The People vs. Jimmy Hoffa, Part 2 

The Test Fleet trial continues, and a lawyer falls from grace

The Test Fleet trial continues, and a lawyer falls from grace

Editor's Note: In October 1962, the nation's most powerful labor leader, Teamsters President James R. Hoffa, went on trial in a Nashville federal courtroom. Since the mid-1950s, Hoffa had been tried three times without success by the U.S. government on charges ranging from wiretapping to bribery. His nemesis throughout those trials had been Robert Kennedy, who served as chief counsel to the Senate committee investigating labor corruption. Kennedy, now U.S. attorney general in his brother's cabinet, had put together a squad of young lawyers to prosecute organized crime and union racketeering.

The charges involved a Nashville trucking firm called Test Fleet Corporation, which was set up in 1948 under the names of Hoffa's and another associate's wives. The government accused a Michigan trucking company, Commercial Carriers, of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Teamsters boss through Test Fleet in exchange for settling a costly strike. This was a violation of the Taft-Hartley Act, a misdemeanor offense. No sooner did Hoffa arrive in Nashville for trial, though, than the prosecution learned of a massive attempt by Hoffa to fix the jury.

Prosecuting the Test Fleet case was Jim Neal, a tenacious young Nashville attorney recommended to Kennedy by his close friends John Jay Hooker Jr. and John Seigenthaler, Young Turk Nashville Democrats who had worked on his brother's campaign. The government's chief investigator was Walter Sheridan. Leading Hoffa's local defense was Z.T. "Tommy" Osborn Jr., a brilliant young lawyer and rising Nashville political star. Osborn's friends and mentors included the city's two finest criminal defense attorneys, Jack Norman Sr. and John J. Hooker Sr.

On Dec. 4, 1962, while the Test Fleet trial was under way, a disturbed man named Warren Swanson boarded a bus for Nashville carrying a bulky parcel. Hearing voices in his head, he checked into the downtown YMCA in a tan trench coat. The story resumes here.

Judge William Miller's courtroom was on the eighth floor of the federal courthouse building at Eighth and Broadway. To Walter Sheridan's surprise, the spectators' gallery was rarely full. An observer scanning the room this Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, 1962, would have seen the Nashville Tennessean's warhorse courtroom reporter Nellie Kenyon, the Banner's Brad Carlisle, and Duren Cheek, the young journalist covering the trial for UPI. Sitting near the defense table is Hoffa's "adopted son" and burly bodyguard Chuck O'Brien. Gilbert Merritt Jr., a Nashville attorney in the building for a bankruptcy case, has stopped by to watch. A tall man no one knows stands in the back of the room, fidgeting with his trench coat.

Jim Neal is rolling his eyes at another "long, turgid" objection by Hoffa's Detroit counsel, Bill Bufalino, when he hears footsteps padding up the aisle that divides the gallery. He turns in time to see Warren Swanson reach the waist-high wooden doors leading to the front of the courtroom, where the attorneys sit. The doors yawn on their hinges. Swanson reaches inside his coat and withdraws what Neal will describe 40 years later as "the biggest gun I've ever seen in my life. It just keeps coming and coming." The barrel levels at Neal, then swings around to the defense table. As the attorneys dive for cover, Warren Swanson points his pistol at Jimmy Hoffa. He fires point-blank three times.

Six months before, Swanson, a 28-year-old former mental patient, had been stuck in a Cincinnati hotel room with nothing to do but read the Bible. So he did. Endlessly. Outside the window had been a sign advertising a Teamsters convention. A voice popped into his head: "Hoffa...Hoffa." The voice told him he had to kill Jimmy Hoffa. Swanson fought the voice as best he could with a string of dead-end jobs, but it was too strong. In the back of Sports Illustrated, he saw an ad for a high-powered gas pellet gun. "Drives pellets through four-inch blocks of wood!" it promised. Swanson ordered that gun.

It was false advertising that saved Jimmy Hoffa's life. Swanson had pumped up the gun but left it sitting overnight. With the gas pressure somewhat dissipated, the pellets pinged off Hoffa's thick hide. One chipped the wall, another the floor. Hoffa, seasoned street fighter that he was, didn't blink. He reared back and bashed Swanson in the face.

A marshal sapped Swanson with a gun just as Chucky O'Brien cleared the desk. O'Brien pummeled the gunman with his canned-ham fists, then kicked him in the face. The blood spattered Duren Cheek's shoes. The beating was so savage that spectators who had previously feared for their own lives now feared for Swanson's. When order was restored, the first line in the transcript belonged to Judge Miller: "Will somebody clean up all that blood?"

Swanson was whisked away and sent to a federal medical center in Missouri. Hoffa strutted back to the defense table, visibly proud of having socked the s.o.b. Judge Miller reminded him of this the next day, when Tommy Osborn and Bufalino called for a mistrial on grounds of their client's fragile emotional state.

No sooner had that crisis ended than another loomed. Nellie Kenyon and the other reporters arrived one morning to find the courthouse doors closed and the windows covered. Outside, the reporters jostled for a view, Kenyon wrote, like kids watching a baseball game through a knothole. Inside, a secret hearing was under way. The prosecution claimed that Hoffa's camp had tried to bribe the patrolman husband of a juror from nearby Woodbury. The defense angrily denied the charge. Regardless, Judge Miller dismissed the sequestered juror, who expressed puzzlement to reporters. A second juror was dismissed on similar grounds.

After nine weeks and $1 million in costs, Test Fleet went to a jury the weekend before Christmas. Tommy Osborn told the jury that the government had not been able to prove a single penny went directly to Hoffa. In closing, he asked the 12 Middle Tennesseans to give a hometown boy—namely, himself—an acquittal for Christmas. Jim Neal, in his summation, likened the circumstantial evidence of conspiracy to seeing your neighbor running down the street with a side of bacon, at the same time one disappeared from your smokehouse. "You would not have any direct evidence that your neighbor took it," Neal explained, "but the evidence would be mighty strong." Prosecution attorney Charlie Shaffer, the partner of Oak Grove native Neal, reminded the jury that Osborn wasn't the only son of Tennessee who deserved a present.

Deliberation dragged on for 17 hours. Three times the jury reported; three times the jury announced itself deadlocked. Christmas beckoned, and a freak snowstorm was dumping five inches of snow on the city, causing fires and wreaking havoc. The fourth time the jury came back without a verdict, on Dec. 23, Judge Miller declared a mistrial. The score was now Hoffa 4, Justice Department 0. A beaming Hoffa wished "the jury, the reporters and everybody connected with the trial a merry Christmas."

But Judge Miller placed a lump of coal in Hoffa's stocking. He ordered a grand jury to be convened after the first of the year to investigate the attempted jury tampering. Fixing a jury was serious business, much worse than the nebulous Taft-Hartley violations of Test Fleet. As his former defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams was said to have remarked, only Jimmy Hoffa could elevate a misdemeanor into a felony.

On Jun. 10, 1963, Hoffa returned to Nashville to plead not guilty to jury-tampering charges. He told reporters he wasn't expecting a fair trial. "I think that it would be difficult to get a fair trial anywhere," Hoffa said, "because of the constant harassment of the Justice Department. It's just another one of Bobby Kennedy's shenanigans."

According to author James Squires, Kennedy wanted "someone older, overpowering and incorruptible" to join Neal at the prosecution table in the jury-tampering case. The obvious candidates were John J. Hooker Sr. and Jack Norman. Kennedy had an in with Hooker through his son John Jay, who now had Norman's old position as lawyer for the Tennessean. The elder Hooker had reservations, but Kennedy wore them down by appealing to Hooker's love of law, his almost religious belief in the sanctity of the court.

That fall, the jury-tampering trial was being readied in Nashville when the unthinkable happened. Over the summer, Walter Sheridan had been contacted by a man named Robert Vick. A Nashville police officer, Vick was an investigator for Tommy Osborn, and he had done some legwork for Osborn on the prospective Test Fleet jurors. Vick began to hint to Sheridan that the jury tampering in the case had been even more widespread than the Justice Department suspected. He suggested to Sheridan that Osborn had been involved.

In the early phase of the Test Fleet case, after he had already bowed out as Hoffa's lawyer, Nashville labor attorney Cecil Branstetter had found Vick and some shady characters in Osborn's office, talking openly about how to reach certain jurors. Branstetter was alarmed. "I said, my God, Tommy, who are these men? What are you doing?" He recalls gesturing to the fireplace in the center of Osborn's office. It was the perfect place for a bug, and Branstetter would know. In his old Church Street office across from the telephone company, he had learned that the only place he could talk without fear of electronic eavesdropping was behind a refrigerator. In the sternest terms possible, he warned Osborn to stop.

As the jury-tampering trial was about to enter jury selection, Vick contacted Sheridan again. The last time they spoke, Sheridan had told him to call back when he had some evidence. Vick now believed he had some. He said Tommy Osborn had come to him with a scheme to cook the jury that would hear Hoffa's jury-tampering case. Vick's cousin was a prospective juror on the upcoming trial. Osborn wanted Vick to offer him $5,000 immediately and $5,000 after the verdict, if the cousin got selected, to vote for a Hoffa acquittal.

There was no question Osborn had taken the Hoffa case personally. He told Branstetter he was just returning the government's fire with more of the same. The fact is, many agreed he and Hoffa had every right to feel embattled. The U.S. government had spent most of the century backing management and crushing labor. Now here was Hoffa in a town full of Kennedy loyalists, on—what, his fifth charge? Regardless of what the government said, the defense team felt its every move was wired, tapped and spied upon. Never mind that they had their own spies. Hoffa had his Philadelphia surveillance expert, Bernard Spindel, fly to Nashville with 1,000 pounds of electronic equipment.

But Osborn was a brilliant attorney, a rising star, a good and honest man. Such a man would never be stupid enough to tamper with the jury of a jury-tampering trial. So Sheridan asked for a sworn affidavit from Vick, one that carried a risk of perjury. When Vick provided it, Sheridan no longer needed convincing. The same wasn't true of Neal and Hooker. They weren't about to destroy a Tommy Osborn on the word of a Robert Vick. Neal decided only one thing would settle the matter. At the authorization of Judge Miller, who was just as shocked as the prosecution, the FBI fitted Vick with a tape recorder.

The device was strapped to the small of Vick's back. As FBI agents watched, Vick strode into Osborn's office. An hour later, he emerged and walked several blocks toward a rendezvous point. The agents rushed him back to the prosecutors' offices, where everyone waited nervously. Osborn took the bait, Vick said. The attorney had repeated the instructions about bribing the juror, and it was all on tape. The agent who wired Vick removed the recorder and opened it.

Ribbons of unraveled tape spilled from the case.

A salvage job was attempted. The tape was rewound. From the recorder came the sound of a door opening. Osborn's secretary said hello, then—bzzzzzz. The tape died. It would have to be done again. So Vick was again wired and sent to Osborn's office. The tension was excruciating. This time Osborn wasn't even there.

The following Monday, the agents again fitted Vick with his recorder. A half-hour after he entered Osborn's office, he came out. At the meeting point, the instant Vick was within reach, the agents carefully removed the device. Everyone returned to the prosecution office to listen. Neal and Hooker played back the tape. To their dismay, the voice was clearly Tommy Osborn's.

Sheridan sets the scene in his book The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa:

Osborn: The only thing it depends upon is him being accepted on the jury. If the government challenges him, there will be no deal.

Vick: All right. If he is seated.

Osborn: If he is seated.

Vick: He can expect 5,000 then.

Osborn: Immediately.

Government agents played the tape for Judge Miller and gave him a transcript. The judge "shook his head sadly as he listened," Sheridan wrote. Although the prosecution didn't want to prejudice Judge Frank Gray, who would be hearing Hoffa's jury-tampering trial, Judge Miller thought it necessary to inform him.

The next day, Tommy Osborn was summoned to the chambers of Judge Miller. He arrived to find the two judges, Miller and Gray, waiting. They told Osborn they had received substantial evidence of attempts to influence potential jurors. Was Osborn himself aware of any such efforts? He said no. This time, the judges put the question more directly. Had Osborn himself attempted to influence a prospective juror, or discussed such an effort with another person? Again, no.

Finally, the judges mentioned the name of the specific juror and asked Osborn if he had discussed contacting him. They read his face. At least one person familiar with the case says they hoped Osborn would make a clean breast of it. Instead, he responded with blank innocence. No, Osborn said.

At that point, the judges handed the defense attorney a show-cause order. On Nov. 25, he would appear at a hearing to argue why he should not be disbarred. The hearing could be held in open court or in judges' chambers, his choice. The color drained from Osborn's face. Judges' chambers it was.

Osborn panicked. He frantically tried to reach Vick. By that time the star witness and his family had been sequestered in a Holiday Inn. He then went to the man who had recommended him to Hoffa in the first place. Jack Norman was stricken by the thought that he had sent Osborn to his doom. He signed on as Osborn's counsel, for free. Accompanied by Norman, Osborn went to Judge Gray and asked to hear the evidence against him. It wasn't good.

The mission at the moment was to save Tommy Osborn's career. Norman met with his old friend, John J. Hooker Sr., who was as distraught as Norman over the whole affair. A few months earlier, Tommy Osborn had been admitted to the American College of Trial Lawyers. It was an honor restricted to only 1 percent of the attorneys in a given state, and now he was facing disbarment. But the issue ran deeper than Osborn's talent. He was a prince, a husband and father to three girls. Hooker and Norman had nothing but affection for Osborn, and little but contempt for Vick.

The two veteran attorneys sought a compromise that would keep Osborn from prosecution, if not disbarment. Hooker didn't relish the thought of going to trial with Vick, a man who might play to a jury as a backstabbing turncoat, as his chief witness. Norman suggested the crucial tape could be challenged as evidence, on grounds it was obtained through entrapment. In the end, Hooker agreed that if Osborn went before the judges and confessed, and if he agreed to testify against Hoffa, the Justice Department would not pursue prosecution.

A few days later, the disgraced attorney appeared before Judges Miller and Gray. The voice on the tape was his, he said, and he did not contest the transcript. The judges each issued a formal memorandum. Just weeks ago, Tommy Osborn had been well on his way to winning the presidency of the Nashville Bar Association in a cakewalk. Now he was barred from practicing in federal court.

When the news hit the street, the reaction among Osborn's friends was of outrage and disbelief. Nashville's legal community, the Tennessean reported, was in "a profound state of shock." Cecil Branstetter's reaction was typical: "I was horrendously surprised." Whatever anguish was felt, however, would be eclipsed the very next day.

The date was Nov. 22, 1963.

Jim Neal was at the federal courthouse on Broadway prepping for the jury-tampering trial. A makeshift office had been prepared in the jury room while Judge Miller's court was not in session. Walter Sheridan was there at about 1:30 that afternoon when an ashen associate burst in. The man shouted something about the president being shot in Dallas. Sheridan rushed to call Robert Kennedy. There was no answer.

Neal and Sheridan called John Seigenthaler, the Tennessean's editor and a close friend of the Kennedys. He had only sketchy information, but he invited them to watch the live coverage soon to come from Dallas. The men began the four-block walk up Broadway to the Tennessean newsroom. There they received the news that an assassin's bullet had taken the life of President John F. Kennedy Jr. The Kennedys' Nashville comrades immediately began the somber trek to Washington.

That Sunday, while the prosecution team stood outside the Justice Department, watching a solemn procession follow President Kennedy's flag-draped coffin down Pennsylvania Avenue, Jimmy Hoffa spoke at a rally for Nashville Teamsters president Ewing King in the upcoming local union election. King's opponent, Don Vestal, led an anti-Hoffa faction in the Tennessee Teamsters. After thumping the tub for King, Hoffa went before TV cameras to blast Judges Miller and Gray for setting a trap for Tommy Osborn. The government, Hoffa charged, had tried to sabotage his case by sandbagging his brightest attorney.

The reporters' questions inevitably turned to the grieving attorney general. Hoffa could have played the hypocrite, said something smarmy. Instead, his reply was brutally heartfelt. "Bobby Kennedy," he said, "is just another lawyer now."

Even though there was the possibility of a deal for Tommy Osborn, Jack Norman had warned his client not to get his hopes up. His fears were proven correct. In December, a grand jury convened in Nashville to investigate Osborn's activities.

The interesting part, though, was that Osborn was no longer being called to testify against Hoffa in the jury-tampering trial. If the prosecution put Osborn on the stand, and he convinced a jury he'd been entrapped by an informant, that could strengthen Hoffa's argument that the government had tried to sabotage his defense. Indeed, Osborn advised Hoffa to use that ammo at the Teamster boss's upcoming trial, during which the now disbarred lawyer had nothing else to do but sell real estate.

But Osborn suddenly had more pressing problems. The grand jury returned a three-count indictment on charges of jury tampering. Tommy Osborn was no longer facing the loss of his license. He was facing prison time. The defender had become a defendant. His trial was slated for May 1964.

Neither Neal nor Hooker wanted to put Osborn away. As the date neared, they told Robert Kennedy that if he pursued Osborn all the way to trial, they wanted someone else to try it. Kennedy understood, but the two prosecutors were crucial. So he made them a deal, at Hooker's suggestion. All they had to do was get the disbarred attorney to plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice. There would be no prison time. It sounded reasonable. But on the off chance Osborn refused, Kennedy said, they had to proceed.

They took the deal to Osborn and expected the matter to end. But Osborn, ever the long-shot gambler, decided to roll the dice. He believed that he had been set up, all because he had done too thorough a job representing an unpopular client. True, it would be hard to get a jury over the hurdle of the tape. But if the defense could pull off some kind of miracle—and if anybody could, it was Norman—Osborn could someday appeal to reinstate his license on grounds of entrapment and acquittal. He placed his bet. Hooker and Neal suited up for battle.

The stakes could not have been higher as the May 25 trial date arrived. A loss for Jack Norman would destroy Tommy Osborn's life—and all because Norman had sent Jimmy Hoffa his way. A loss for John J. Hooker Sr. and Jim Neal would unleash hell on the prosecution. An acquittal would give instant credence to Hoffa's claims of government sabotage and infiltration. Worse, it would let a guilty man walk. It was a winner-take-all showdown, and yet a victory on either side could only be tainted by regret. John Jay Hooker had begged his father not to take the case. He would never forget his father's reply. "Son," he said, "that man tampered with the temple of justice."

For four incendiary days, the lions of Nashville law slashed, roared and stalked the courtroom. Norman's evisceration of Robert Vick was merciless. The defender had shrewdly sized up the slight, shifty Vick as the weak link in the prosecution's case, and he set about demolishing his credibility with surgical precision. His one-two combination of withering sarcasm and righteous scorn left Vick reeling. By the end of his cross-examination, he had tarred the witness as a liar, a fink, a stooge, a government-saddled stalking horse and a rat.

Hooker had the unenviable task of going after Tommy Osborn. The prosecutor swallowed his affection for Osborn the man and zeroed in on Osborn the self-justifying jury rigger. Hooker's questioning of Osborn shifted attention from Norman's dazzling demolition of Vick to the fundaments of the case, always returning to his trump card: the audio tape. As much of a snake as Vick may have been, the attorney's own voice was the most damning witness against him. It would take a Herculean effort in closing arguments to undo its damage.

So vivid are the memories of those closing arguments that John Jay Hooker can act them out 38 years later. Sitting in a booth at Nick and Rudy's Steakhouse, Hooker slips from Jack Norman's low rumble of a voice into his father's own agitated rasp, at such volume that patrons sometimes glance discreetly from distant tables. It is 1964, and we are about to hear Jack Norman play snake charmer and revival preacher all at once with a jury.

The nattily tailored Norman rises to the full height of his broad frame. "In all the 40 years of my professional career," he says, raking the jury with his eyes, "I have never been as upset and affected as I have been in this case." He describes his own "lash of conscience" at having sent Hoffa to Osborn, and says gently that, yes, "sometimes attorneys are tempted." With sudden violence, he denounces the Osborn case as "the scummiest, lousiest, most contemptible piece of fraud I have ever seen committed in the name of government."

Hammering his fist on the lectern, he outlines a government conspiracy to wreck the Hoffa defense. He accuses Bobby Kennedy of deliberately entrapping Osborn to nail his nemesis. "Government is not always right," Norman thunders, "and the individual wrong." He returns to the subject of Robert Vick, who said "bribery was his practice and he had no apology for it." So tainted is the case by Vick's involvement, he cries, that they're as bound as ink in water. By now Norman's wisps of white hair are flying, and his shirt collar is wilted from perspiration. He moves closer to the jury, then drops his voice to river-bottom depth.

"It has been said," Norman confides, "that in the Louvre of Paris there are 12 different pictures of Judas Iscariot, painted by different artists, representing the concept of each individual artist of iniquity, indecency, loss of goodness, and there are no two of the 12 that look alike." He levels his finger at the chief witness for emphasis. "But surely they must all look like Vick." The jury sits in stunned silence.

Before every jury speech, John J. Hooker Sr. gets what his son calls "a temporary but profound nervousness." An audible tremble appears in his voice. That nervousness could only be intensified today, with the air still reverberating from the force of Jack Norman's argument. There is a dramatic moment of silence as Hooker stands, rifles his pockets and smoothes his rumpled suit over his broad belly. Then all is clear. He gets right to business, addressing Norman's attack on Vick. The man's character is irrelevant, he argues. "You don't catch anybody trying to fix a jury with an elder or a deacon of a church."

There remains the matter of Norman's all too apt analogy of Judas Iscariot. "Jack Norman," Hooker says, as his son remembers it, "you and I have been friends for many years. You are a great speaker. Your voice is like an affidavit." Then, with a matador's flourish, Hooker lowers the boom. "Now Jack," the prosecutor cackles, "when was the first time I heard you tell a jury that Judas story?" The spell is broken. Having at least challenged the characterization of his chief witness as the Messiah's betrayer, Hooker returns to his main thrust. "I don't care what Robert Vick looks like," he roars. "I am not asking you to convict on his testimony. I am asking you to convict [Osborn] on his own voice."

Now spent, Hooker walks to the jury box and speaks in a ragged whisper. "I've rolled and tossed at night ever since this has been going on," he rasps, "wondering if there wasn't some way that I could be spared this." He falls to his knees before the jury box. "I hope you will not regard me as irreverent," Hooker says, "when I say that I have gotten down on my knees and asked God that justice, and only justice, be done in this case." Hooker then reads from a transcript of the hearing at which Osborn confessed. "And I didn't hear him say he was sorry in this trial," he concludes, "really."

After three hours' deliberation, the jury returns. Norman stands alongside Osborn for the reading of the verdict. From the gallery, Osborn's wife Dottie watches with friends and family. As forceful as Hooker has been, some wonder if Jack Norman has managed his miracle. But in his sharply concise summation, Jim Neal had raised perhaps the single question most on the minds of Osborn's many friends and colleagues. "It is foolish to believe," Neal argued, "that a brilliant, well-educated lawyer who was a former prosecutor could be led by a man like Vick. It's like saying a jackass led a fox into a trap." That is what would haunt Tommy Osborn for the rest of his life. At the reading of the verdict, the gallery gasps.

The previous fall, Judges William Miller and Frank Gray had both recused themselves from Tommy Osborn's trial. Judge Gray was still set to hear Hoffa's jury-tampering case when the defense charged that he had been irreversibly biased by hearing the Osborn tape. The judge disagreed, but he thought it better to withdraw anyway. Hoffa's attorneys then moved for a change of venue, arguing that the Test Fleet press coverage in Nashville had scotched their client's chance for a fair trial. Under the circumstances, it was hard to disagree. The case would be heard in January 1964 by Judge Frank Wilson, in Chattanooga.

Hoffa arrived in Chattanooga on Jan. 17 like a conqueror. The Teamsters boss had been in Chicago, going to the mat with the nation's trucking companies. The trucking firms were staring down the barrel of selective coast-to-coast strikes, set to go off at midnight on Jan. 15. As dawn approached the next morning, word came down that Hoffa had won a 45-cent wage increase for the Teamsters over the next three years, counting additional fringe benefits. It was the first nationwide contract with the trucking industry in U.S. labor history. Cheers and thank-you banners greeted Hoffa and his family as they stepped onto the tarmac in Chattanooga for the trial. A 40-car caravan swept his Cadillac into the city.

If the Nashville trial had been a circus, the Chattanooga trial was a zoo. Along with Hoffa, five other defendants were tried on jury-tampering charges in the Test Fleet case, each with his own attorney. Cecil Branstetter represented Larry Campbell, a black Teamsters agent accused of trying to arrange a juror's bribe from a Louisville pay phone. Franklin attorney Dave Alexander was among those representing Nicholas Tweel, a West Virginia cigarette vendor who was supposedly a point man for the rigging scheme (and who was ultimately acquitted). At the prosecution table sat Jim Neal and John J. Hooker Sr. They were flanked by associates such as Nat Lewin, the legal eagle dubbed "Instant Law" by Hoffa's attorneys because he could quote obscure citations section and verse on the spot.

For seven weeks, the Chattanooga courthouse was mired in a morass of multiple cross-examinations, strategies and counter-strategies. The Nashville trial was gentlemanly by comparison. FBI surveillance experts kept tabs on Hoffa's men, while Hoffa's own experts scoped out the Feds. Bitter accusations about wiretapping flew back and forth. The paranoia was stifling. John Jay Hooker realized how intense it was when a prosecutor closed a door on him so he wouldn't overhear a conversation. The prosecutor was his own father.

The jury retired for deliberation the night of March 4. The next day, it reached a decision after five hours and 40 minutes. James R. Hoffa stood before Judge Wilson for the reading of the verdict. The Teamsters boss was found guilty on three counts, with sentencing to come the next week. What followed was a flurry of furious, sometimes bizarre motions. With two days to go, defense attorneys asked for a new trial on grounds that jurors were drunk during the trial. They produced affidavits from bellhops at the downtown Reed House Hotel, who said jury members were boozing it up in their rooms. The government, firing back, produced even more bellhops to swear they'd been offered suitcases of cash.

In the end, none of it mattered. On March 12, 1964, Jimmy Hoffa was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $10,000. That day, Frank Chavez, a Teamster official in Puerto Rico, sent Attorney General Robert Kennedy a letter. "Sir," it read, "This is for your information. The undersigned is going to solicit from the membership of our union that each one donate whatever they can afford to maintain, clean, beautify and supply with flowers the grave of Lee Harvey Oswald."

Hoffa would begin years of appeal and motions to no avail. At least one would be fought all the way to the Supreme Court. In one motion, the defense accused the circumspect Judge Frank Wilson of consorting with a prostitute during the trial. "A Jimmy Hoffa trial," John Seigenthaler says with a dark chuckle, "is a fun thing to cover."

Two years after Hoffa's sentencing, in 1966, John Jay Hooker announced his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. In the mail one day, he received a curious letter. It was addressed from a federal corrections facility in Alabama. He opened the envelope to find a note from Tommy Osborn, the man his father had helped convict to a five-year sentence. Osborn wished him luck on his run and sent him a campaign contribution. Enclosed were two $100 bills. He had saved the money from his job at the prison laundry.

For the rest of his life, Tommy Osborn would maintain that he had been the victim of a government entrapment scheme, an attempt to destroy Hoffa from within. His close friend and former associate, attorney Maclin A. Davis Jr., agreed. "I thought it was a great miscarriage of justice," Davis remembers. He took on his friend's defense in endless rounds of post-trial motions and appeals. Unlike Hoffa, Osborn had to conduct his from jail.

Davis argued that the government's main witness against Osborn, Robert Vick, had been carefully coached by Walter Sheridan to get the results the prosecution needed. Osborn, Davis said, had told Vick initially that he wanted no part of a jury-fixing scheme. What's more, he claimed, the proof was on the tape the government said had been chewed up in the recorder. While Osborn sat in prison, away from his wife and children, Davis fought to get him a new trial. In 1968, he almost succeeded.

According to Davis, Robert Vick was shooting off his mouth around town about how he'd conspired to put away Tommy Osborn and had gotten paid for it. He told a neighbor, Harry Childress, that he had been promised a job and money for his testimony. That was not what he said on the witness stand, where he denied being promised anything. Childress, a Teamster, passed the information along. If Vick had indeed perjured himself—and the government had not only paid for but knowingly used his perjured testimony—Osborn had grounds for a new hearing.

To Davis and Osborn, the evidence was suspicious. In his book The Secrets of the Hopewell Box, Squires writes that unspecified government officials asked Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley to help the unemployed Vick find work. For 13 months, Vick was signed on as a Metro patrolman and assigned to the U.S. marshal's office, at taxpayer expense. In late 1964, he had also received $3,000 cash from Robert Kennedy's brother-in-law, Stephen Smith, by way of Walter Sheridan. In his book, Sheridan writes that Vick approached him for Christmas money, and that Sheridan personally borrowed it from Smith without mentioning it to Kennedy or saying what it was for. Realizing he had used poor judgment, he asked for the money back a few days later, to Vick's chagrin. He got it, but Davis saw the transaction as proof of shady dealing. Davis and Osborn won an evidentiary hearing from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

By this time, Jim Neal had gone into private practice. Oddly enough, the U.S. attorney was now Gilbert S. Merritt, the lawyer who stopped by to watch the day Warren Swanson attacked Hoffa. In the hearing, Merritt successfully argued that while Robert Vick may have been a liar off the stand, he had told the truth under oath—and the evidence was there on tape in Osborn's own voice. It didn't hurt that Judge Marion S. Boyd, in Merritt's opinion, "damn sure thought Osborn was guilty." By now, Osborn had fought so long that he had served almost all his sentence. He was released in 1969, and even though he was permanently disbarred after his release, he still hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would grant him a new trial. But all hope ended on Jan. 14, 1970, when the court refused his last appeal.

A few weeks later, one chilly Sunday afternoon in February, Tommy Osborn's wife Dottie returned to their West Nashville home from an afternoon of shopping. Her husband's car was in the driveway, but he was nowhere to be found. John Jay Hooker, meanwhile, was driving golf balls on the links at the Belle Meade Country Club. He was startled to see a runner racing toward him from the clubhouse, bearing an urgent message: He needed to call his father. This had never happened before. When Hooker managed to reach his father, his voice was choked with grief.

Tommy Osborn had never forgiven himself for getting duped by Robert Vick. That afternoon, Feb. 2, 1970, the lawyer whose future once seemed so limitless put a police revolver under his chin and pulled the trigger. He was 50. John J. Hooker Sr. was with Hal Hardin, a young attorney who started as a bus driver on the ill-fated Hooker for Governor campaign, when he got the news. According to Hardin, the anonymous caller told Hooker what happened, then said, "I hope you're satisfied now, you son-of-a-bitch." The Hoffa case, and its repercussions, would haunt Hooker to the end of his life, less than a year later.

Today, Jim Neal is one of the country's most prominent trial attorneys. In private practice, after serving as the Watergate prosecutor, he took on clients ranging from the Exxon Valdez to Twilight Zone: The Movie director John Landis. John Seigenthaler went on to alter American journalism as the founding editorial director of USA Today. He founded Gannett's multimillion-dollar Freedom Forum, dedicated to uphold and further the legacy of the First Amendment. John Jay Hooker Jr.'s life is a roller coaster. At present, he prepares to run for an unprecedented three offices simultaneously in upcoming elections. He is never to be underestimated.

The combatants whose bitter feud originally drove the Test Fleet drama are both gone. In 1965, Robert F. Kennedy was elected U.S. senator from New York. He appeared to be on his way to securing the Democratic presidential nomination on June 5, 1968, when he was passing through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after a rally. A gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, supposedly disturbed by Kennedy's pro-Israeli sympathies, shot and mortally wounded him. Had Robert Kennedy lived, he might have followed in his brother's footsteps. Instead, as an agonized nation watched, he died in them.

Jimmy Hoffa was in prison when the man who put him there was assassinated. After getting a controversial pardon from President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, he set out to reclaim control of the Teamsters. That would have meant forcing out union president Frank Fitzsimmons, whom Hoffa had handpicked to run the show while he was in jail. By 1975, the former boss was ready to challenge Fitzsimmons in the coming year's election. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa went to a restaurant north of Detroit for a meeting with two reputed mobsters. He was never seen again. A car driven on July 30 by his former bodyguard, Chuck O'Brien, was found to have traces of his blood and skin. Since then O'Brien has been represented, like other suspects in Hoffa's disappearance, by the man's own Test Fleet attorney, William Bufalino.

Grilled about Hoffa's oft-discussed whereabouts, a hit man-turned-informant once alleged the labor leader's body had been disposed in some kind of compactor. "Hoffa," the hit man said, "is now a goddamn hubcap." If that is true, somewhere the strange, sad saga that was the Test Fleet case keeps on rolling, close to the ground but never completely out of sight, indefinitely.

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