Italian sauce and Jimmy Hoffa's secret

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The Independent Online
The Machus Red Fox restaurant, where Jimmy Hoffa vanished in July 1975, has closed.

The sign still stands over the parking lot from which the former Teamsters president was believed to have been abducted and later murdered by the Mafia. But the endearingly vulgar establishment in Detroit's swanky northern suburb of Bloomfield Hills is no more - shut down after its owner refused to renew the lease.

Now only a bakery remains, tucked away at the back. The Hoffa case might never have been. No plaque or faded FBI missing-person poster, nor even any graffiti to remind you of the most celebrated unsolved mysteries in recent US history

Or perhaps, unsolved until now - which brings us to the really sensational crime news in these parts. Last Friday, the Detroit papers were running classic "hold-the-front-page" banner headlines.

"FBI: MOB BUSTED," one screamed in three-inch type, before elaborating in more measured vein: "Alleged Mafia Boss Jack Tocco, 16 Leaders Indicted by Grand Jury For Extortion, Obstruction of Justice. 'We've driven a stake through the heart of Cosa Nostra,' say Feds." And if even half the charges stick, the Feds will have done precisely that.

The nationwide crackdown on the Mafia that has led to the indictment or conviction of organised crime bosses in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland has now reached Detroit, threatening the godfathers of the motor city with jail for the rest of their lives. Unless of course, they choose to talk. And no one among the 17 has more to tell than Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone.

Of the unprepossessing collection of jowly old men who were led into court for arraignment last week, Anthony Giacalone, now 77, may be one of the nastiest. For many years he was the Detroit family's chief "enforcer"' who made sure its orders were carried out.

But his real claim to fame lies elsewhere. He visited Jimmy Hoffa at his home two weeks before his disappearance, and was the man Hoffa told acquaintances he was going to meet at the Red Fox.

Some say Hoffa is entombed in the concrete masonry of a highway interchange in Pennsylvania, others that he was buried in a New Jersey landfill, or that his corpse was rendered for grease in a Mafia-owned factory. The FBI says the Hoffa case remains open. Now, just possibly, Giacalone will close it.

Even so you wonder, where does art end and life begin ? Assuming the indictments are only a quarter true, Tocco, Giacalone and the rest are an unlovely bunch of hoods. But in private life, they could have been taken straight out of Hollywood central casting.

Take Tocco, now 69 and long a resident of the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe Park. His criminal record consists of a $25 misdemeanour fine 30 years ago, for attending an illegal cockfight. Neighbours have described him as "kind and generous, a great guy", who would give them tomatoes and zucchini from his garden.

Tocco's underboss Anthony Zerilli, son of one of the men who founded the Detroit Mafia when it smuggled booze across the river from Canada in prohibition times, lives in a farmhouse with a trampoline and swing set outside the back door. His wife once cried when he was acquitted on extortion charges, and he tells acquaintances: "We are people just like everyone else."

As for "Tony Jack", he reputedly loves flowers and keeps "the most beautiful lawn in the neighbourhood". His brother Vito's wife insists that her husband, also indicted last week, is merely a "retired fruit-seller". She told the newspaper: "I'm waiting for him to come home and explain it all."

If it sounds reassuring, in an odd way it is. Don't bother us and we won't bother you, is the Mafia's social contract - almost a friendship treaty in this age of random violence. And who takes Cosa Nostra very seriously these days? Not the average citizen, who is far more alarmed by the crack cocaine business, drive-by shootings and the gang wars which made Detroit a byword for urban mayhem in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tocco and his colleagues, by contrast, seem to have preferred old-fashioned pursuits like illegal betting, protection rackets, loan-sharking, and the odd investment in Las Vegas. Cautious and discreet even by Mafia standards, the Detroit organisation has avoided the bloody internal feuds which helped bring down John Gotti in New York. Here the factions didn't shoot each other, they married into each other.

For the time being, Tocco and his colleagues are out on bail of up to $200,000 each -"just like paying a parking ticket", one said as he left the courthouse last week.

Probably, if they are put away for good, modern Detroit will hardly notice. Except, of course, for those still intrigued by how, and at whose hand, Jimmy Hoffa met his end.

Rupert Cornwell