The People vs. Jimmy Hoffa (Part 1) 

Forty years ago, the labor leader's nashville trial became a hornet's nest of jury rigging, attempted assassination and tragedy

Forty years ago, the labor leader's nashville trial became a hornet's nest of jury rigging, attempted assassination and tragedy

The man who steps off the plane at the Berry Field municipal airport wears a sharp gray suit, a matching tie and an air of unshakable confidence. He smiles for the cameras, unaware that from the moment he sets foot in Nashville, he is Napoleon marching on Waterloo. Hoisting an umbrella to protect the suit from a light fall drizzle, he strides into the airport terminal flanked by a secretary and a subordinate. He carries a black case. Local and national reporters rush toward him as if magnetized. Flashbulbs pop. He has his opening provocation down cold. He's had plenty of chances to rehearse.

"Bob Kennedy is using the FBI as his own personal police force," James R. Hoffa says, hitting those P's hard like a finger jabbed in the chest. Kennedy is "using the taxpayers' money for his own vendetta." Kennedy is "usurping the powers of his office." Kennedy is "making his own policies and starting out just like Hitler did." In case no one was listening the first time around, the stocky, commanding union boss embroiders the analogy: "The United States is being run like a police state, and Kennedy is turning the U.S. into a country like the one ruled by Adolf Hitler." At no time does Hoffa show the slightest hint of fearing such a man.

Fear? That little prick Kennedy? As chief counsel to the McClellan Committee investigating labor corruption, attorney Robert Kennedy had come after Hoffa before. So had the Eisenhower Justice Department. Twice Hoffa was acquitted, and there was one mistrial. In the closest call, the government had tried to nail him for bribing an attorney, John Cheasty, to infiltrate the committee and report back on the findings. It should have been a slam dunk. But the defense made hash of Cheasty on the witness stand. Just to be safe, heavyweight champ Joe Louis stopped by the courtroom, allegedly at the Teamsters' behest, to give Hoffa a brotherly hug. Little things like that mean a lot to a mostly black jury. Kennedy said if Hoffa wasn't convicted, he'd jump off the Capitol Dome. After Hoffa was acquitted, he sent Kennedy a parachute.

Now Robert Kennedy was attorney general. His brother was president of the United States. Big deal. Hoffa told the last lawyer who came after him, "Hoffa isn't afraid of anybody, including you." (Hoffa had a way of referring to himself in the third person, especially in court.) Even so, Kennedy's pursuit has been so relentless that the press begins to talk of a "Get Hoffa Squad" within the Organized Crime division of his Justice Department.

To Hoffa, this latest trial has the feel of a grudge match. It involves a misdemeanor charge that a dummy company had been created in the late 1940s to benefit Hoffa, who then controlled the Michigan Teamsters. In 1948, a Michigan trucking company, Commercial Carriers, had asked Hoffa's help in settling a costly strike. Shortly afterward, a company was created in Nashville called Test Fleet Corporation. Its listed owners were Josephine Poszywak and Alice Johnson—the wives of Jimmy Hoffa and Teamsters official Bert Brennan. Test Fleet owned 10 trucks that were leased to Commercial Carriers. Over the next nine years, Commercial Carriers would do more than $1 million in business with Test Fleet. The government intended to prove that the money was a payoff to Hoffa—that he had called off the strike in return for a piece of business.

Jimmy Hoffa was a lightning rod for these kinds of charges, in part because of his unprecedented power. In 1931, as a teenage Kroger dockworker in Detroit, he had rallied his co-workers against the grocer's low pay and harsh working conditions. Thirty years later, he had unified the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a group of loose-knit autonomous locals, into a single collective fist. For every Teamster who resented Hoffa's power-grabbing and his dealings with the mob, which permeated the American trucking industry, there were hundreds more grateful for his clout and his piull tenacity at the bargaining table. "What do you hire us for," he asked a truckers' convention, "if not to sell your labor at the highest buck we can get?"

At the airport, Hoffa answers a few more questions, presses the flesh with a cabbie, boards a red Thunderbird sedan driven by local Teamsters chief Ewing King. It pulls up out front of the Andrew Jackson Hotel downtown. For several months, Hoffa's seventh-floor block of rooms will become the temporary nerve center of a nationwide brotherhood 1.7 million members strong. For several months, the nation's most powerful and controversial labor leader will butt heads with the most powerful prosecutor in the country. For much of that time, a Nashville courtroom will be their private battleground.

It is a time when the world is changing and Nashville is a young man's city, in a country of young men. The trial will only be the beginning. The ensuing thunder will reverberate all the way to the White House and the Supreme Court, even beyond. Careers will be made and broken. There will be blood spilled and murders attempted in the plain light of day. One local attorney will go on to glory. Another will go to prison, to ruin, and finally to his grave.

The way John Jay Hooker tells it, while raking saltine crumbs into a pile with his long patrician fingers and sifting them into his mouth, the story starts in 1958. The occasion was the impeachment of Raulston Schoolfield, a Chattanooga judge. A high-ranking goon in the Chattanooga Teamsters had been hit with conspiracy charges. These were serious crimes—arson, bombings, assault. Miraculously, the charges had been dismissed with a crack of Judge Schoolfield's gavel. By a strange coincidence, a check for $18,500 in "attorney fees" left the Chattanooga local at roughly the same time.

This sounded interesting to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, known as the McClellan Committee. As the committee's chief counsel, Robert Kennedy was probing charges of corruption in the Tennessee Teamsters, thanks largely to a lengthy series of articles in The Nashville Tennessean. At personal risk, young muckraker named John Seigenthaler had posted headline-seizing accounts of Teamster thuggery—threats, beatings, intimidation. Kennedy had invited Schoolfield to testify before the committee, but he refused. So when the judge was brought up on bribery and 23 other malfeasance charges at an impeachment hearing down South, the chief counsel was happy to appear as a witness.

Trying Schoolfield was a giant among Nashville lawyers. Jack Norman Sr., who also served as the Tennessean's counsel, was a jowly, incendiary orator with a reform-minded bent and a passion for cigars. His summations were the stuff of Greek tragedy. Assisting Norman was Hooker, a whelp recently out of Vanderbilt Law School. Hooker's father, John J. Hooker Sr., was not only Norman's close friend but his equal as an attorney—perhaps his only equal. The young Hooker, according to author James D. Squires, was "a tall, dark, lanky dandy with movie-star good looks." He was supremely confident, Squires wrote, "because he had yet to meet any perceived equals."

Norman let Hooker handle Kennedy on the witness stand. Out of court, the two men hit it off. Kennedy asked Hooker to show him the town. Hooker remembers he particularly wanted to see The Hermitage. They went, and the visiting counsel was notably struck by a quote from President Andrew Jackson. "One man with courage," it read, "makes a majority." It was then Kennedy told Hooker that his brother Jack, a Massachusetts senator on the McClellan Committee, intended to run for president in 1960.

In 1961, Robert Kennedy was sworn into his brother's cabinet as U.S. attorney general. In the intervening years, he had become close to Seigenthaler and Hooker, who both worked on the presidential campaign. Seigenthaler left the Tennessean and went to work for Kennedy in the Justice Department after the election. Hooker became a frequent guest at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. He even arranged the purchase of a Tennessee walking horse for Bobby's wife, Ethel, and their children. He endured years of Ethel's kidding when the horse turned out to be blind.

As the new attorney general, Bobby Kennedy's thoughts rarely strayed from one subject. "He was determined to expose corruption in the labor movement," Hooker recalls one afternoon in a side booth at Nick and Rudy's Steakhouse, just a few blocks from the Vanderbilt Law School, where he was a student. "He thought Hoffa had the power to paralyze the nation." With Seigenthaler reportedly as ghostwriter, Kennedy had published The Enemy Within, a book-length McClellan Committee exposé of union racketeering. Now, with the help of his chief investigator Walter Sheridan, Kennedy set out to recruit a phalanx of whip-smart, hungry young attorneys to take on organized crime and bust crooked unions.

Hooker says Kennedy approached him about trying Hoffa. After studying three potential cases against the Teamsters boss, Hooker concluded that none seemed strong enough to convict. He declined. Kennedy asked again. Hooker again demurred. "It made him mad," Hooker says. "It made me mad." As was not uncommon when Bobby Kennedy was refused, he stopped speaking to John Jay for days. Hooker told Ethel Kennedy that her husband wouldn't talk to him. "Bobby," she said, "quit it."

When the subject was finally broached, Bobby Kennedy tried a different tack. All right, you son-of-a-bitch, Kennedy said, who's the best man to try this? This time Hooker handed him a name. He reached back no farther than his own graduating class, the Vanderbilt Law School Class of '57.

The offices of Neal and Harwell occupy the 20th floor of One Nashville Plaza, overlooking the Cumberland River. In the reception area, framed etchings of Old Bailey and the House of Commons hang in lighted recesses like religious icons. In James F. Neal's own office, among the pictures of sports heroes and film directors and grateful defendants, there hangs a slim but panoramic black-and-white photo of Robert Kennedy in silhouette. Before him sits an imposing squad of attorneys. Neal is there, as are Charlie Shaffer and Jack Miller. They would meet again under less pleasant circumstances during the Watergate trial. Shaffer represented John Dean, and Miller represented President Richard M. Nixon. Jim Neal was the prosecutor.

In 1961, though, Neal had been working a couple of years for a law firm in Washington, D.C. The ex-Marine was one of the brightest minds of Vanderbilt Law School's now famous Class of '57, an illustrious group that included not only Hooker but future Judge Thomas Higgins and Nashville attorney George Barrett. (See Matt Pulle's cover story, "They Might Be Giants," Feb. 14, 2002.) When Robert Kennedy gave him "the call" looking for bright young lawyers, as Neal remembers, the discussion initially concerned what Neal wanted to do. He suggested joining the tax division. The next day, Kennedy called again. "Jim," he said, "this time I want you to do something I want you to do."

That was trying organized crime cases. Neal protested that he didn't have any experience handling them. "That's all right," Kennedy replied. "I don't have any experience being attorney general."

Neal was dispatched to Minneapolis. The defendant, Ben Dranow, was a former furrier who had helped bail Hoffa's union funds out of a shady Florida land deal. Dranow was being tried on bankruptcy fraud charges, but he was a slippery customer. By feigning illness, he had once stalled an appearance before the McClellan Committee. Neal had been preparing the case for months, when Dranow suddenly failed to appear at the hearing. Dranow claimed to have suffered a heart attack. He was recuperating in Miami, poor guy. What he didn't expect was that Neal would soon be boarding an airplane for Florida with a doctor in tow. Within days, Neal ascertained that not only had Dranow not suffered a heart attack, but he had tried to bribe two nurses into saying he had. Federal marshals hauled Dranow back to colder weather.

By now, the decision had been made to move forward with prosecuting Hoffa in the Test Fleet case. Neal and Charlie Shaffer would lead the prosecution. Neal went about his work in Nashville investigating the case as quietly as possible. Unfortunately, a Tennessean reporter picked up the scent. Nellie Kenyon, all 5 feet of her, had been covering courthouses for most of the century, from the Scopes trial on. "She was an old warhorse of a reporter, very jealous of her beat," recalls Larry Daughtrey, who had just started working for the paper at age 22.

Kenyon wrote that Hoffa was being investigated in Nashville. Later Neal would ask how she found out. She told him she stood in the cloakroom of the grand jury, and she just played a hunch when she saw the coats all had Detroit labels. When the trial started, Daughtrey also covered it on occasion. Even though Hoffa would dog-cuss the Tennessean with every other breath, the brusque Teamster retained a certain fondness for her. Daughtrey says, "I think Hoffa was amused by how brassy she was."

As Neal prepared for trial, that summer of 1962, the Athens of the South was awakening to the throes of reformist zeal. A wave of Young Turks represented by Seigenthaler and Hooker—educated, well-connected, unapologetically liberal Democrats—would issue a direct challenge to the city's creakier party machinery and resistance to civic progress. A battle for the city's future was under way, with the forces of enlightenment and integration lined up against a roiling mob of well-entrenched ward heelers and fearful white faces.

That war was being fought on several fronts on Oct. 21, when the airliner carrying Jimmy Hoffa touched down at Berry Field. Had the city not been obscured by fog—the plane had to make an instrument landing 15 minutes late—Hoffa could have looked down upon Nashville's Second Ward, a linchpin of the city's political future. The largely poor, black, underrepresented district, which ran south of the Courthouse along the Cumberland, was the province of Gene "Little Evil" Jacobs. A bar owner and junk furniture dealer, Little Evil personified the outgoing order of machine politics. The Walter Brennan look-alike had been elected city councilman thanks to his puppetmaster, bootlegger-turned-politician Charlie Riley. His duty was to deliver blocks of unquestioning votes on election day. Whether the voters were dead or alive was a needless distinction.

Seigenthaler had been reeled back from Washington in March as the Tennessean's editor, in part at the behind-the-scenes finagling of Hooker. In short order, his newsroom of roughneck beat reporters, idealistic rookies and hard-nosed Yankees became Little Evil's worst nightmare. Take the proposed Metro charter, which would place all Davidson County residents under a single government. Communism, Little Evil called it, and sympathetic supporters tacked up yard signs reading "Castro Has Metro." The Tennessean's afternoon archrival, the staunchly conservative Nashville Banner, roared its agreement. But the morning paper rallied support for the plan, in part by arguing outlying county residents were facing taxation without representation.

A similar furor was brewing over the upcoming Nashville congressional race. As Little Evil and the Second Ward machine backed the campaign of U.S. Rep. J. Carlton Loser over his rival, a young buck named Richard Fulton, the Tennessean took up Fulton's cause. Returning the salvo, the Banner splashed "Dickie" Fulton's every purported misdeed across Page One. The morning daily went so far in the other direction as to run fronage announcements of Fulton's upcoming campaign coffees. One chirpy blurb ran Oct. 22, 1962, just across from a headline reading, "Hoffa Arrives for U.S. Trial."

The fortunes of Hoffa, Loser and the city's two warring newspapers had become entangled through an odd series of circumstances. While Loser was blasting Fulton publicly as an agent of Hoffa and his labor agitators, Hoffa had been in Nashville quietly casting about for a local defense attorney. His first choice was Cecil Branstetter, a noted Nashville labor and criminal lawyer who had helped draft the Metro charter. Branstetter had already represented Hoffa at pretrial hearings. But before the trial, he petitioned to be withdrawn as Hoffa's attorney, on unspecified grounds.

The presiding judge, William Miller, who brooked no delaying tactics or shenanigans in his courtroom, initially thought Branstetter was stalling the trial. That was not the case. "Things just didn't sound right," Branstetter remembers today. A man of steely integrity, he had heard whispers of jury tampering, and that was enough. Without Branstetter, Hoffa wanted nothing less than the state's best criminal defense attorney, which gave him two basic options. One was John J. Hooker Sr., whose son was practically a member of the Kennedy household. The other was Jack Norman Sr.

According to Squires' book The Secrets of the Hopewell Box, an invaluable history of Davidson County political chicanery, Norman didn't trust Hoffa when the two met. His prosecution of the Schoolfield case gave him a convenient out, which he took. When the labor leader asked him which sharp local attorney he would recommend, Squires wrote, Norman looked out the window of his downtown office. He saw a tall young man coming up Union Street. Norman told Hoffa that man was the best young lawyer in Nashville. It was Carlton Loser's campaign manager, Z.T. Osborn Jr.

If Nashville had a rising legal star, it was Tommy Osborn. The son of a Presbyterian minister from Kentucky, Osborn was a sweetheart, fair-haired, jovial and exceptionally well-liked. Unlike many local attorneys who had made their connections either through birth, marriage or a prestigious alma mater, Osborn had earned his degree at the humble YMCA Night Law School. A former city attorney and keen strategist with a weakness for underdogs, he had become a behind-the-scenes player in local politics through shrewd affiliations with the city's many squabbling factions. And yet if his barber's kid needed legal help, Osborn didn't blink, and didn't charge.

Fiercely anti-union, Loser had no time for the Teamsters. But for Osborn, who had defended members of Nashville's Teamsters local over the years, he had nothing but praise. That was Tommy Osborn for you. Even his adversaries usually walked away shaking their heads and smiling.

As Hoffa approached him, Osborn was fresh from the triumph of his career. Seven years prior, he had helped bring a reapportionment suit to federal district court. At the time, Tennessee's legislative districts hadn't been redrawn in 60 years, despite massive shifts in population. As a result, urban dwellers were habitually underrepresented, while the legislature remained in control of rural white Democrats. On behalf of a voter named Charles Baker, a team of attorneys including Osborn sued the Tennessee state election commissioner, Joe Carr, on grounds that Baker's vote was neutered by the outdated districts—thus violating the 14th Amendment provision for equal protection.

Osborn carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court and argued it, persuasively. Chief Justice Earl Warren would say that Baker vs. Carr, the "one-man-one-vote" case, was the single most important issue he decided on the bench. Osborn wanted a career of such long shots, Squires wrote. In 1940, a horse named Gallahadion had won the Kentucky Derby against odds of 100-to-1. "That's what I want to be," Osborn once said. "The jockey on Gallahadion."

Representing Hoffa meant national notoriety, and the chance to back a lone man against the unchecked power of his overstepping accusers. Osborn called his friend John Jay Hooker Jr. for advice. By the light of Osborn's office fireplace, Hooker remembers, he warned his friend not to take the case. The forces lined up against the labor leader were too powerful. "Hoffa will feel he is being persecuted instead of prosecuted," Hooker cautioned. "He will decide the only way out is to fix the jury." Osborn said he didn't believe it. The next thing Hooker knew, he was reading in the morning paper that Tommy Osborn had resigned from the Carlton Loser campaign to represent Jimmy Hoffa.

Not long after Osborn joined the Hoffa defense team, Little Evil Jacobs bragged that he had corralled enough absentee ballots for Loser to clobber Richard Fulton. Like an idiot, he blabbed it to a Tennessean reporter. Soon Seigenthaler and the paper's legendary investigative reporter, Nat Caldwell, had dispatched Daughtrey, Squires, Jerry Thompson and other young reporters to the city cemetery. They were flanked by beefy Teamsters sympathetic to the Tennessean's crusade to reform the union. In the ink of night, the newshounds tiptoed among the graves with flashlights, checking names against ballots. The ensuing scandal led to one of the great headlines in Tennessean history: "2nd Ward Dead Men Vote." Loser, a man of principle, agreed to put the matter to a general election. Ultimately, Fulton went to Congress, Little Evil to jail. Tommy Osborn had been lucky, as usual. With Jimmy Hoffa, his luck would run out.

It was surely a bad sign that the day the trial began, jurors, defendants and attorneys awoke to the threat of imminent nuclear war. The tense standoff between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a Cold War chess game with grave stakes, exploded over the positioning of missiles in Cuba. While Bobby Kennedy's men went to work in Nashville, Kennedy himself stood in a White House on the brink of apocalypse.

The pressure affected everyone. A longtime railroad worker and labor activist, in town to meet with Hoffa about a substantial block of freight handlers, instead sat in the Teamster boss's room while Hoffa ranted something about balsa-wood ships and JFK getting duped by the Commies. Walter Sheridan, Kennedy's investigator, wrote that he went to bed not knowing if the world would vanish overnight in flames. The Test Fleet prosecution would have been anticlimactic, if not for a shocking occurrence in mid-trial and a series of bizarre plots and surrounding circumstances.

First, the trial could not have started on more contentious terms.

Prospective jurors had received calls from a Mr. Allen, who identified himself as a Banner reporter. Mr. Allen's inquiring mind wanted to know what the jurors thought of Jimmy Hoffa. The trouble was, no Mr. Allen worked for the Banner. The publisher, James G. Stahlman, was livid. In an urgent phone call, Kennedy begged Stahlman to let the matter drop, arguing that any publicity might damage his case. The crusty old cuss replied icily that the integrity of his paper had been besmirched. He hauled off and ran a Page One editorial offering $5,000 for the culprit's hide. Now the city had an inkling of what Neal and Sheridan already knew: Someone in Hoffa's camp was going to try to fix the jury.

Kennedy's investigators had been in touch with Edward Partin, a Baton Rouge Teamsters official who was close to Hoffa but had recently been threatened by him over Partin's knowledge of a bribery case. Just before the Test Fleet trial, Partin was arrested in Louisiana on a domestic beef involving the children of an associate. While in custody, he said that Jimmy Hoffa had told him a few months back that something had to be done "about that son-of-a-bitch Bobby Kennedy. He has to go." Plastic bombs and silencers were supposedly discussed. Partin took an FBI polygraph test and passed. The government asked him to gather information on Hoffa. Now a government spy, Partin went to Nashville.

Partin hadn't been in town but a day when he contacted Neal and Sheridan at the government's command post at the Hermitage Hotel. There, a small army of FBI agents and surveillance experts were keeping tabs on the Teamsters at the Andrew Jackson Hotel several blocks away. Partin said he had information, and a clandestine meeting was arranged.

When Sheridan walked through the Andrew Jackson's lobby, he passed a man bearing a handkerchief with a bold "P." It was Partin. Later that night, the Baton Rouge Teamster told Sheridan that he had been to see Hoffa. Partin would be stationed outside Hoffa's door throughout the trial. Already, he said, he had learned of at least three imminent attempts to bribe jurors. A man believed to be a liaison between the Teamsters and the Chicago mob had come to Nashville, allegedly to assist with rigging the jury.

As agents pursued these leads, the trial proceeded in grinding detail. Neal grilled a succession of functionaries, from the president of Commercial Carriers to the attorney who set up Test Fleet. At every turn, Hoffa's longtime Detroit counsel, William Bufalino, shouted objections. The tension between the prosecution and the defense was almost comical. With his hands below the table, just out of Judge Miller's view, Hoffa greeted Neal every morning with a one-fingered salute. In one week alone, both sides racked up 150 objections. Friends even noticed a change in Tommy Osborn. He began to talk outside the courtroom of "fighting fire with fire." The ticking tension in the courtroom soon detonated, but in a way no one expected.

The trial was well into its second month when a man in Washington, D.C., boarded a Greyhound bus for Nashville. An onlooker would describe him as gaunt, curly-haired and confused. Beneath his tan trenchcoat, he held a bulky parcel. He arrived in Nashville on Dec. 4 and checked late that night into Room 722 of the downtown YMCA. He tried to sleep, but the night was deafening. Only one thing would quiet the voice in Warren Swanson's head. He would take care of that in the morning.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Next week, an assassination attempt in open court, the aftermath of the Test Fleet trial and a bright Nashville attorney's tragic downfall.

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