FBI's dig in Michigan fails to turn up Jimmy Hoffa

May 31, 2006|By TIM JONES | TIM JONES,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Where's Jimmy Hoffa? Apparently not on the grounds of a suburban Detroit horse farm.

Nearly two weeks after the FBI acted on what it called the best recent tip on the whereabouts of the missing former Teamsters Union boss, agents ended a "thorough and comprehensive search" yesterday without finding any evidence of Hoffa's body.

While giving up the dig of property in Milford Township, about 35 miles northwest of Detroit, Judy Chilen, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office, said she thinks Hoffa's body had been buried on the Hidden Dreams Farm, although she could offer no evidence that it had been moved.

Chilen said the FBI has not given up the search for the labor leader who disappeared almost 31 years ago and was officially declared dead in 1982.

"There are still prosecutable defendants who are living, and they know who they are," Chilen said at an afternoon news conference.

The FBI began digging at the farm May 17. The search included archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, cadaver dogs and dozens of FBI agents and police.

Aided by heavy earthmoving equipment, they worked for almost two weeks and ripped down a horse barn in the process. The highly publicized dig attracted TV crews with satellite towers and seemed to delight some local business owners, who sold Hoffa cupcakes and Teamster tacos.

The search started after a tip from Donovan Wells, an ailing federal inmate who once lived on the farm and was acquainted with its former owner, 92-year-old Hoffa associate Rolland McMaster, according to an investigator.

But with no hints that the search was going anywhere, the effort started to draw fire this week from those, including a Detroit-area congressman, who questioned the cost. Louis Fischetti, supervisory special agent with the Detroit FBI office, said the search is expected to cost less than $250,000. The government plans to pay for the barn to be rebuilt.

In response to criticism, Chilen said the FBI does "not put a price tag on murder and kidnapping. ... We go where the evidence leads us."

McMaster's attorney, Mayer Morganroth, said he was not surprised that the search was wrapping up with the mystery unsolved. "We never expected that anything was there," he said, adding that the FBI probably felt pressured to respond to the tip, lest it seem as if it were not trying to solve the case. The FBI said 15 to 20 agents worked at the site daily during the search, with five to seven agents guarding it around the clock.

Hoffa's son, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, had no comment, or did Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, a judge in St. Louis.

James Elsman - a lawyer who says Wells told him he saw a grave being dug at the farm in 1976 and heard comments about Hoffa being buried - said yesterday that Wells is allowing him to share notes of those conversations with the FBI. He said he has a meeting scheduled with the FBI but would not say when.

While many veteran investigators and Hoffa experts were skeptical about the search, the little community of Milford Township seemed to relish the attention. A bakery sold cupcakes with a plastic green hand emerging from chocolate frosting meant to resemble dirt. Other businesses sold Hoffa-inspired T-shirts and put up signs with wisecracks such as "Caution - FBI Crossing Ahead."

Hoffa disappeared in July 1975 after he was to meet with a New Jersey Teamsters boss and a Detroit Mafia chief, both of whom are dead.

The horse farm has been described as a meeting place for mob members, prior to Hoffa's disappearance. The FBI corroborated some of the evidence provided, which led them to seek a search warrant earlier this month.

Chilen vowed the FBI would continue to pursue the case.

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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