Wednesday, December 14, 2005

'I Heard You Paint Houses'

Library hosts author of gripping book

Express Staff Writer

Charles Brandt discusses his book on Jimmy Hoffa's killer at The Community Library on Thursday, Dec. 15.

House painters are one thing, but painting houses is another. In mob-speak the "paint" refers to blood spattered on walls after a shooting hit. It was through an exchange on this matter that legendary Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa met the man who would eventually take his life, Frank Sheeran.

For the five years preceding his death in 2003, Sheeran recorded extensive interviews with author Charles Brandt. The result of those raw meetings is the book "I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Final Ride of Jimmy Hoffa."

The Community Library in Ketchum presents a talk with part-time Ketchum resident Brandt at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 15.

Sheeran worked for and was close to Hoffa, but was even more deeply indebted to his mob mentor Russell Bufalino, the so-called quiet Don of the Mafia. Hoffa, once the second most powerful man in the country after the president, disappeared in 1975. But who killed him and what happened to his body remained an unsolved mystery, although the police and the FBI were never without theories and suspects. It is the intersection of the times, the government, and these three men that is at the center of the fascinating "I Heard You Paint Houses."

"Sheeran was a complicated man," Brandt said. "A part of him was very likeable. My wife said she had to pinch herself to remember he was a killer. He was so genuinely charming. I know a lot of mobsters that grew up in that life. Sheeran did not. He was 35 before he even met any of these people. He was genuinely Roman Catholic. His father spent five years at a seminary. His mother went to church daily. His children were also raised Catholic and were devout. As he was meeting his maker he was trying to clear his conscience."

In fact, Sheeran was a decorated war hero who was on the front lines for four years of World War II with a near record of 411 active combat days. Upon his return to civilian life, he was a truck driver, cargo loader, dance teacher and muscle during the violent early union days. Finally he became a hit man and a lousy husband and father.

Eventually made Teamster boss in Delaware, he became one of only two non-Italians on the FBI's famous La Cosa Nostra list.

Brandt, a New York native, lived in Delaware, where he was a homicide prosecutor and chief deputy attorney general. He knew Sheeran by reputation.

"He was a local prominent figure in Delaware," he said. "Everyone knew he was a suspect in the Hoffa case and other hits. I almost represented him once, but he didn't want to pay the fee. He was a man I just didn't like. Later, when I came back into his life he was no longer a mobster. He couldn't drive, or drink. He was alone with his conscience."

Since the release of the book in 2004, Brandt has continued on the case. He and Bob Garrity, the chief FBI case agent on the Hoffa investigation, attended a book signing together last summer in Bethany Beach, Del.

"I had visited him in Pittsburgh, and he shared his files with me. We also met in Detroit (where Hoffa's murder took place). The house in which Hoffa was killed was owned by an old woman who no longer lived there. There was a boarder. We went out there to interview people who lived there at the time of Hoffa's killing. We tried to track down the boarder. The one we eliminated lived there in 1978 and Hoffa disappeared in 1975. He was a 4-foot-tall dwarf. The other was an elderly man, who was described as a ghost who'd disappear whenever anyone went to the house.

"One thing Garrity said to me was, 'We always liked (Sheeran) for it but the Hoffa kids thought the sun rose on Frank Sheeran.'"

Brandt, who also wrote a 1988 novel called "The Right to Remain Silent," is now writing an article on the Joey Gallo hit for Playboy magazine. Sheeran was allegedly behind that hit in a Little Italy restaurant.

He was also asked to do another story on the Pennsylvania Godfather Bufalino, he said. "He was very private and also very powerful."

Next year, a new book will be published, written with former FBI agent Joe Pistone (better known by his undercover name Donnie Brasco).

"We're doing a book together on the unfinished business," Brandt said. "There is material that was not included in the first book. Things he had to do to be accepted by the Mafia."

The Mafia remains fascinating for many reasons. There is this idea that there was a code of honor within the organization. This notion has become part of the "Godfather" fueled fantasy. But in "I Heard You Paint Houses" one is taken inside by a man who actually suffered intellectually and emotionally for his crimes. Reluctant though some may be by the content, Brandt's book is a gripping tale of murder, intrigue, family and loyalty. And Sheeran is bizarrely and genuinely charming.

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