Burchett sniffs out truth on Hoffa

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Everybody knows about Tim Burchett and Big Foot. And Tim Burchett and metal detecting and Tim Burchett and motorcycles and Tim Burchett and World War II history (he lost an uncle in Europe and his dad, Charlie, fought in the Pacific).

Tim Burchett is interested in a lot of stuff.

But Tim Burchett and Jimmy Hoffa? Who knew?

Turns out the Knox County mayor has harbored a long and abiding interest in the union strong man whose 1975 disappearance has spawned decades of rumors and conspiracy theories. Contrary to myth, Burchett says there’s no mystery about what really happened to the legendary Teamster boss.

He says it was a clean, clinical, classic mob hit.

“All those legends like the one about burying him under Giants Stadium? Stupid. They (organized crime) kill people for a living. He was shot in the back of the head and cremated within an hour.”

Last week, Burchett was the featured book reviewer at the East Tennessee History Center’s “Books Sandwiched In,” sponsored by the Friends of the Library. The book he chose was, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by former Las Vegas prosecutor Charles Brandt. It is the story of Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, a mobster and a longtime Hoffa friend who decided to clear his conscience with a death-bed confession that he was the one who pumped two bullets into Hoffa’s skull on July 30, 1975. He said Hoffa’s body was taken to a local funeral home and deposited into an incinerator.

The book’s title came from Sheeran’s account of the first thing Hoffa ever said to him, “I heard you paint houses” – mobster-ese for the way blood splatters the walls and floors when someone is shot in the head at close range.

Sheeran worked for East Coast Mafia boss Russell Bufalino, a business associate of Hoffa’s with connections to the Las Vegas casino business. Sheeran told Brandt that his response to Hoffa was, “Yeah, and I do carpentry, too,” meaning that he knew how to dispose of corpses.

Hoffa was elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1958 and became the most powerful figure in organized labor. He ran into a streak of bad luck in 1964 when he was convicted of jury tampering (and a long list of other offenses) and sentenced to 13 years in federal prison. He stayed on as president until 1971 when he resigned as part of a pardon deal with the Nixon administration (that also involved a bribe that Sheeran claimed to have delivered to Attorney General John Mitchell). When he got sprung, Hoffa was dismayed to learn that the deal barred him from getting his job back, and he started working to undermine it.

Which led to his sudden demise.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has optioned “I Heard You Paint Houses,” and Burchett is looking forward to the movie. He believes Sheeran’s story.

“He was clearing his conscience before he died,” Burchett said.

Burchett, a tee-totaling nonsmoker whose favorite epithet is dadgummit, says he can identify with Mafia stories like this one (and fictional accounts like “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos”).

“I wanted to be the honest Don Corleone, to help people – without the bad stuff. I’d see that with my dad. People would come see him; he’d make a call and take care of it.

“Hoffa genuinely cared about working people and made sure they were taken are of. And they loved him for it. He could have shut the country down.”

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