Attack On Fitzsimmons Straw That Broke Camel’s Back In Hoffa Saga

The car-bombing of a brand-new Lincoln Continental sedan belonging to Teamsters union executive Richard (Little Fitz) Fitzsimmons 40 years ago this week laid the groundwork for the infamous July 30, 1975 mob assassination of American labor icon Jimmy Hoffa. Little Fitz was the son of Teamsters International President Frank (Big Fitz) Fitzsimmons, Hoffa’s former protégé and then-bitter enemy in his quest to reclaim power in the union he had built into a worldwide juggernaut before he gave up his own presidency while imprisoned (bribery, fraud & jury tampering) in a successful ploy to gain an early release from behind bars in the years prior.

Upon gaining his freedom in December 1971, Hoffa squared off against his one-time allies in the mafia in a bid to return to office. Tucked away in a federal prison cell in Pennsylvania for a half-decade, his original backers in the Italian mafia (both in his hometown of Detroit and beyond) had grown to prefer Big Fitz, a man considerably easier to puppet and less of an overall headache to deal with, in the crucial leadership position.

The younger Fitzsimmons was almost caught in the crossfire. His car blew up in the parking lot of Nemo’s, a popular Detroit watering hole down the street from Tigers Stadium, on July 10, 1975. Luckily for him, neither he nor his father were in it. They were leaving the bar and walking towards the vehicle when it exploded prematurely, a scene depicted on the silver screen in the 1992 movie Hoffa with Jack Nicholson portraying Hoffa and character actor J.T. Walsh playing Frank Fitzsimmons.

The mob saw the attempt on the Fitzsimmons’ lives as an act of war and according to FBI files related to the Hoffa case, it directly led to Hoffa’s slaying exactly 20 days later. Some experts believe Hoffa didn’t order the bombing, but rather his enemies did it to make it look like he had gone over the edge and initiate the fast-tracking of his murder.

Hoffa vanished from a suburban Detroit restaurant parking lot on the afternoon of July 30, 1975. He had been stood up for what was to be a lunch meeting with Michigan mob lord Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, east coast mob captain Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano and well-known Jewish organized crime associate Leonard (Sports Club Lenny) Schultz and disappeared after witnesses saw him get into Tony Jack’s son Joseph (Joey Jack) Giacalone’s car, a maroon-colored Mercury Marquis, with three unidentified men and drive away. His body has never been found and no charges have ever been filed in the case.

Hoffa’s early release from prison came via a Presidential Pardon doled out by Richard Nixon, arranged personally by Fitzsimmons and unbeknownst to Hoffa containing a clause in it barring him from running for Teamsters President until 1980. Many close to Hoffa say he viewed the clause as a double-cross on the part of Fitzsimmons and that it was the opening of the rift between them that lasted until the day Hoffa died.

Hoffa and Big Fitz circa 1966

Hoffa and Big Fitz circa 1966

Per sources, Hoffa began informing on the mob for the FBI in what he believed was the best and quickest way of getting the ban on his running for office in his pardon ruled unconstitutional by the courts. When his parole restrictions were lifted in late 1973, he embarked on a national media tour proclaiming his intention of ridding the Teamsters of mob influence if allowed to run for reelection in 1976. Teamsters insiders at the time were of the opinion that Hoffa would probably eventually be able to throw his hat into the ring for the 1976 race and were confident if he was, he’d win.

Besides the pardon clause, Hoffa had two additional major obstacles he needed to hurdle to put himself in position to take back the union. First, he had to mend fences with Tony Provenzano, a capo in the New Jersey branch of the Genovese crime family he was once close to but was feuding with over a huge prison fall-out regarding Teamster insurance benefits. Second, he needed to stabilize his own powerbase at Detroit’s Local 299 where Little Fitz Fitzsimmons was angling to unseat longtime Hoffa-loyalist Dave Johnston in the race for the 299 presidency.

While Hoffa gallivanted across the United States campaigning to become boss of the Teamsters again, unspooling his new hardline anti-mafia stance, the Teamsters itself went on the offensive, creating a team of union thugs whose specific purpose throughout 1974 and into 1975 was to disrupt Hoffa’s attempt to seize power using intimidation tactics geared at Hoffa and his inner circle. This so-called goon squad was headed by legendary Teamsters leg-breaker Rolland (Big Mac) McMaster, like Tony Provenzano, a one-time Hoffa confidant and ally turned hate-fueled adversary. McMaster’s top lieutenants in this ominous endeavor were Jim Shaw and Larry McHenry.

Rolland McMaster circa 1975

Rolland McMaster circa 1975

The three of them were suspects in a series of bombings, beatings and shootings surrounding the internal union unrest of the mid-70s. On May 17, 1975, Dave Johnston’s boat exploded, harbored on the Detroit River. Two days later, shots were fired into his car parked in his driveway while he slept. On May 28, Teamster official and staunch Hoffa loyalist Ralph Proctor was severely beaten in the parking lot of Nemo’s, a frequent gathering spot for Teamsters in Local 299, being that it was located only a few blocks away, and the future bombing site of Litte Fitz’s Continental.

As Frank and Richard Fitzsimmons departed Nemo’s on the late afternoon of Thursday, July 10, 1975, Little Fitz’s car was blown to bits, either on sanctioning by Hoffa in an attempt to kill his father-son tandem of rivals or the work of McMaster and his goon squad to accelerate tensions between Hoffa and the mob to the point of no return. Either way, that’s where things went. And fast.

Less than three weeks after the bombing of Little Fitz’s car, Hoffa, well aware his life was in danger, was lured out into the open with the promise of a conciliatory breaking of bread with Tony Provenzano, the man that controlled a critically-important delegate block of Teamsters votes in the upcoming election and someone he had to make peace with if he planned on returning to his perch atop the labor union he literally loved more than life itself.

Tony Giacalone, the Detroit mob’s cunning and steely-eyed street boss was Hoffa’s liaison to organized crime in the Motor City and brokered the purported sitdown, scheduled for mid-afternoon July 30 at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Tony Jack was related to Tony Pro via marriage – Giacalone’s wife was Provenzano’s niece – and it made sense to Hoffa that Tony Pro would be in town that week because nationally-renowned criminal attorney William Buffalino, the Detroit mafia’s in-house counsel, was marrying off his daughter and invitations had gone out to a cavalcade of American mob luminaries spanning both coasts.

Neither Giacalone, Provenzano, nor Lenny Schultz for that matter, showed for the lunch meeting at the Red Fox. Investigators speculate that Hoffa got into Joey Giacalone’s Lincoln Mercury with the promise of linking up with Tony Jack and Tony Pro at a nearby residence. He was killed by still-unknown assassins instead.

Giacalone, Schultz and Provenzano had airtight alibis. Tony Jack was at his home base, the Schultz-owned and run Southfield Athletic Club, five miles away from the Red Fox. So was Schultz (d. 2013), a diminutive, yet feared labor consultant groomed by the historic Purple Gang. Tony Pro was said to be playing cards at his union hall in New Jersey.

The only piece of physical evidence recovered in the case was the younger Giacalone’s car, which currently sits in the basement of FBI headquarters in downtown Detroit, on the same street and within walking distance of Nemo’s. Hoffa’s DNA was found in Joey Jack’s vehicle. Today, Joey Giacalone is alleged to be in charge of his father’s old crew.

McMaster died of natural causes in 2007 at 93 years old, like Giacalone (d. 2001) and Provenzano (d. 1988) before him a prime suspect in Hoffa’s homicide. Back in 1975, he was on the ticket with Richard Fitzsimmons in the race for the presidency of Local 299 as Little Fitz’s VP candidate. His formerly-owned Hidden Dreams Ranch in Wixom, Michigan was searched for Hoffa’s remains in 2006, a barn on the property excavated in hopes of finding his remains based on a tip from Don Wells, an incarcerated McMaster union associate who lived on the ranch with McMaster at the time of Hoffa’s death.

In 1984, McMaster’s name arose as a suspect in the gangland-style murder of Ralph Proctor, the Hoffa ally attacked in Nemo’s parking lot in the weeks leading up to the Hoffa hit. Reputed modern-day Detroit mob barons Peter (Specs) Tocco and Anthony (Chicago Tony) LaPiana are also suspects in the never-solved Proctor slaying.

Another fiercely-loyal Hoffa friend and Teamsters executive to meet a grisly fate in the aftermath of the Hoffa hit was Otto Wendell, slain in 1978, possibly for beefing with LaPiana’s deceased father-in-law, Vincent (Little Vince) Meli, who like his son-in-law now was a high-ranking Midwest Mafiosi known as a master labor-union racketeer.

The tumult in Local 299 was settled with concessions on both ends of the dispute: Johnson remained president and Little Fitz became his vice president. Stricken with cancer in the late-1970s, Frank Fitzsimmons finally succumbed to the disease in the spring of 1981.

Little Fitz got into big trouble in the years following the Hoffa ordeal and did five years in federal prison for taking kickbacks in a health care fraud case involving Teamsters insurance plans. He’s 85.

Several of Tony Provenzano’s underlings (Sal & Gabe Briguglio and Steve & Tommy Andretta) were considered suspects in the Hoffa investigation, however, only one of them (Tommy Andretta) remains alive. Tommy Andretta resides in Las Vegas and believed to be retired from his life in the mob. Tony Jack’s brother and fellow Detroit mafia czar Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone was also a top suspect in Hoffa’s disappearance and execution. He was unaccounted for by his normal FBI surveillance unit that fateful day 40 years ago. Billy Giacalone died of old age in the winter of 2012.

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