Wide Angle

The Publisher of I Heard You Paint Houses Responds to “The Lies of the Irishman”

And the author of Slate’s story replies.

Photo illustration of Frank Sheeran and a cover for I Heard You Paint Houses.
Frank Sheeran
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sheeran/Brandt/Splash and Steerforth.

Chip Fleischer, the publisher of Steerforth Press, sent the following letter in response to Slate’s Aug. 7 cover story,“The Lies of the Irishman.” Slate is running the letter as it was submitted, followed by a reply from the story’s author, Bill Tonelli. Slate stands by the story.

To the editors:

Bill Tonelli’s August 7 write-up for Slate on I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt’s book about Mafia hit man and Teamsters official Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, is a hit job. It is not journalism in the traditional sense, but rather a glib, intellectually dishonest taunt. Its author, Bill Tonelli, chose to set aside the overwhelming majority of evidence and information contained in the book and provided to him by its author and publisher. Slate’s decision to run the article under the headline, “The Lies of the Irishman” and to add in the subhead “the guy made it all up,” despite the fact that Tonelli’s piece does not contain details of fact in support of such conclusions, is irresponsible in the extreme, not to mention damaging.  A longtime reader of Slate, I expected better. Charles Brandt and I focused on providing Tonelli with evidence and corroboration in response to his agenda-driven questions. His write-up is built upon a base of ad hominem attacks and larded with strong opinions and assertions that, while from experts in many cases, are not supported by facts, and certainly do not disprove anything published in our book. Since publishing I Heard You Paint Houses 15 years ago, we have received substantial independent third party corroboration of its revelations and conclusions, so much in fact that we added a 57-page Conclusion to the current edition to go along with a 14-page Epilogue that was added to the first paperback edition in 2005 detailing much of that corroboration.

Publishers Weekly included a link to your article in its PW Daily newsletter for its readership largely of publishing professionals. Following your lead, they referred to the book as “a confessional memoir by an author who probably made it all up,” borderline libelous stuff not to mention inaccurate, since the book is not a memoir and its author, Charles Brandt, a former homicide prosecutor and author or co-author of three other books, has not made up anything.

Ultimately, Slate must take responsibility. I trust you will give serious consideration to the following:

I’ll begin with Tonelli’s language that materially misleads:

Tonelli introduces Frank Sheeran as a South Philadelphia “second-stringer— a local Teamsters union official.”

Yet Tonelli omits:

• In 1966 Jimmy Hoffa made Sheeran head of the Teamsters local in Wilmington, Delaware.

• In 1980, then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani named Sheeran as one of only two non-Italians in conspiracy with The Commission of La Cosa Nostra in a civil RICO action against the Commission. Sheeran is listed side-by-side with the likes of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.

• On March 6, 1995 Jimmy Hoffa’s daughter Barbara Crancer wrote to Sheeran that she believed he was one of the “loyal friends who know what happened to James R. Hoffa, who did it and why.”

• On September 7, 2001 when Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, was asked at a press conference if his father could have been lured into the car that drove him to his death by several well-known suspects, he shook his head in response to each man on the list and at the end said, “No, my father didn’t know these people.” When asked if Frank Sheeran could have lured his father into the car, James said, “Yes, my father would have gotten into a car with him.”

• On October 25, 2001 Judge Barbara Crancer called Sheeran from her chambers in St. Louis to make a personal appeal to Frank for him to “do the right thing” and confess what he knew about her father’s death. A week later, two FBI agents showed up at Sheeran’s home to follow up on the judge’s phone call.

All of this, and much more, is in the book. Tonelli’s including such facts in his article, however, would have clashed with his choice to characterize Sheeran as a marginal figure.

Tonelli introduces Russell Bufalino, the mafia boss with whom Sheeran was closely associated and whom Sheeran drove into Detroit the day Hoffa disappeared as “a boss from backwater Scranton, Pennsylvania.” Referring to Scranton as a “backwater” is an ad hominem dismissal. It does not address the substance of Bufalino’s power, reach and importance.

Tonelli chooses to ignore a considerable amount of readily available information about Bufalino that speaks to his prominence, such as:

• Bufalino is widely regarded to be the man who called the November, 1957 mafia gathering in Apalachin, N.Y. to settle disputes following the slaying of Albert Anastasia in New York City’s Park Sheraton Hotel. In his book The Hoffa Wars, author Dan Moldea wrote, “as co-host of the 1957 Apalachin Conference Bufalino had enormous status in the mob.” When local police raided the gathering and discovered mafia bosses from all over the country, the fact that there was a national Mafia syndicate became undeniable.

• The FBI knew that Bufalino traveled frequently to Cuba, where he owned a casino and racetrack and that he was a silent partner in Medico Industries, the largest supplier of ammunition to the U.S. government.

• In 1975, Time magazine reported that Russell Bufalino and Sam “Momo” Giancana had worked on behalf of the CIA in 1961 in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and in 1962 in a plot to kill Castro.

• As detailed in I Heard You Paint Houses, after director Francis Ford Copolla rejected singer Al Martino for the part of Johnny Fontaine in the movie The Godfather, Martino called Bufalino who reached out to Paramount head Robert Evans. Martino got the part. When Brandt recounted this anecdote at a writer’s conference, Wanda Ruddy, the wife of The Godfather producer Al Ruddy, who was in the audience introduced herself to Brandt and told him, “Russell Bufalino had final script approval of The Godfather.” (p. 343).

Tonelli introduces Charles Brandt as a “medical malpractice lawyer.” He knows that Brandt was a homicide prosecutor in the Delaware attorney general’s office from 1971 to 1976, where he was involved with more than 50 homicide prosecutions, including four that placed men on death row, and that he was a criminal defense lawyer, specializing in homicide defense, from 1976 to 1986, before eventually turning to medical malpractice law. Only toward the end of his long article does Tonelli write: “In the Delaware attorney general’s office, he says, he specialized in homicide prosecutions.” By then Brandt has been framed in the minds of readers as merely a medical malpractice lawyer, who, by implication, was out of his depth.

Brandt is also an expert on interrogating witnesses and, as a direct result, a student of the psychological need for confession. Also, like Sheeran, he was raised Catholic. Tonelli leaves this aspect of Brandt’s book out of his article entirely, and yet the role Sheeran’s religious upbringing played in his desire to confess his misdeeds is an essential aspect of the story. Brandt writes: “In 1999 Sheeran’s daughters arranged a private audience for their aging and physically disabled father with Monsignor Heldusor of St. Dorothy’s Church in Philadelphia. Sheeran met with the monsignor, who granted Sheeran absolution for his sins so that he could be buried in a Catholic cemetery. Frank Sheeran said to me: ‘I believe there is something after we die. If I got a shot at it, I don’t want to lose that shot. I don’t want to close the door.’”

Tonelli writes “Frank Sheeran said he killed Jimmy Hoffa … most amazingly Sheeran was never arrested, charged or even suspected.” In fact, Sheeran was questioned repeatedly by the FBI about his involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance. The FBI subpoenaed Charles Brandt’s interview tapes of Sheeran after the last boss of the Bufalino crime family, William “Big Billy” D’Elia, became a cooperating witness and corroborated Brandt’s book, a fact Brandt shared with Tonelli. Tonelli tries to downplay reference to Sheeran in “something called” the Hoffex memo, the FBI’s official summary of findings six months into of its investigation of Hoffa’s disappearance. Tonelli writes that the Hoffex memo says that Sheeran was “known to be in Detroit area at the time of [Hoffa’s] disappearance and considered to be a close friend’ of Hoffa’s.” Tonelli goes on to say that his favored suspect “[Sal] Briguglio, according to the memo, was ‘involved in actual disappearance’ of Jimmy Hoffa.”

The Hoffex memo reaches no conclusions about what happened to Hoffa or who was responsible. Moreover, Sheeran and Briguglio are both given the same status: “Suspects outside of Michigan.”

A brief glance at the Hoffex memo, however, reveals Tonelli’s disingenuous manipulation of the language contained therein. The FBI expresses no opinion about whether Briguglio was involved in the hit. Rather, it says that he was “reported by a Newark source to be involved in the actual disappearance of JRH.” The memo has much more to say about Sheeran than it does about Briguglio, and much more than Tonelli revealed. The memo’s entire entry on Sheeran reads:

“FRANCIS JOSEPH ‘FRANK’ SHEERAN, age 43 (ed. note, not his correct age), President Local 326, Wilmington, Delaware. Resides in Philadelphia and is known associate of RUSSELL BUFALINO, La Cosa Nostra Chief, Eastern Pennsylvania. His vehicle seen at meeting of La Cosa Nostra figures in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, August 29, 1975, and also in Detroit December 4, 1975, during FGJ (federal grand jury) appearance of New Jersey teamsters. Known to be in Detroit area at the time of the JRH disappearance, and considered to be a close friend of JRH.”

So, Tonelli knew the FBI monitored Sheeran closely as a suspect in the immediate aftermath of Hoffa’s disappearance.

Tonelli asserts that “Brandt’s book says [Steven] Brill was reported to have interviewed Sheeran and had him — on tape — confessing to the murder.” Again, a piece of “reporting” that under scrutiny is revealed to take information out of context and present it in a way that misleads. Brandt actually wrote on page 4 of his book: “Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars, wrote in an article that over breakfast at a hotel, Brill told Moldea he possessed a tape-recorded confession from Sheeran. But Brill, perhaps wisely to keep from becoming a witness in need of protection, denied it publicly in the New York Times.” (This incident from 1978 resulted in Brill telling the Times’ Herbert Mitgang that he had no such tape.) Tonelli knows Brandt’s book says Moldea made the claim; Brandt doesn’t make it. Brandt’s next paragraph in the book reads: “Accordingly, throughout most of the arduous interview process, an effort was made to protect and preserve Sheeran’s rights, so that his words would not constitute a legally admissible confession in a court of law.”

In other words, Brandt was not trying to make a factual claim about whether Brill had a taped confession from Sheeran. Rather, he invoked this moment from 1978 in the context of explaining the procedures he followed during his five years interviewing Sheeran in order to protect Sheeran’s rights. Tonelli chose to take the quote out of context in order to get the following response from Brill: “Total bullshit.” Brill was referring to the rumor about his having a taped confession, but it comes off in Tonelli’s article like a direct indictment of Brandt’s credibility.

Tonelli then goes on to quote former federal lawyer Ronald Cole and journalist Selwyn Raab as saying they don’t believe Sheeran killed Hoffa. Do they offer evidence to support their fixed opinions? No. Do they offer evidence to controvert Sheeran’s confession or acknowledge that they have read the book for themselves, especially the Epilogue from 2005 and the Conclusion from 2016 that offer corroboration of Sheeran’s confessions? No. Brandt and I repeatedly implored Tonelli in our conversations and correspondence with him to give more weight to what courts would deem evidence and less weight to hearsay, but again, doing so would not suit his purpose. Tonelli also chose to conveniently ignore those experts who have written that Brandt has solved the Hoffa mystery, such as Michael Baden, M.D., former Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York and Professor Arthur Sloane, author of Hoffa.

Then there is the case of Dan Moldea, who Tonelli quotes as proclaiming he “plays second banana to no one” when it comes to reporting on Hoffa but admits he is “bitter” about Brandt’s “bestselling book.” It’s worth noting that I Heard You Paint Houses respectfully acknowledges Moldea’s extensive reporting.

Tonelli and Moldea make much of the fact that “Sheeran was a proven liar.” If prosecutors did not use “proven liars” to build cases, there would be no cooperating witnesses. If criminals did not lie every day of their lives about the activities in which they are engaged, they would go directly to jail. Tonelli does not report at all on Brandt’s descriptions in his book of the training, experience, methodology and skepticism he brought to bear separating Sheeran’s lies from the truth so that only the truth would make it into his book. Unlike Moldea, Brandt is an experienced homicide investigator and interrogator.  He is also the author, as Tonelli knows, of a well reviewed novel based on actual homicides he solved through interrogation.

Tonelli says there’s no evidence that Sheeran was ever suspected in any murders. The FBI’s Hoffex memo, for starters, says he was a prime suspect in Hoffa’s murder, and the FBI hounded him for years because of their suspicion. And pages 273 and 274 of Brandt’s book detail a criminal RICO prosecution with Frank Sheeran as a defendant in which Sheeran was accused of being responsible for two murders unrelated to Hoffa. He beat the charges.

Then there’s the case of Sheeran’s confession to killing Joey Gallo. First of all, Tonelli summarizes “Sheeran’s version” in a way that is wildly inaccurate. Tonelli says Sheeran claims it was sanctioned because “Crazy Joe was rude to Sheeran’s boss Russell Bufalino.” Reading pages 214 to 220 of Brandt’s book paints a very different picture of the hit on Gallo, why it was sanctioned, and why it was carried out in front of his family. I won’t go into the details here, but I will add that when I was considering the book for Steerforth, Brandt drew my special attention specifically to the Gallo confession. He told me the book was about the Hoffa murder and Sheeran’s confession to the Gallo hit was a total surprise to him and conflicted with everything he had ever heard or read about that unsolved mystery. But, Brandt went on to explain, as a former prosecutor he had been trained to share any exculpatory evidence with the defense. He had used the same methods to scrutinize and challenge Sheeran’s Gallo confession that he used to satisfy himself that Sheeran’s Hoffa confession was true. In the end, he was equally confident Sheeran had committed both murders. If it turned out Charlie was wrong about Sheeran killing Gallo, the reader had a right to know. It would go into the book for the world at large to scrutinize. It turns out that after we published the book, the first major new claim in it to be independently corroborated was Sheeran’s Gallo confession. In fact within the first year, numerous corroborating pieces of information came to our attention, which we included in the 14-page Epilogue to the first paperback edition in 2005. This corroboration included an eyewitness to the shooting, a woman who went on to become a longtime editor at the New York Times. She confirmed to Charlie that the shooter had been a lone gunman, a tall and handsome man. She then positively identified Sheeran, from a photo, as the man she had seen that night.

When Tonelli interviewed her last summer, it became apparent to her as an experienced journalist that he had an agenda. She wrote to him with her concerns in the aftermath of their conversation:

“I get the distinct impression you are doing your best to discredit Charlie … I think that is a mistake. I know that Charlie reported that book out as thoroughly as any first-rate reporter. The truth of the matter is no one will ever know for certain if Frank Sheehan killed Joey Gallo… . I didn’t have to talk to you but I did so as a favor to Charlie. Now I’m sorry I did.”

Tonelli points out that Gallo’s wife, Sina Essary, who was seated at his table, said there were multiple shooters: “They were little, short, fat Italians.” She has been on record for years saying this. She was not going to change her story now for Tonelli. Just two paragraphs earlier, however, in his ongoing effort to “discredit Charlie” Tonelli contradicts Essary’s claim of multiple shooters when he points out that the New York Daily News reported the day after the shooting there was a lone gunman. Accounts in other papers also specified the killer was a gunman who acted alone.

Not long after, however, newspaper accounts emerged of multiple gunmen. Books and documentaries continued to assert the same. After I Heard You Paint Houses was published, NYPD homicide detective Joe Coffey, who worked the Gallo case, revealed to Charlie that he had allowed the multiple gunman misinformation to circulate unchallenged. The cops knew they were looking for one man, and if anyone on the street reached out to trade information about the short fat Italians who shot Gallo, Coffey knew he could ignore them. He called it an “integrity test.” Coffey’s account is detailed along with numerous other bits of corroboration in the 57-page Conclusion that is part of the book’s latest edition, and in which Coffey is quoted as saying of Brandt’s Gallo investigation, “the Gallo case is solved.”

Now, what of the fact that the Daily News reported the gunman to be “about 5-foot-8, stocky, about 40 years old and with receding dark hair?” Brandt quotes Sheeran in his book as saying that killing Gallo in Little Italy in the wee hours made sense because Gallo would feel safe there and also because there would be no tourists as witnesses: “They might not have sense enough to tell the cops that there were eight midgets about three feet tall and they all had masks on.” In other words, for their investigative purposes, police often have good reason to circulate false information, especially in the wake of a professional gangland hit that is not going to be solved by citizens coming forward. And consistent with their culture of omerta, underworld figures, and their spouses, know how to deflect. Sheeran made his confession and we printed it knowing the received wisdom was that a short Italian looking shooter or shooters did the job. Then a highly credible eyewitness came forward to say the lone gunman was tall and handsome and she positively identified Sheeran. Several other pieces of corroboration also came to our attention post-publication to bolster Sheeran’s confession. The eyewitness’ testimony and the other third party confirmation detailed in the book is the sort of corroboration prosecutors dream of.

Tonelli quotes others with backgrounds in law enforcement and journalism who “don’t buy” Brandt’s book. Their opinions amount to speculation, not backed up by evidence, and are often based on their own previous conversations with “proven liars,” i.e. criminals. Does their disbelief disprove any of Sheeran’s claims that appear in our book? No. Does John Carlyle Berkery, who “allegedly headed [Philadelphia’s] Irish mob for 30 years” saying “I’m telling you, he’s full of shit” challenge with any specificity and reliability the substance of the book’s account of Sheeran’s involvement with the Mafia and the Teamsters? Does anything Tonelli reports justify labeling Brandt’s book “lies” and “all made up” as Slate’s headline and subhead would have its readers conclude up front?

The truth is of paramount importance to the “medical malpractice lawyer” who wrote I Heard You Paint Houses and the publisher of “the small publishing house” that released it. So is intellectual honesty. So are our reputations and the reputation of our book, which have been seriously damaged by Tonelli’s snarky romp. Steerforth Press published I Heard You Paint Houses 15 years ago and no one has offered any evidence disproving any of it. Importantly to the contrary, as I mention in my opening paragraph, we have received substantial independent third party corroboration of its revelations and conclusions.

I pointed out to Tonelli at least twice that the FBI listed Sheeran and investigated him as a suspect in the Hoffa murder, and he provided to Charles Brandt a credible, detailed confession which has now been independently corroborated. In all 50 states these elements equate to a conviction for first degree murder.  Tonelli knew this, but he did not report it.

Was Slate duped by Tonelli into green lighting a hit piece, or did it willingly commission the hatchet job in pursuit of click bait?  Or, were you merely lax in your oversight given the Internet’s voracious need for content? Whatever the case, now that the above facts have been brought to your attention, I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Chip Fleischer
Publisher
Steerforth Press

Bill Tonelli responds:

I’m happy to see that Chip Fleischer hasn’t challenged the accuracy of any of the facts in my article.

Throughout his letter, Fleischer says I never offered any evidence that Sheeran didn’t kill Hoffa and Gallo. By the same token, the author of I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt, hasn’t shown any proof that Frank Sheeran did kill those men or anyone else. This is the premise of the entire article, which I made clear from the very first sentence—that because no one has ever been proved guilty, anyone can claim to have killed them.

Fleischer says Publishers Weekly refers to “a confessional memoir by an author who probably made it all up.” As the article makes clear, it was “the Irishman,” Frank Sheeran—not the book’s author, Charles Brandt—who told tales of killing Hoffa and Gallo, a claim dozens of mob experts I spoke to rejected. Sheeran was the one who forged a letter from Jimmy Hoffa, scuttling an early book deal.

As for the specific points in the letter:

Fleischer is entitled to his characterizations of Sheeran’s role in organized crime and of Scranton’s. The fact that Sheeran was not Italian automatically made him a peripheral figure in the Philadelphia mob. Hoffa’s children may have been justified in their suspicions, but they weren’t in a position to know much about Philadelphia. And no one to my knowledge has ever argued that the Scranton area was an important center of mafia activity.

Fleischer’s complaint about how I identified Brandt is incorrect: My first reference to him as a medical malpractice lawyer was meant to explain his role in getting Sheeran out of prison due to illness. But in the next section of the article, I wrote: “Charles Brandt, the former chief deputy attorney general of the state of Delaware, was, at 62, the author of a hot property”—long before the passage that Fleischer quotes.

Fleischer writes that I left Sheeran’s religious motive for confessing to the murders “out of his article entirely.” But I wrote: “According to Brandt, Sheeran, nearing death, returned to his Catholic faith and wished to clear his conscience, even though it meant admitting that he had killed his best friend.”

I quoted the relevant section of the Hoffex memo. It never says Sheeran was suspected of the murder, only of being involved in some way in the disappearance. I never wrote that Sheeran wasn’t questioned by investigators. And I never said that the Hoffex memo reached any conclusion about who killed Hoffa—in fact, I made that fact clear more than once.

Contrary to what Fleischer says, I never wrote that Brandt made a factual claim about whether author Steven Brill had Sheeran’s confession on tape. As Fleischer quotes me—accurately—I wrote that the book says Brill was reported to have interviewed Sheeran. When I called Brill and asked him about this, he said it never happened.

I detailed the anonymous witness’ memory of Gallo’s murder, and I also reported on my conversation with her. I asked her questions any reporter would ask, and I quoted her accurately. When I asked if the man she saw was holding a gun, she said “No—I don’t think so.”

As I reported, Joe Coffey’s own 1992 book, The Coffey Files: One Cop’s War Against the Mob, agrees with the conventional wisdom that Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase killed Gallo for the Colombo family. Brandt’s version of events that night, including Coffey’s explanation of the fake story, appear nowhere except in Brandt’s book. As I noted, Coffey is dead, so we can’t reconcile those two stories.

I did report that Sheeran had been indicted in murders, but for ordering them—not for doing the actual killing.

Fleischer starts out by calling my article “a hit job.” I quoted the book extensively and paraphrased a lot more of it accurately and in detail. I even quoted Brandt saying that any skepticism about his book, meaning my entire article, “is nonsense.” Every fact I reported is true, and most of the opinions in the piece are those of experts I interviewed—FBI agents, federal prosecutors, police, and journalists who have spent decades covering organized crime. I am completely confident in the truthfulness and fairness of everything that I wrote.