National

Search for Jimmy Hoffa leads the FBI to Jersey City landfill

A worker, on his deathbed, said he buried the body of the former Teamsters union chief in a steel drum.

FILE - The site where it is believed the FBI visited as part of its investigation into the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa, in Jersey City, N.J., July 29, 2021. A deathbed statement by a man who claimed to bury the Teamster boss’ body in a steel drum brought agents to the site for an inspection. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)


The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, a mystery that has gripped the American imagination for half a century on its ascent to national folklore, is the subject of a new FBI investigation centered on the site of a former landfill in Jersey City, New Jersey. A worker, on his deathbed, said he buried the body in a steel drum.

FBI agents armed with a search warrant arrived in Jersey City at a plot of dirt and gravel the size of a Little League diamond below the Pulaski Skyway on Oct. 25 and 26 to conduct a “site survey,” according to the Detroit field office, which has led the investigation into Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975. The steel drum is said to be buried about 15 feet below ground, in the shadow of countless millions of drivers who have passed it by.

Advertisement:

“FBI personnel from the Newark and Detroit field offices completed the survey and that data is currently being analyzed,” Special Agent Mara R. Schneider, a spokesperson, said Thursday. The formal statement did not mention Hoffa by name and did not elaborate on a timeline for any potential excavation.

The new investigation, to be sure, has a familiar ring, as it follows several failed searches for Hoffa’s body over the years. In Michigan, where Hoffa was last seen outside a restaurant, officers with backhoes have searched various locations, including a farm, a driveway, and beneath a swimming pool.

In New Jersey, a popular urban legend had Hoffa’s remains buried under the old Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. The 2019 film “The Irishman” raised yet another version of what may have happened, portraying Hoffa’s character shot and killed by his friend, Frank Sheeran, and his body incinerated. That theory, advanced by Sheeran in a book before his death, has long been discounted by Hoffa scholars as unlikely.

Advertisement:

But an expert on the Hoffa case who brought the disclosure of the steel drum and its possible location to the FBI, Dan Moldea, a journalist who has written about the Teamster boss since before he disappeared, said that the New Jersey site is “100%” credible and that the new leads were very significant.

“A very prominent person disappeared from a public place 46 years ago and was never seen again,” Moldea said Thursday. “This case has to be solved.”

The new lead is bolstered by records showing that the FBI received tips as far back as 1975, immediately following his disappearance, that Hoffa was buried in the landfill in Jersey City. Agents searched and, finding nothing, wrote off the tips.

Advertisement:

“They had no idea where to start looking,” Moldea said.

The story of how the FBI came to learn of the new location begins on a muddy summer day in 1975. A teenage boy named Frank Cappola worked at the former PJP Landfill near the Skyway with his father, Paul Cappola Sr.

“While I was talking to my dad, a black limousine drove into our lot in the mud,” Frank Cappola recalled many years later, in 2019, at age 62, in a sworn written statement before a notary public. His father turned to a partner at the landfill and said, “They’re here.”

Advertisement:

The boy watched from a distance as the men approached the vehicle, where they spoke to the visitors and seemed to point to a remote corner of the landfill. He would later learn what was being planned.

By that summer of 1975, Jimmy Hoffa, who once commanded the powerful Teamsters union, had fallen from the heights of power. He served a prison sentence after being convicted of jury tampering in 1964, and his attempts to return to his union throne upon his release were not welcomed.

At the same time, a longtime friendship with the New Jersey Mafia boss Anthony Provenzano — “Tony Pro” — had soured badly. Men who operated in the pair’s orbit would later say that it was practically an open secret that Hoffa’s days were numbered.

Advertisement:

On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, for a meeting to address this very situation. He was to sit down with Provenzano and another mobster at the Machus Red Fox, a popular restaurant. But when he arrived, the other two men were not there.

And with that, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.

The FBI combed the restaurant’s credit-card receipts to track down potential witnesses from that day. A few said they saw Hoffa that afternoon out in front, where he got into the back seat of a car that drove away.

Agents interrogated union leaders and mob bosses and henchmen, pulling dozens of them in front of grand juries. One possible outcome of Hoffa’s disappearance emerged among many, with the seemingly unlikely destination hundreds of miles away — a New Jersey landfill. The 87-acre landfill was owned in part by a man named Phil Moscato and was commonly referred to as “Brother Moscato’s dump.”

Advertisement:

A Teamster who was in prison in New Jersey on an unrelated murder conviction, Ralph Picardo, became an informant and told the FBI in 1975 that Provenzano told him as early as 1974 that Hoffa “was destined to be killed,” according to FBI documents.

Shortly after Hoffa disappeared, associates of Provenzano visited Picardo in prison, and during their conversation, said Provenzano had arranged for Hoffa’s execution and that the body was taken to New Jersey on a truck.

“Picardo only speculates that Hoffa’s body may be in Moscato dump in New Jersey,” the FBI wrote in a report in 1979, “and has no direct knowledge of the exact location.” Provenzano died in 1988.

A second informant in Philadelphia said two mobsters brought up the disappearance in a conversation. One said, “If the feds begin digging at the proposed dump in New Jersey, they would hit pay dirt,” and the other replied, “Yes, they sure will,” according to the report.

FBI agents visited the dump in 1975 with a search warrant in a different missing person’s case, but in reality, they hoped to find Hoffa. They performed a cursory search, not knowing where to dig, and found nothing.

The dump itself became a toxic hazard. Underground fires burned night and day, spewing chemical fumes in the poor neighborhoods surrounding the site. In 1983, the dump, by then called PJP Landfill, was declared a Superfund site, an environmental disaster area to be cleaned up.

Thousands of barrels were dug up and carted away, and the landfill was capped. In recent years, it was converted into Skyway Park, a vibrant green belt along the Hackensack River.

Moldea continued to revisit the Hoffa case over the years. In 2019, when “The Irishman” opened to theater audiences and on Netflix, he praised the film’s engaging storytelling while calling out its climactic killing as untrue.

It was around that time that Moldea was introduced to a stranger named Frank Cappola, the teenager from the landfill, with a story to tell about his father.

He recalled that muddy summer day in 1975, with the black limousine and the conversation between his father, Moscato, the partner, and the visitors. When people began gesturing to an area in the dump, Frank Cappola saw his father, Paul, react in anger: “Now the whole world will know!” he shouted with an expletive.

Frank didn’t know what he was talking about for years. Then, in 2008, nearing death, his father summoned him to tell his tale, which he had shared with no one. He encouraged his son to reveal it when the time seemed right.

The men in the limousine had come to instruct the men at the dump that Hoffa’s body was being delivered shortly and that they were to bury it, Paul Cappola told his son. Moscato told him to do the job himself.

“My father was upset with Mr. Moscato for pointing to that area of the landfill,” Frank Cappola wrote in a sworn statement in 2019, “because the dump was constantly under police scrutiny.”

“Unidentified people brought Hoffa’s dead body to PJP,” Frank Cappola wrote. “Because of the awkward position of Hoffa’s corpse after they removed him from whatever container he was in before, they were unable to place him, feet first, in a 55-gallon steel drum retrieved at PJP. So, they put him in the drum headfirst.”

Paul Cappola was left alone with the body in the barrel, and worried that someone may have seen the men pointing earlier. He made a change in plans.

“My father, who didn’t trust anybody, decided to dig a second hole with a company excavator and to place Hoffa in that location,” Frank Cappola wrote.

The new hole was on a desolate patch of unused state property just outside the dump, between 8 and 15 feet deep, the father told his son. He buried the Hoffa barrel first, followed by as many as 15 to 30 chemical drums and chunks of brick and dirt, he told his son.

Then he covered the whole area with dirt. He “placed something detectable just under the surface of the gravesite, which I am willing to disclose to law enforcement,” Frank Cappola wrote. Paul Cappola told his son he never shared the location with his partner or anyone else.

In March 2020, Frank Cappola died after longtime respiratory problems. He left his father’s secret with Moldea, who wrote about the disclosure. The FBI contacted him in 2020, he said. He visited the site with a Fox News crew and ground-penetrating radar equipment in November 2020. The radar detected shapes that resembled barrels, he said.

The site is adjacent to what is now Interstate Waste Services, a trash collection company that for years has stored empty metal containers under the Skyway. In late October, workers were abruptly ordered to clear them out, Isaac Suarez, 19, an employee, said last week. He saw the investigators arrive.

“They scanned the floor and found barrels,” Suarez said at the site, adding the location made sense. “If you were trying to hide somebody you killed, wouldn’t you want it to be in plain sight, but not?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com