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Wednesday, 06 November 2019 03:19

Part 1: Charles Brandt's I Heard You Paint Houses

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Jim DiEugenio exposes some serious problems with Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, casting doubt on the veracity of many of the key stories.


Charles Brandt published I Hear You Paint Houses, about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, back in 2004. This was about a year after the protagonist of the book, Frank Sheeran, passed away. Because of its sensational nature, it became a best-seller, because Sheeran did not just say he assassinated former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. He was also involved with the murder of President John F. Kennedy. He also killed Joey Gallo in 1972. And he also killed another mobster, Salvatore Briguglio in 1978. And that was not all. The hit list went on for about 10-12 more people. Sheeran was a veritable Murder Incorporated unto himself.

Brandt had been a criminal lawyer who eventually began to focus on medical malpractice. He and a partner were responsible for getting Sheeran out of prison due to a medical hardship. He had been put away for two felonies for approximately 30 years. Brandt struck up a friendship with his client and did a long series of interviews with him spreading out over several years. The longer they talked, the more Sheeran managed to dredge up. And the more he dredged up, the more Brandt wrote down and found credible and included in his book.

The book proper begins with a dispute between some Mafia leaders who do not want Hoffa to run for president of the union in 1976. One of those mob leaders, Russell Bufalino, is trying to arrange a meeting between Hoffa and some of his cohorts in Detroit. This is a frame that Brandt will return to later in the volume as it’s the reason for the book.

As many other types of these works do, the book then uses a long flashback to explain how the protagonist got to this point in his life. Sheeran’s life is kind of nomadic in its early years. He got expelled from school and joined the carnival. He then got into logging and later become a competition dancer, while working days for a glass company. In 1941, he joined the army infantry in Europe. According to Brandt, Sheeran saw a remarkable 411 days of combat. He participated in the Italian campaign, most notably in the battles of Monte Cassino and Anzio. He was also involved in the invasion of Southern France in August of 1944. He took part in the liberation of Dachau and also the assault on Munich. He was discharged in October of 1945.

He returns to West Philadelphia and his glass works job. He then got a union job as a truck driver for a meat delivery company. He is caught stealing from that company and falls in with some Pennsylvania mobsters, namely Angelo Bruno and Bufalino. He cases out a linen company that a friend wants him to blow up, since its serious competition for his own business. But he is spied on as he cases it out and unbeknownst to him, Bruno has a piece of the business. He is now told to do away with the man who put him up to this. He does, and this is what makes him a soldier and hit man for Bufalino.

Very early in the book, that is before page 100, I began to suspect that Brandt was aggrandizing his cast of characters, in order to swell his volume into something like an epic. The author compares Bufalino to Al Capone. (p. 75) Bufalino was the boss of my hometown, Erie Pennsylvania. At its peak, Erie had about 180,000 people. He had some other areas, but he was never the capo of a major or, even, mid-major city. He then adds that Hoffa was as famous as the Beatles or Elvis Presley. (p. 86) There is no doubt that Hoffa was a colorful and outspoken character, but to compare him to those two musical legends is really stretching it beyond any kind of normal judgment. And it was here than I began to question the author’s credibility and frankness.

Brandt quickly lays in Hoffa’s rise in the union movement and he then gets to the reason that Hoffa was famous, which was his duel with a young Robert Kennedy before the McClellan Committee. After Teamsters president Dave Beck was suspected of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own union, Hoffa became its president. (p. 91) Shortly after this, Bufalino got Sheeran a job with Hoffa. According to the author, the first time Hoffa talked to Sheeran on the phone, he asked him, “I heard you paint houses.” This meant that Sheeran was a liquidator. (p. 101) Hoffa hires him and Bufalino buys him a plane ticket to Detroit.

As almost any author in the field of Teamster studies knows, Hoffa was on friendly terms with organized crime. He even allowed some of the mob chieftains, like Tony Provenzano, to lead certain local unions. He also allowed the Mafia to borrow large sums of cash from the Teamster pension fund, in order to construct gambling casinos in Las Vegas. Hoffa set up Allen Dorfman to manage this aspect of union business and the president got a cut of the loan as a finder’s fee. These kinds of activities set up the confrontation between Hoffa and RFK on Capitol Hill.

Bobby Kennedy was the chief counsel to the McClellan Committee, sometimes called the Rackets Committee. His brother, Senator John Kennedy, also served on that committee. It was at this time that Bobby Kennedy began to raise his political profile as a dreaded enemy of organized crime and, because of his association with gangsters, Jimmy Hoffa. Bobby Kennedy did everything he could, and then some, to try and remove Hoffa from power and place him in prison. But since Hoffa was allowed to use the Teamsters treasury to finance his legal defense, he remained an elusive target. In fact, as Brandt notes, Hoffa eluded three court cases against RFK. But once Bobby became Attorney General under President Kennedy, he assembled a Get Hoffa Squad at the Justice Department. The tactics used by its leader, Walter Sheridan, were extremely controversial. Author Fred Cook of The Nation was a vociferous critic of Sheridan’s tactics. Victor Navasky, in his book Kennedy Justice, also criticized RFK for the enormous amount of Justice Department resources that the Attorney General spent on the Hoffa case.

Brandt does not criticize Sheridan at all and he presents Edward Partin as pretty much a straight shooter. Partin was a mole set up by Sheridan in Hoffa’s camp and was the principal witness at his jury tampering trial. Partin had a record a mile long prior to his employment by Sheridan. So, Sheridan tried to clean him up by giving him a polygraph test, which, quite predictably, he passed. Sheridan then trumpeted this to the press and Partin was now considered credible by the media. Years later, a society of professional polygraphers got hold of the Sheridan arranged test and unveiled their analysis at a trade convention. I was furnished this discussion by researcher Peter Vea and I reviewed it during a speech I made at the 1995 COPA Conference in Washington.

It turned out that the polygraph experts concluded that Partin had been deceptive throughout the test. But they concluded the most egregious lie was told when Partin said Hoffa had threatened RFK’s life. The analysis concluded that the administrator had to have turned down or misrepresented some of the indexes to the test to pass Partin. And, in fact, one of the original technicians was later indicted for fraud in his practice. In other words, Sheridan had rigged the test. The fact that Brandt does not know this is indicative of the lack of scope and depth to the book. For although it is largely told through Sheeran’s eyes, the author interjects frequently to give background to the protagonist’s story.

It is through this part of the story that Sheeran begins to insert the JFK case into the narrative. Sheeran begins to work for Hoffa in Detroit and, since Chicago is in proximity to Detroit, Sheeran now says that he saw Sam Giancana with Jack Ruby a few times. (p. 119) And once Giancana is in the story, Sheeran now begins to recite the whole phony tale about how Joe Kennedy was a bootlegger with the Mafia and he made a deal with them to get his son elected to the presidency in 1960. And, somehow, the Mafia felt double crossed when Bobby Kennedy continued to prosecute them after the election. (p. 1200)

I noted in my review of Mark Shaw’s book Denial of Justice that this concept is simply spurious. It was clearly manufactured as a way to smear JFK during the latter stages of his race against Richard Nixon in 1960. (See Daniel Okrent, Last Call, pp 367-69) Prior to that, in all the reviews that Joseph Kennedy had to undergo through his six appointed positions in the federal government, there was never a word mentioned by anyone about it. Author Daniel Okrent reviewed the voluminous files in the reviews. Once this phony accusation made it into the press, gangsters like Frank Costello and Joe Bonanno then sued it in their cheapjack books as a way of getting back at Bobby Kennedy for bringing the Mafia out of the shadows and making life much more difficult for that enterprise.

In 1992, Sam and Chuck Giancana decided to capitalize on the success of Oliver Stone’s film JFK.

They wrote a book based on this false thesis called Double Cross. This book was almost entirely a ludicrous confection. (For the salacious details as to why, see my review of Mark Shaw’s book noted above.) Yet, it became a best seller and the nutty thesis has been popularized. Even John Newman repeated it in his series on John F. Kennedy. How he could do so when the House Select Committee collected just about every file available on organized crime and the JFK case, and this was not in them, escapes me. But again, Brandt accepts this with no investigation, probably so that Sheeran can say that his boss Jimmy Hoffa warned Giancana against this because Bobby Kennedy could not be trusted in any negotiation. (p. 125)

Brandt then has Sheeran go even beyond this. He has Giancana tell Hoffa that John F. Kennedy was going to help get Castro out of Cuba. And this would aid the Mob in getting their casinos back. (p. 121) This is obviously a reference to the Bay of Pigs operation. So we are also supposed to think that somehow President Kennedy told Giancana about this operation prior to the election. Somehow, the Erie Pennsylvania Don, Bufalino also knew about this. Somehow, Joe Kennedy told Russ this.

But Brandt and Sheeran are not done with this concept. Sheeran now says that at a meeting at the Gold Coast Lounge in Hollywood, Florida he was sitting in the midst of Santo Trafficante, Bufalino, and Carlos Marcello. This was in the 1960-61 time period. He tells Brandt that David Ferrie was also there. Why Ferrie would be there is not explained in any way.

Brandt then writes something that is even more far-fetched. On the orders of Hoffa, Sheeran is to go to a cement plant in Baltimore with a borrowed truck. He is to go to a tiny landing strip and there he meets Ferrie in a small plane. Ferrie tells him to reposition his truck nearby some other trucks. Soldiers carrying arms emerge from these trucks and place their weapons in the back of Sheeran’s vehicle. Ferrie tells him that the weapons are from the Maryland National Guard and that he is to drive these to Jacksonville. (p. 129) There he will be met by a man named Hunt. We later find out that this is Howard Hunt of Watergate fame.

Again, apparently Brandt asked no questions about any of this. I will. Having read all of the reports on the Bay of Pigs, I have yet to see anything anywhere that says the CIA needed help from Hoffa to drive arms from Maryland to Florida. The ships carrying arms to Cuba in that aborted invasion had thousands of rifles, but they were furnished by the Pentagon. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, second edition, p. 42.) Ferrie did do training for the Bay of Pigs, but it was all done in and around New Orleans. I have never seen any evidence he was part of the logistics side of the operation. Howard Hunt worked on that operation, but not on the military side, on the political and propaganda side. That is, organizing an exile government group. (ibid, p. 40) Finally, why would Hunt use his real name with a total stranger? And why would Ferrie blow his cover?

In 1963 Bobby Kennedy again indicted Jimmy Hoffa on two charges, one for fraud and one for jury tampering. (The liar Partin was important in the latter.) Bobby was now really on the warpath against the Cosa Nostra. He had a defecting Mafia soldier giving him the secrets of the organization. His name of course was Joe Valachi. RFK did all he could to promote him and place him in the public eye. In November of that year, Hoffa calls Sheeran and asks him to go to Brooklyn to a Genovese hangout called Monte’s. (Brandt, p. 163) While there, Tony Provenzano hands him a duffel bag and tells him to drive down to the same cement company as he had before. There he meets David Ferrie again and hands him the bag with three rifles in it. (ibid) This is later explained with the following:  Hoffa actually supplied the rifles for the murder of John Kennedy. The original hit team somehow lost their weapons in a car crash. They needed Ferrie to supply them with replacements. (pp. 241-242) Brandt apparently did not bother to ask: Why did they have to get them from New York? And with four intermediaries? (The author tells us that Ferrie had an accomplice with him.). This is all hammered home when Hoffa begins to get out of line and Bufalino tells him that there are people higher in the Mob than him who are complaining Hoffa has not shown any appreciation for Dallas. (p. 240)

As everyone knows, the Justice Department eventually convicted Hoffa on two felonies and sent him to jail for 13 years. Hoffa’s handpicked replacement was Frank Fitzsimmons. Hoffa did all he could to get out of prison early. According to Sheeran, money was being sent to Nixon’s White House for Hoffa. (p. 197). Fitzsimmons did get Nixon to pardon Hoffa at Christmas of 1971. But it’s pretty clear that Nixon and Fitzsimmons duped him. They first made Hoffa resign as president, a title he still had in prison. He was then turned down on a parole bid, one he thought was going to be granted. Then Nixon pardoned him on condition that he not run for president of the union again until 1980. In return, Fitzsimmons had the Teamsters endorse Nixon in 1972.

But, as the reader may suspect by now, Sheeran had driven down to Washington from Philly with a suitcase full of money. He met Attorney General John Mitchell at the Hilton and turned over a half million in cash to him. (p. 204)

When Hoffa got out, he assembled a legal team to go ahead and challenge the restrictions on his pardon. When his parole period ended, Hoffa began to now began to intimate he would challenge Fitzsimmons for the presidency in 1976. Hoffa made it known that he felt Fitzsimmons was not getting good deals from the Mob for the pension loans. He also implied he could prove it. (p. 240) Bufalino now tells Sheeran to talk to Hoffa and convince him to wait until 1980 to run. Bufalino tells Sheeran that if the Mob could take out the president they could remove the president of a union.

Hoffa did not heed the advice. Bufalino and Sheeran drive to an airport at Port Clinton near Toledo, Ohio. Sheeran then flew on to Pontiac, Michigan. From there, Sheeran drove to a house near the Machus Red Fox Restaurant outside Detroit.  At the house were Sal Briguglio and the Andretta brothers, Steve, and Tom. (Sheeran does not actually name Tom, but he implies it.) There they waited for Chuck O’Brien, a virtual step son to Hoffa to pick up Sheeran and Briguglio. When he arrived, the three went to the restaurant, picked up Hoffa, and convinced him that a meeting to straighten out his political problems with local Don Tony Giacalone and Provenzano was to occur at a nearby house. Hoffa fell for this, and once in the house, Sheeran killed him with two shots to the head. (p. 257). He left his gun there and departed, while the Andretta brothers did the clean-up job and disposed of the body.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of the murder. Although the FBI never did indict anyone, they focused on several people who they thought were involved. And they ended up making their lives quite difficult. Sheeran continued a life of crime and he was busted on two felonies. He ended up in Springfield with Bufalino and Tony Salerno, who some think approved the Hoffa murder. (pp. 276-77) Sheeran’s health failed him and one of the attorneys who got him out on a medical hardship was Brandt. And that was the genesis for the book.

I have pointed out what I think are some serious problems with the book. And I will be quite frank about these:  I don’t believe any of them happened. As far as these stories about rifles sent by Hoffa through New York to Dallas, and Ferrie instructing arms to be sent to Florida, and Joe Kennedy’s deal with Giancana etc. I give these tales about as much credence as I do to the stories of people like Chauncey Holt, Judy Baker, and James Files. But I have to add, other critics of Brandt also do not find the specifics about Sheeran’s many stories about Mob hits to be credible. For instance, Brandt has Sheeran killing Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in 1972. The suspected killer was Carmine DiBiase and Gallo was set up by one Joseph Luparelli. The original descriptions describe DiBiase not Sheeran. And Luparelli later turned state witness and implicated DiBiase. Gallo’s widow, who was there that night, also said the men she saw did not match Sheeran’s physical profile. Shereen was 6’ 4”, pale complexion, and sandy haired. Gallo’s bodyguard, who was also shot that night said DiBiase was the shooter. Nicholas Gage, who covered the Mob for two newspapers and wrote a book about the organization, said that Brandt’s book “is the most fabricated mafia tale since the fake autobiography of Lucky Luciano forty years ago.” (“The Lies of the Irishman”, Slate, by Bill Tonelli, 8/7/19)

In fact, in Tonelli’s article, he talked to several people who knew Sheeran back there in Philadelphia. One source, the reputed head of the Irish Mob, told Tonelli that Sheeran was full of it. That the man never killed a fly, but he did crush many bottles of red wine. Tonelli wrote that no policeman, no prosecutor, no known criminal ever harbored any suspicion that Sheeran was a hit man. A former FBI agent named John Tamm told Tonelli that Sheeran’s story was baloney and he never heard that Sheeran killed anyone. Further, no one except Ed Partin has ever said that Hoffa ordered anyone dead.

And then there are the problems in the text. On page 340, Brandt writes that Tom Andretta was dead in 2004. This was not accurate as one can see by clicking the linked Wikipedia entry. Vince Wade was a reporter for a local TV station in Detroit when Hoffa disappeared. Wade discovered the air strip in Pontiac that Sheeran thought was gone is still there. It is now called Pontiac International Airport. When Sheeran got to the location, he drove right past the restaurant, because he said the location was back quite a ways from the parking lot. This is also not accurate. It is only separated by a sidewalk and a row of parking spaces. (The Daily Beast, 11/1/19)

Then there are the problems with Sheeran’s evolution of his story. In 1995, these began with a story about contract killers being hired by the Nixon White House to kill Hoffa. He then modified that story to Vietnamese contract killers who killed Hoffa for John Mitchell and that he had diagrams showing where the body could be found. He was apparently looking for a book deal with these disclosures. In 2001, as he was about to enter a nursing home, Sheeran now said he was involved in the killing. NBC was going to run with the story, but decided not to because of Sheeran’s past history of storytelling.

When Sheeran passed away in 2003, differing “confessions” were found. John Zeitts, who was working on a book about the man, produced a confession saying Sheeran only disposed of the body, but did not kill Hoffa. But Sheeran’s daughter said this was a forgery, since the signature did not belong to her father. Then Zeitts produced tapes of conversations in which Sheeran now said he was innocent and not involved with the Hoffa case. Then, weeks before he died, Brandt got Sheeran to go on camera to say that what was in the book was accurate. Right after this, Brandt said his camera battery died.

Brandt did not publish the entire video. But he did give a copy to Andrew Sluss in 2008. Sluss was lead investigator on the Hoffa for the FBI for 15 years. Sluss said the Sheeran video was ludicrous. (Jack Goldsmith, New York Review of Books, 9/26/2019)

The oddest thing about this book is that Brandt plays himself up as a very able and efficient prosecuting attorney. But in his zeal to acclaim Sheeran as a hitman and killer of Hoffa, he shows about as much discrimination as Arlen Specter did for the Warren Commission. And I have some bad news for those interested. Brandt has now decided to focus on the murder of John Kennedy. Oh no, I can just see him tracing those rifles from Brooklyn to Baltimore and Ferrie picking them up. Robert Blakey’s fantasy is now going to be furthered. Pity us all.

see Part 2: Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro's The Irishman

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 04:10
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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