At 6’4” Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran literally was a towering figure. But to those who knew him in the American underworld, he was even taller. A fearsome force who had honed his deadly skills as a combat-hardened rifleman during the Second World War fighting the Nazis. Back home, he became a Mafia hitman, the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa.
From an early age, Frank Sheeran learned that life was hard. It was mean. It hurt. His father Thomas knew all about pain. As a tough amateur boxer who frequently competed at welterweight he had intimate knowledge of the hurt business. And whenever his son got in trouble, he’d throw his son a pair of boxing gloves and told him to defend himself as he tore into him with punches. Young Frank took the beatings in stride. It was part of life.
When he hit age 9, the country was hit by the Great Depression. Growing up poor already, the Sheeran family wasn’t that troubled. His father would organize fights for his son with other kids and bet the fathers his kid could beat theirs. Sometimes Frank won, sometimes he lost. Again, it was all part of life.
But not all of it had to be a part of his life anymore. Once he became a strong teenager at 16, he was done letting his father use him as a punching bag for every mistake he made. He left his home and walked into the big, wide world. A place filled with odd jobs to make ends meet. He joined the carnival and traveled from place to place before joining a logging company where he got used to working long, hard hours.
411 days of active combat
His entire youth was aimed at strengthening him. Getting used to the hurt and the pain. Both mental and physical. Sheeran (left) realized this when he was getting shot at by Nazis during World War II. He was a rifleman in Europe in the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division and saw a mindboggling 411 days of active combat duty.
During war man does what he has to do to survive. Sheeran followed orders and killed his way through the battle, seeing action throughout Europe. When the war was over, he was 24. He had seen and done things he couldn’t share with regular citizens. He returned to the United States and the Philadelphia streets he had grown up on a changed man. A hard man. One capable of violence without remorse. Capable of murder without thinking twice about it.
At home, he got married and started a family. He got a steady job as a union truck driver for Food Fair. But financially, he kept an eye out for opportunities. Seeing all the thieving and hustling around him, it wasn’t long before he joined in on the criminal activity. He also began hanging around downtown with some of his colleagues and some of their shady friends, many of them Italian men connected to a secretive organization that, at that time, did not have a name yet, but would later become known as La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia.
Meeting “The Boss”
Growing up in Philly, Sheeran had a lot of Italian friends. They’d teach him some Italian words, which came in handy when he was part of Allied Forces fighting in Italy and Sicily. There, surrounded by beautiful Italian women, he learned some more Italian and once he got back he could speak it pretty fluently. This talent helped him impress some powerful people, including a man named Rosario “Russell” Bufalino.
Bufalino was the criminal overlord of a vast territory covering Northeastern Pennsylvania, parts of New York and New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, and the gambling Mecca of Las Vegas, Nevada. As a member of the mob’s ruling Commission he had a say in national matters and as such was held in high regard by the more than twenty crime families in the United States.
Sheeran met Bufalino when his truck broke down and he stopped at a garage to have it fixed. A diminutive Italian man helped him and the two hit it off. They spoke in Italian and as time flew, the little man got Sheeran’s truck running again. Unbeknownst to Sheeran at that time, that man was Bufalino. This first encounter would become the beginning of a friendship that gave Sheeran the unofficial position of a made member of the American Mafia, it made him untouchable.
This life of ours
While meeting more and more influential Mafia figures, Sheeran’s days driving a truck became less frequent. He got involved in gambling and loansharking and descended into the criminal underworld of Philadelphia.
One day, a Mafia associate nicknamed “Whispers” asked him for a job. It was worth $10,000, he’d get $2,000 up front and the rest after he completed the task. Whispers wanted Sheeran to take out a rival business. But, he warned him, don’t tell anyone about this job.
Sheeran had no problem with all the secrecy. That was part of his new surroundings. He looked the business over and figured it was an easy score. Burn the place down and collect the $8,000. Until he was called to a sit down with Russell Bufalino and Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno. They were not happy. The business belonged to Jewish gangster friends of Bruno and any move on them was a move on him. They had seen the tall Irishman staking out their place and made some calls.
After Sheeran explained them he had been hired by Whispers and had sworn to keep silent, Bufalino and Bruno told him it was simple. He was new to this life, but Whispers should’ve known better. Bruno told Sheeran: “It’s your responsibility to take care of this matter by tomorrow morning. That’s the chance you get.”
It was no problem for a trained killer like Sheeran. Within 24 hours Whispers lay dead on the sidewalk. Sheeran had made his bones. He had risen a step in the underworld where a man is judged on whether he can keep his mouth shut under pressure from police and whether he can end a life.
But the gangster life did not provide for a steady income. Sheeran hoped to get a better position in the union and work his way up. He discussed the matter with Bufalino, who told him not to worry.
Back in those days, the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the biggest labor union leader in the country was James R. Hoffa. As head of the Teamsters union, Hoffa (pictured in the photo on the right, Sheeran on the left with the VIP sticker) led over a million truckers and warehouse workers across the United States. If Hoffa organized a strike he could paralyze the nation.
Hoffa got to where he was, just like Sheeran: The hard way. He began his career at the bottom. When he’d had enough of how his bosses treated him and his colleagues – subpar pay, poor working conditions and zero security – Hoffa organized a union to demand for improvements. When he succeeded, things went fast.
Almost as fast as Sheeran’s job promotion interview. He was told by Bufalino to show up at the Friendly social club in Philadelphia at 8 ‘o clock in the evening so he could talk to a friend on the phone. Like clockwork the phone rang at exactly 8 pm. “I got that friend I told you about,” the mob boss said. “He’s sitting here with me. He’s a good union man. I want him to meet his president. See what you think of him.”
With that, he handed the phone to Sheeran. “I heard you paint houses,” Hoffa said, referring to committing murder for the Mafia. “Yeah, and I do my own carpentry work too,” a stunned Sheeran answered, referring to disposing of dead bodies.
Though it is hard to imagine today, but back in those days murder and violence were a part of unions and strikes. At first, gangsters were hired to break strikers by workers. Later, the gangsters infiltrated the unions so they could muscle the companies or entire industries for even more cash. Either way, people had to be threatened, hurt or killed in order to hold on and continue to make money.
Sheeran joined Hoffa in these trenches and eventually became his right-hand man and one of his best friends. The union boss couldn’t have wished for a better man to accompany him in his foxhole, but he failed to realize that Sheeran had already pledged his loyalty to Bufalino. In the mob those pledges are for life.
The American Mafia valued Hoffa. They respected him and the way he did business. Hoffa’s biggest claim to power was his control over the Central States Pension Fund, which was worth $200 million dollars when Sheeran joined Hoffa and contained over $1 billion dollars when The Irishman retired.
Hoffa had set things up in such a way that he could approve loans to certain individuals using money from the fund. The Teamsters charged interest on those loans and the fund grew, but Hoffa also got some juice on the side and in return the Mafia had access to large sums of legitimate cash to set up various projects, such as casinos in Las Vegas.
Links between Hoffa and organized crime were beginning to attract the attention of authorities. He was investigated multiple times but avoided convictions at every turn. Annoyed and angered by what seemed as Hoffa’s flagrant disrespect for the law, newly appointed Attorney General Robert Kennedy formed the “Get Hoffa” squad intent on bringing down the labor boss and his corrupt practices.
Within several years his squad succeeded.
The FBI managed to flip one of Hoffa’s associates and use him to convict him for bribing a juror in one of his criminal cases. That same year, 1964, Hoffa was found guilty of fraud in another case as well. Prosecutors successfully showed he had improperly used the Teamsters' pension fund by handing out loans to crime figures.
It was a shocking moment. Here was America’s most powerful labor boss and he was looking to go to prison for over a decade. All his influence and political connections be damned: Hoffa had fallen. After exhausting all of his appeals he reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on March 7, 1967. He left the Teamsters in the hands of Frank Fitzsimmons, who he appointed as acting president.
“Talk to your friend”
Though now officially out of power, Hoffa was still looked after. Thanks to some alleged payments to the Nixon campaign and the promise that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters would throw their support behind his candidacy, President Nixon commuted his 13-year sentence to time served on December 23, 1971.
After coming home from prison, the Teamsters also gave Hoffa his farewell present in the form of a $1.7 million-dollar retirement payment. Nothing but respect, it seemed. But there were conditions that came with his early release. One of them was that he was not to engage in any union activities until March 1980.
Fuck that, Hoffa thought. Once his parole ended he announced he would fight these terms in court and would challenge Fitzsimmons in 1976 for the presidency of the Teamsters. He went to his old friend The Irishman and asked him for his support. “I’ll be a Hoffa man ‘till the day they pat my face with a shovel and steal my cufflinks,” Sheeran replied.
In his campaign against Fitzsimmons, Hoffa had a peculiar strategy. He attacked his opponent for having links to organized crime and selling out the Teamsters to mobsters. The bosses couldn’t believe their ears. Forget about the pot calling the kettle black and think about all the heat these comments brought upon the mob.
All these racketeers wanted was to plunder the fund in the shadows, in silence, away from any scrutiny, and here was their former ally throwing their business out in the open, yelling about it in the media. Worse, Hoffa threatened he had collected evidence of the Mafia’s hold on the Teamsters and would release it if anything happened to him.
Hoffa wasn’t just looking like an erratic and unstable man, he was looking like a genuine threat. Though the Mafia bosses respected Hoffa’s achievements and what his hard work had given them, they weren’t about to let him mess a good thing up.
At a dinner, mob boss Russell Bufalino sat down with Hoffa and pleaded with him to stop the nonsense and wait until 1980 to make his comeback. The fallen union leader would not listen. He wanted to crush Fitzsimmons who he felt had stole the Teamsters from him.
Afterwards, Bufalino talked about the issue with Sheeran. “Some people have a serious problem with your friend,” Bufalino told him. “Talk to your friend. Tell him what it is.”
In mob speak, that’s what they call a death threat.
Sheeran claimed he tried talking to Hoffa and make him understand that he should pull back as a candidate, but Hoffa was stubborn and refused to back down. He grew increasingly paranoid and continued threatening to make certain shady dealings public, putting names to incidents and payments.
A decision was made.
On the afternoon of July 30, 1975, James R. Hoffa disappeared from the face of the earth.
Though there were plenty of conspiracy stories about Hoffa’s disappearance, the true story never came to light. Those who were suspected of playing a role in his vanishing, kept their mouths shut or had their mouths shut permanently by their colleagues.
The silence was deafening, but authorities still had a pretty clear picture of who might’ve participated in Hoffa’s demise. One of their prime suspects was Frank Sheeran, who they believed acted on orders from Mafia bosses.
Hoffa and Sheeran had spent years working closely together and forming a tight bond. Their relationship went beyond just their union jobs. They were like brothers. They partied together, celebrated their birthdays together, went on holidays. There was love and friendship not just between the two men, but between both their families.
It seemed harsh of authorities to claim such a close friend was behind this murder. Then again, in the Mafia it usually is your best friend who lures you to your death. In Hoffa’s case, his best friend did a lot more than that.
“I heard you paint houses”
At least, that’s what he, Sheeran himself, claimed in, what can only be described as his deathbed confession, the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy Hoffa.”
Written by Charles Brandt the book details Sheeran’s life and times, extensively covering his years with Hoffa. In it Sheeran confesses to multiple murders, including the infamous hit on “Crazy Joe” Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan, New York.
It’s his story about what went down with Hoffa, however, that got everyone’s attention.
To get a paranoid and street-smart guy like Hoffa, the mob had to figure out an elaborate plan. Alibi’s were constructed, a kill house was set up, and workers were put in place that fateful summer day in 1975.
A meeting was arranged between mobsters Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano and the union boss. Instead of the sit down, Hoffa would be picked up at the parking lot of the Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township by his foster son Charles “Chuckie” O'Brien, his best friend Frank Sheeran, and Provenzano’s guy Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio.
Sheeran told his friend that there was a change in plans and that Bufalino wanted to join the meeting and that it had been moved to another location in Detroit. It sounded plausible to Hoffa, who got in the car and was driven to a residential area in Detroit. There, he and Sheeran got out.
Hoffa went inside first with Sheeran right behind him. As the door closed behind them, Hoffa took a few steps inside and realized no one was there. It dawned on him that it was a set up. He rushed back, bumping into Sheeran on his way to the door. Hoffa’s hand reached for the door knob as Sheeran fired to bullets behind his right ear.
“My friend didn’t suffer,” Sheeran later recounted.
After the killing things went smooth and fast. Sheeran dropped his gun to the floor, casually walked out the front door, got in a car and drove to Pontiac Airport where a small private plane piloted by one of Bufalino’s men flew him to Port Clinton, Ohio, where he was awaited by his boss. The flight ensured Sheeran had an airtight alibi for the murder. How could he have been near Hoffa when it would’ve taken an impossible amount of time to drive there?
A cleanup team disposed of the gun and Hoffa’s body. It has never been found.
Several days after Hoffa’s murder, the FBI documented that Bufalino and Sheeran met with Genovese crime family boss Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and his underlings Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Salvatore Briguglio at Vesuvio Restaurant in New York City. According to Sheeran they were discussing Hoffa’s murder and any possible loose ends. “The purpose of this meeting at the Vesuvio five days after Jimmy disappeared was to report to Fat Tony Salerno that the whole thing was done,” Sheeran remembered.
The Feds came down hard on those they suspected of involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran was convicted in two separate cases in 1982, receiving a prison sentence totaling 32 years. Every so often, FBI agents would wake Sheeran from his sleep and ask him to cooperate with them for a sentence reduction. He always sent them away and notified his lawyer of their visit.
Doing time wasn’t an issue for a hard man like Sheeran. He’d seen worse during the war. What did hit him was how he was viewed by children. One day, his daughter Peggy was watching a news item about Hoffa’s disappearance when he walked in. She looked up at her father and saw something.
“Maybe I looked hard instead of worried,” Sheeran said. “Maybe she thought I should have stayed in Detroit to work on finding Jimmy. Peggy asked me to leave the house and she said to me: ‘I don’t even want to know a person like you.’”
She did not talk to her father ever again.
Sheeran died in 2003, at the age of 83.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese is currently making a film about Sheeran’s life titled The Irishman. It stars Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Hoffa, Joe Pesci as Bufalino, and Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno.
Get the latest on organized crime and the Mafia at Gangsters Inc.'s news section.
Copyright © Gangsters Inc.