Jimmy Hoffa was a union leader who demanded results. And it didn’t matter too much how he got them. That style of governance carried over to the people who worked for him, some of whom apparently were prepared to knock off a few law enforcement agents. This past April, U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell in Nashville, Tennessee unsealed long-dormant grand jury testimony revealing several Hoffa supporters had planned to ambush and murder a group of FBI agents in that city. The plan never came off. But the details, contained in transcripts released to the public late in July, underscore the fanaticism prevalent among the late Teamster president’s loyalists.
This new bombshell originated during the course of a research project conducted by William L. Tabac, a retired law professor at Cleveland State University. Tabac had filed a Freedom of Information Act request in a quest to know if Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his top aides improperly gathered improper evidence against Hoffa for his criminal trial in Nashville. Tabac believed they had. Hoffa and Kennedy, of course, were mortal enemies. Things came to a head in March 1963 when Walter J. Sheridan, a Kennedy special assistant who headed the investigation, testified before a Nashville grand jury that Hoffa supporters the previous year had planned to trap several FBI agents in an alley “and have a bunch of business agents waiting for them.” Hoffa, elected Teamsters president in 1957, had gone on trial in 1962 in Nashville on charges of extorting a million-dollar “contribution” from a union trucking company. The case ended in a hung jury.
At the grand jury hearing, Sheridan quoted Ewing King, head of the Teamsters local in Nashville, as saying the ambush could be carried out under the guise of self-defense. The transcripts didn’t spell out the logistics of the attack. But this much was certain: The FBI had been conducting surveillance of King. And King was aware of the situation. According to Sheridan, it was the DOJ’s decision to discontinue its monitoring that led to the Teamsters’ abandonment of the plan. “If we had not,” said Sheridan, “it could have been a very disastrous thing.”
The testimony did not reveal whether Hoffa knew of the operation. But it did serve as evidence in Hoffa’s eventual March 1964 conviction in Chattanooga federal court (along with three other men, including Ewing King) for jury tampering in the Nashville trial. In an unrelated case, Hoffa and six co-defendants were convicted in July of that year in Chicago federal court for mail and wire fraud; they’d arranged for more than $20 million in unauthorized loans to be made from a Teamsters pension fund to certain real estate developers, and following project approval, received $1.7 million in kickbacks from the developers. Hoffa appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, to no avail, and in March 1967 reported to federal prison. After serving nearly five years of an eight-year term, President Nixon pardoned him on Christmas Eve 1971 on the condition that he relinquish his claim to the Teamster presidency and stay out of union politics until 1980. But Hoffa wasn’t about to slink into the sunset. He would launch a visible campaign to wrest control of the union from his former right-hand man, Frank Fitzsimmons, who had grown tight with the Mafia. By all accounts, that effort led to his fateful July 30, 1975 “disappearance” from a Detroit-area restaurant.
The testimony released to the public actually is incomplete. Federal prosecutors had redacted some of Sheridan’s statements before their release to the public last month, citing privacy laws for the protection of certain persons. The feds had ample reason. Sheridan testified that Hoffa and his associates somehow had obtained a list of the trial jurors. What’s more, union operatives apparently had attempted to contact jurors directly or through their spouses. Ominously, the transcript reveals that a top official with the headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police, his name redacted, provided assistance to Hoffa. Though incomplete, the evidence has caused Professor Tabac to have a few second thoughts. Earlier, this April, he remarked, “I think there is prosecutorial misconduct in the case, which included the prosecutors who prosecuted it and the top investigator for the Kennedy Department of Justice.” Yet three months later, after reading the transcripts, he admitted they “added to the knowledge of what happened.” That’s not a full-throated reversal, but it isn’t an affirmation either. Sheridan would go on to write a book, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa” (Saturday Review Books, 1972).
Jimmy Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, but the subject of his disappearance and almost certain murder remains a constant source of macabre fascination. The FBI to this day has kept the case open. Whatever secrets he held about that would-be Nashville ambush died with him. Sheridan himself died in 1995. Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, has run the Teamsters for the last decade, and neither he nor his union has responded to requests for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville likewise has yet to release an official statement. Perhaps the only way to find out for certain if Hoffa was in on the plot would be to release the full – i.e., pre-redacted – grand jury testimony.