Hoffa & Mafia? No, Boffo at BO

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

January 15, 1992|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Funny how sensible explanations of traumatic events are ignored while wild-eyed tales thrive and multiply. Funny, but understandable, if major money is involved.

The splashiest version of how and why John Kennedy was killed is the current movie which maintains that Lyndon Johnson, the CIA, the FBI, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and by logical extension the American Legion, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts and Baptist Ladies Sewing Circle were in on the conspiracy.

Amid all the furor the movie has stirred, the often sensational New York Post has revived a version that seems absolutely calm and credible by contrast.

Yesterday, the Post reported that a lawyer for Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa says Hoffa got the Mafia to kill Kennedy.

Hoffa himself is not available for comment, having disappeared in 1975. It is widely believed that he was put to rest in a very compact car -- one crushed in a Detroit junkyard and melted down for scrap. Most assumed he was a victim of infighting over control of the Teamsters.

Hoffa had reason to be paranoid; lots of people were out to get him. Outside his brothers in the Teamsters, his chief nemesis was Robert Kennedy, attorney general of the United States from 1961 to 1964.

As chief counsel of John McClellan's Senate committee, aggressive young Bob Kennedy had pushed the investigation that led to conviction of Dave Beck, Hoffa's predecessor as Teamsters chief. When John Kennedy became president, his brother focused his anti-racketeering drive on Hoffa as well as the Mafia.

According to the Post, a Florida lawyer named Frank Ragano now says he thinks he carried the message that set off the Kennedy assassination.

By 1963, Hoffa and Carlos Marcello were under federal indictment. Hoffa apparently believed that if John Kennedy were killed, Lyndon Johnson would immediately replace Robert as attorney general, and pressure from the government would be lifted. The paper reports that Ragano says he carried word from Hoffa to Mob bosses Marcello and Santos Trafficante, saying John Kennedy had to go.

The paper quotes Ragano as saying, ''Jimmy told me to tell Marcello and Trafficante they had to kill the president.'' Within weeks, Kennedy was shot.

Like Hoffa, Trafficante and Marcello are unavailable for comment, one being dead, the other reportedly with Alzheimer's disease. But the scheme did not play out the way Hoffa allegedly intended.

Robert Kennedy remained at Justice until June 1964, when he resigned to run for the Senate. That March -- little more than three months after John Kennedy's death -- Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering, and later of fraud and conspiracy in handling the Teamsters' pension fund.

While in jail, Hoffa refused to resign from the Teamsters presidency until 1971, after which President Richard Nixon commuted the rest of his sentence. The Teamsters had supported and continued to support the Republican candidate for president.

Any sane person will approach with caution a story told by a former Hoffa lawyer about people who are no longer able to testify. The House Select Committee on Assassinations did just that in its 1979 report, when it said the two Mob bosses and Hoffa had ''motive, means and opportunity'' to pull off the Kennedy murder. While it did not discount that version, it said the committee could not offer direct evidence in support.

But a Hoffa-Mafia plot, carried out among closely linked people who had ''motive, means and opportunity,'' makes infinitely more sense than the myriad politically based theories we have heard in the past 29 years.

Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot Kennedy, and Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald, had known Mob connections. If Ruby shot Oswald to shut him up, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the Mob erased Hoffa for the same purpose. That's the way the Mob operates.

Now that this version has surfaced again, those looking for a logical explanation of the Kennedy murder may wonder why the movie now stirring so much debate didn't try to flesh out the Hoffa-Mafia plot line.

But logical explanation is not what the movie is about. For known hoodlums to commit a historic crime is too much like dog biting man, everyday news. For the nation's Establishment to murder its own makes a much better story, boffo at the box office.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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