finally, one of them confessed and implicated the others. No can do since 1966.

However, all of the Hoffa suspects were pursued for whatever crimes the authorities could get on them. The way Al Capone was pursued and jailed for tax evasion the FBI got them all for something. The FBI got Frank for Labor Racketeering and he was sentenced to 32 years; when someone else might have gotten five years. The FBI visited him in jail regularly, but he used his mute button. I got Frank released on early parole for medical reasons after he had served nine years, and that’s how our relationship got started.

What did Hoffa’s disappearance ultimately mean for organized crime and the Teamsters?

As a result of the Hoffa case the FBI put on tons of new agents. As I recall, 200 or so. Many leads were developed and evidence gathered that would be put to use against the Mafia.

The Teamsters were put under and still are under a federal receivership.

I believe it exposed the Mafia to headline after headline for many years and that alone proved damaging to the bosses, and therefore, to the crucial “organized” part of organized crime.

The real damage began to be done to the Mafia about five years after Hoffa’s disappearance by the FBI’s New York office of Organized Crime under then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani; by FBI Supervisor Jim Kossler; and by the agents that I call the New Untouchables in the books I wrote with undercover agent Joe Pistone, the bravest law enforcement officer ever, a man who lived with death day and night as an associate in the Bonanno crime family and by the supervisor of the RICO case against the Mafia Commission, Lin DeVecchio whose skills at informant development decapitated the Mafia by destroying the Commission.

Lin’s “crown jewel” of an informant Greg “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa was responsible for nearly all of the probable cause used to tap and bug the Mafia Commission. In retaliation, the Mafia unsuccessfully tried to frame Lin for murder.

In addition, Prof. G. Robert Blakey of Notre Dame law school, a former Mafia fighter under Bobby Kennedy wrote new laws, especially the RICO statute, that the New Untouchables were able to use effectively to bring the Mafia to its knees.

By the Way, Frank Sheeran was one of only two non-Italians who were sued by Rudy Giuliani in the Civil part of the RICO Mafia Commission Case with the likes of Fat Tony Salerno. The other was Moishe Rockman, the Jewish brother-in-law of the Cleveland boss John Scalise, married to Scalise’s sister and in charge of the Cleveland family’s interests in Las Vegas.

A movie is in development about Sheeran. Are you involved in the production and what can we expect from the film?

The names of the artists involved speak loudly for what we can expect from the film. Martin Scorsese is expected to both produce and direct. Robert De Niro is expected to both produce and star as Frank Sheeran.  Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Bobby Cannavale are expected to costar.

The screenplay adaptation of "I Heard You Paint Houses" is by Steve Zaillian who won the Oscar for Schindler’s List and has written many acclaimed movies, such as American Gangster and Moneyball. I hope to serve as an advisor. I don’t know when it might be filmed, but getting these big name artists together at the same time must be difficult for the producers.

The working title has been "The Irishman," but recently in a Wall Street Journal video interview Robert De Niro said he preferred the movie be titled "I Heard You Paint Houses" after the book.

To paint a house is to kill someone. The “paint” is the blood that spatters on the walls and the floor. “I Heard You Paint Houses” were the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever uttered to Frank Sheeran when Russell Bufalino introduced Frank to Hoffa.

 

Charles Brandt will join us at 3:00 p.m. for a live web chat to answer your questions about the Hoffa case and Frank Sheeran's life.