This fall, Netflix will release The Irishman, a new movie from director Martin Scorsese that follows the life of Philly mob associate Frank Sheeran.
The fictionalized account is based on author Charles Brandt’s 2004 true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, in which Sheeran (the real one) claims to have murdered Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975 as part of a mob hit. Hoffa famously went missing and was never found. A judge declared Hoffa legally dead in 1982. The case still hasn’t been officially solved.
But was Sheeran really the one behind Hoffa’s killing? Some mob experts have their doubts.
Made for a reported $160 million, the film stars Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Joe Pesci as Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, Harvey Keitel as Philadelphia don Angelo Bruno, and Al Pacino as Hoffa. A trailer was released late last month and it appears that some of The Irishman partly takes place here in Philadelphia, even though it was filmed mostly in New York and New Jersey.
"Could he have done it? Yeah,” says Stephen LaPenta, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant and former organized-crime investigator in New Jersey. “But when he refutes his own position, see, that puts a question mark right behind it.”
In 1995, Sheeran told Daily News reporter Kitty Caparella that not only did he not kill Hoffa, but that he had “nothing to do with” the situation — not even with disposing of Hoffa’s body, as authorities suspected at the time.
Sheeran told the Daily News he had no knowledge of what happened to Hoffa, a former friend whom he reportedly met through Bufalino, until 1988, when he was jailed at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., with Bufalino, who explained to Sheeran how the hit went down.
Netflix did not return a request for comment.
Sheeran told the Daily News that Hoffa was killed in Detroit in 1975. But not by him. Rather, Hoffa’s death came at the hands of individuals with allegiances to “people high up in government” in what the reputed hit man said was a “conspiracy of high-ranking government officials.” While Sheeran did not say so specifically, author Arthur A. Sloane’s book Hoffa points to former President Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon famously commuted Hoffa’s 13-year prison sentence for fraud in 1971, doing so with the stipulation that the Teamsters leader would be barred from union activities until 1980. However, the Daily News reported in 1995, some claimed Nixon worried Hoffa would return to power and “discover and expose an alleged kickback of as much as $6 million placed in Nixon’s name in a Swiss bank account … for Hoffa’s parole restrictions,” thus resulting in the Teamster boss’s murder. That theory has since been largely discounted, Sloane’s book says.
“I was mad” about Hoffa’s death, Sheeran told the Daily News. “[He] was my friend. I didn’t know who was involved.”
However, in 2003, on his deathbed, Sheeran changed his story. As Sheeran told Brandt in I Heard You Paint Houses, he was not only involved in Hoffa’s death in 1975, he was the gunman. According to Sheeran’s account, the hit, ordered by Bufalino, took place in an empty home in Detroit, where he and several other mobsters took Hoffa to die. He added that following the killing, Hoffa’s body was burned at a nearby crematorium.
“When Jimmy saw that the house was empty, that nobody came out of any of the rooms to greet him, he knew right away what it was,” Sheeran said in the book. “He reached for the knob and Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range — not too close or the paint splatters back at you — in the back of the head behind his right ear. My friend didn’t suffer.”
The change in story, LaPenta says, likely comes down to ego and money. While LaPenta did not investigate the Hoffa disappearance directly or interview Sheeran about it, his time in area organized crime units put him in contact with lots of local mobsters. One common thing they share, he says, is a desire for notoriety. While the old mob was quiet about their crimes, a newer breed of mafiosi is interested in trying to “sell their stories,” such as Philly mobster Phil Leonetti, who wrote about his time in the Mafia in 2013’s Mafia Prince: Inside America’s Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra, or Ralph Natale, who did the same with his 2017 memoir, Last Don Standing.
» READ MORE: Mob boss Natale in hot water with ex-mistress
“These guys try to create their own legend. Most of the guys I’ve dealt with in organized crime, they’re really impressed with themselves” LaPenta says. “Was [Sheeran] a War and Peace-type author? No, I don’t think so. But he tried to make that his legacy, which again is so egocentric.”
Caparella said that Sheeran asked her four times to write his autobiography, but she declined. “I knew him, covered him, and often could not understand his mumbling. He could be very funny. The reason I did not agree to write the book was I did not think he would tell me the truth," she said. "Then, how would I confirm whatever he said? Most people are dead.”
What actually happened to Hoffa remains up for debate, but one leading theory comes from mob author Dan Moldea, whose deeply researched book, The Hoffa Wars, was released in 1978. For years, Moldea has said that Hoffa’s actual killer was Genovese crime family associate Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, who murdered the Teamsters leader before stuffing his body into a 55-gallon drum that was shipped to New Jersey and buried in a landfill in Jersey City. As Moldea recently told Slate, Sheeran “was definitely involved” in Hoffa’s disappearance, but he wasn’t the gunman himself — a fact he reportedly told De Niro at a banquet back in 2014.
“De Niro had a lot of pride that he is doing the real story,” Moldea told the New York Post in 2017. “I told him that he’s being conned.”