Shovel Ready

06.19.13

Meet Tony Zerilli, the Mobster Behind This Jimmy Hoffa Dig

He’s an 80-something, self-publishing ex-Mafia boss, and he says he knows where the bones are buried—really. Michael Daly looks at the author who has the FBI digging.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the FBI ended its search for Jimmy Hoffa's remains after two-and-a-half days of digging, saying it "did not uncover any evidence relevant to the investigation on James Hoffa."

The FBI has little choice but to excavate the field in suburban Detroit where an octogenarian former mob boss says Jimmy Hoffa is buried.

The agents cannot just ignore the tip, so dig they must, even if it means putting money into the pocket of the aging hood who is apparently the first of his ilk to seek a score by self-publishing online.

For $4.99 a download,  $7.99 for a hard copy via www.hoffafound.com, you too can get a copy of “The Zerilli Files: The True Hoffa Murder Plot Exposed,” ostensibly written by 85-year-old Anthony “Tony Z” Zerilli.

The 22-page document offers an unadorned, secondhand account of how the union boss was supposedly dragged from a car, bound, struck repeatedly with a shovel, and dumped alive in a predug grave by several of Zerilli’s associates.

“The Jimmy Hoffa murder was a real simple task,” Zerilli writes. “He was picked up, driven a few miles, and buried in a hole. It’s as simple as that.”

Another $9 brings an added treat in the mail: “due to the overwhelming request for his personally autographed photos,” Zerilli is offering 8 1/2- by 11-inch color photos for purchase, the site announces.

The sale of the photo undercuts Zerilli’s contention that he is making the disclosure so Hoffa “will finally be able to have a proper burial, and his family will be at ease.”

“Hoffa did not deserve the die the way he did, and I just want him to rest in peace,” Zerilli writes.

His more likely motive was suggested by a comment he recently made to a TV reporter.

“I’m dead broke,” he said to a journalist from NBC. “I got no money. My quality of life is zero.”

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Jimmy Hoffa, then vice president of the Teamsters union, testifies in Washington, D.C., on August 20, 1957. (Al Muto/AFP/Getty)

Such circumstances must be particularly trying for someone who grew up as a kind of Mafia royalty. He was the son of Detroit mob boss Joseph “Joe Z” Zerilli and reportedly married the daughter of New York Mafia kingpin Joe Profaci in a glitzy Manhattan wedding. His father’s operations were said to rake in $150 million a year.

“My father had many business ventures and also ran the streets of Detroit,” the son writes in his online offering. “Anything that happened on the streets of Detroit had to go through him.”

The father gave a famous response when once asked why he had been arrested so many times: “Well, I don’t have wings.”

The FBI says that the son took a brief turn as boss after his father retired. The younger Zerilli’s tenure is said to have ended in 1974, when he went to prison for attempting to secure a secret interest in two Las Vegas casinos.

The son insists he was innocent and was never a member of the Mafia, though “I know many people who are involved in those activities, most of whom are related to me.” The son also says that along with helping to arrange for Hoffa to become president of the Teamsters, he joined the union boss in deciding who got loans from the union pension funds to build casinos. The younger Zerilli further reports that he took a cut of the resulting kickbacks. He recalls once seeing $200,000 in hundred-dollar bills stacked on Hoffa’s dresser.

“Guess who he split that with?” Zerilli writes. “That’s right, me!”

Zerilli goes on, “Because I got Hoffa elected to the Teamsters presidency, he owed me big. Nobody borrowed any money without it going through us. It simply didn’t happen. Was there anything illegal about this? Not really.”

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This isn't the first time police have thought they've found Jimmy Hoffa's body. The search has been long and so far unsuccessful.

“As you have probably have figured out, I was part of the inner circle of people who knew exactly what happened to Hoffa.”

He adds, “Everybody was happy. Right in the middle of this, I went to prison.”

Zerilli seems to see no contradictions in saying that even though he was not the boss, his incarceration created a vacancy in the position he says he never held.

“It was at that point where my first cousin, Jack Tocco, decided that he wanted in on the action,” Zerilli says. “Jack Tocco always wanted to be the boss of the Detroit Mafia. When I was sent to prison, Jack decided that he wanted to run for boss.”

By all accounts, Tocco became the boss and made a happy arrangement with Frank Fitzsimmons, who had become the new head of the Teamsters after Hoffa himself went to prison. Hoffa was sprung early by President Richard Nixon on the condition he not reclaim his position. Hoffa vowed to go for it anyway, and Zerilli says that Tocco was not at all pleased.

“Jack figured that if Hoffa got back in as president, Hoffa and I would still have our arrangement,” Zerilli writes. “So Jack had a problem ... He needed Hoffa out of the way.”

Hoffa vanished from a restaurant parking lot on July 10, 1975, when Zerilli was still in prison. Zerilli reportedly held the rank as capo, or captain, when he came out, though he is said by some to have served as underboss.

In 2002 Zerilli went to prison again, this time for racketeering. He was “put on the shelf,” or consigned to the mob’s inactive list after his release in 2008. He found himself in a financial plight similar to that facing many other aging gangsters.

These goons gone broke included a ranking mobster in New Jersey who ended up in a trailer park on food stamps. One New York mob social club had trouble paying its rent and considered finding a new home for its cat, which they had named Obama, though they insisted that was not because it is black, but because “it does whatever it wants.”

Zerilli resolved to improve his situation by becoming the first gangster to cash in on the Web by self-publishing. An incarcerated New York mobster has a website where he posts his blog, Alleged Mob Boss Tommy Gioeli’s Voice. But Zerilli seems to the only one seeking to make an actual score by selling his writing and photos online.

Zerilli dismisses as “baloney” the many other theories about the Hoffa murder.

“All these wannabe gangsters that have been coming forward are just that—wannabes!” he writes, continuing to insist he is a never-was, but adding, “As you have probably have figured out, I was part of the inner circle of people who knew exactly what happened to Hoffa.”

Some observers have suggested that along with whatever cash comes in from the website, Zerilli is seeking to get back at his cousin Tocco. The cousin is said by the FBI to have relinquished his title as boss after his own conviction for racketeering. He is also said to have been the owner of the land that Zerilli’s $4.99 download identifies as the place where Hoffa was buried.

Zerilli provided this same address—2940 Buell Road, Oakland, Michigan—to the FBI. The FBI has previously gone digging in at least four locations after receiving other Hoffa tips, but Zerilli was too much of a Mafia blueblood just to be ignored. The latest digging began, and the media arrived soon afterward.

None of which could have made the FBI agents feel any better as they labored under the sun for a second day Tuesday, helping to put money in an old gangster’s pocket, but not yet finding the long-vanished Hoffa.