The good stories are the ones we remember. That’s what worries Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist, who has spent 45 years searching for the body of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters union leader with ties to the mob. Recently, after he saw The Irishman, the new Martin Scorcese movie that spins a theory of Hoffa’s death, Moldea said, “It is terrific cinema, but terrible history.”
Moldea, who is 69, started covering the Teamsters in 1974, while on the crime beat at the Daily Reporter in Akron, Ohio. He wrote a three-part series on Hoffa’s disappearance for the Wall Street Journal, moved on to NBC News, and later decided to go independent and write pieces freelance. In total, he has conducted over a thousand interviews on Hoffa and says that his investigation has endangered his life six times. His website (moldea.com), a trove of links and research tools with a dark blue background and a nineties look, is a living document, like a map of Moldea’s mind: among the resources are his reports on the mafia, wiretapping laws by state, and YouTube links to his favorite music (Beethoven, Grieg, Dvorak, Johnny Nash, Pink Floyd, David Bowie).
Moldea tried to warn Robert DeNiro, who plays the titular character, named Frank Sheeran, that The Irishman would get the Hoffa story wrong. In 2014, not long after DeNiro bought the film rights to I Heard You Paint Houses, the book on which the film is based, Moldea hosted a dinner for writers, in Washington, DC, and DeNiro stopped by. “I told him very directly that he was getting conned,” Moldea recalls. Then things got hostile. “I wanted to explain to him what he was walking into. And so I spoke very directly to him. I talked to him the way he talks to people in the movies—and he really took offense to it.” DeNiro walked off, and made his movie. (“I wasn’t getting conned,” DeNiro later told IndieWire.)
Moldea’s problem was this: I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, a former prosecutor, is grounded in the theory that Jimmy Hoffa was murdered by Sheeran, a Teamsters official in Delaware and a mob associate. (The title is a reference to supposed mob slang for carrying out a hit.) “This character, Frank Sheeran, this pathological liar,” Moldea says. “This guy who claims that he did things, he confesses the crimes he didn’t commit.” Most Hoffologists agree: Sheeran made up his confession; it was nothing more than a dying man’s effort to secure royalties for his family.
Moldea’s problem was also that DeNiro had optioned Brandt’s book, not his. “This is a manuscript they pitched to publishing houses and things,” Moldea explains, of Brandt’s book. (It was released by Steerforth Press, a publisher in New Hampshire, in 2004.) “This book has been touted by DeNiro and company as being the true story as to what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. And on that basis, this book has been selling off the charts.” Moldea’s The Hoffa Wars (1978)—which concludes that Salvatore Briguglio, a New Jersey Teamsters official and member of the Vito Genovese crime family, killed Hoffa—seems to have done less well. In Slate, Moldea compared his luck with Brandt’s: “A guy who wrote a one-source book based on the word of a convicted felon and proven liar gets everything? The bestselling book, the movie star treatment that comes to very few but is what every author wants? Yes, I’m bitter about this.”
But he has the facts behind him, Moldea argues; he has decades of research. Every ten years or so, he follows a new lead from “some mob guy who claims he knows something about Hoffa,” he says. “And if the cast of characters is right, and the timeline is right, and the moon and the stars are in the right place, I will be willing to spend a couple of thousand dollars of my own money and a couple of weeks of time running down these leads.” He adds, “I am Ahab and the Hoffa case is my white whale.”
Moldea has a theory, twelve years in the making, that Hoffa’s corpse may be at a landfill in Jersey City that was run by the Genovese family. “I am in high confidence that this is a very legitimate lead that could result in the discovery of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains,” Moldea says. But there’s been a hold up, he explains, as relatives of the landfill’s owners have been reluctant to give up royalties to the story, as they hold the hope that they might sell a movie, or something. “All the money’s yours,” Moldea says he told them. “I don’t want any money. I just want the credit. I want the history here. To find his body.”
If he does, that would help him prove DeNiro wrong, once and for all. “He still is a believer in this thing,” Moldea explains. “But he and Scorsese are now starting to cave on this matter because they see the writing on the wall. They’re taking criticism from all sides. And so now Scorsese is saying, listen, we bought a book. We bought our rights to the book. We took this character, Frank Sheeran, and we turned him into our character. So essentially, they are confessing that they have fictionalized this.”
No matter what Moldea finds, the good news is that people are talking about Hoffa again, after years of the story laying dormant. “I want to be generous to the Irishman movie because it has put Jimmy Hoffa back on the public radar screen,” he says. “It has brought my work for the past 45 years back into the game.” He doesn’t want to be wholly critical. “I’ve had a lot of fun with this.” Plus, he says, “I’m doing something with a production company right now.”Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.