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Meet Bill Bufalino, The Lawyer Who Abandoned Jimmy Hoffa Right Before His Disappearance

Published November 8, 2019
Updated April 2, 2024

Attorney Bill Bufalino represented Jimmy Hoffa for decades until his mobster cousin Russell Bufalino wanted the union president gone.

We all love a good mobster movie, especially when it reveals some of the most cold-blooded players of America’s underbelly enjoying the most mundane aspects of everyday life. This is the idea behind a scene in Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, which depicts a mobster-filled wedding hosted by mob lawyer and cousin of the Pennsylvania godfather, Bill Bufalino.

Like the iconic wedding scene from The Godfather, this ceremony transforms from joyous to sinister when the audience realizes it is being celebrated by the real-life Bufalino crime family, only two days after they may have taken part in one of the most infamous and mysterious murders in mafia history.

Among attendance are Pennsylvania godfather Russell Bufalino who will be played by Joe Pesci, and his hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who will be played by Robert De Niro.

However, Bill Bufalino, played by Ray Romano, swore to his death that he knew nothing about his friend and client Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance or his family’s possible culpability.

The official trailer for Netflix’s The Irishman which portrays Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino.

Bill Bufalino’s Relationship With The Pennsylvania Mob

William Bufalino, or Bill as he was more commonly known, was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania, in 1918 as one of nine children. As a young man, he served as a lieutenant in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps in World War II before returning to Pennsylvania to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

However, his true calling was with the law and in 1942 he received a degree from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Three years later, Bill Bufalino fell in love and married Marie Antoinette Meli, the niece of Detroit crime boss Angelo Meli.

Bill Bufalino The Irishman

YouTubeBill Bufalino, played by Ray Romano, in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film ‘The Irishman.’

As Bufalino later said, “[The government says that] in the underworld, you either have to be born in it or you have to get in by marriage…I married a Detroit girl.”

According to FBI informants, Bufalino’s connection with Detroit’s top crime family established him as a force to be reckoned with, and he quickly became a “made man.”

Despite his constant denial of having anything to do with organized crime, Bill Bufalino did start his jukebox business with the help of the Meli family. Angelo Meli, John Priziola, and other racketeers put up almost $100,000 to get Bufalino’s Bilvin Distributing Company started — perhaps because they controlled the entire jukebox delivery and maintenance industry in Detroit at the time.

But this wasn’t Bufalino’s only connection to the mob.

His cousin was none other than the Pennsylvania godfather Russell Bufalino whose influence spanned northeastern Pennsylvania to New York. While Bill Bufalino did most of his business in Michigan, he remained close to Russell his entire life and even chose the mobster to be godfather of his daughter.

Russell Bufalino Somber In Court

Getty ImagesRussell Bufalino was known as “The Quiet Don” for his low-key lifestyle and business tact.

As Bill Bufalino later said of his cousin, “If you want to charge me with something regarding Russell Bufalino, charge me with the fact that I selected him as my number-one friend…This is a closer relationship than a brother.”

The Attorney For The Teamsters

Thanks to his underworld connections, Bufalino’s reputation across Detroit spread and quickly helped him to secure a spot in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the country’s oldest and largest union for truck drivers and other working-class professionals.

In 1947, Bufalino was elected as president of the Teamsters Local 985, which oversaw Detroit’s jukebox business for over 20 years.

During this time, Bufalino also represented the Teamsters as their personal attorney in as many as seven trials. He won five of these trials. In this position, Bufalino met Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, who was in need of his own attorney.

Bill Bufalino Speaking

Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty ImagesBill Bufalino went to great lengths to deny his involvement in the mafia. He even filed several defamation suits. In one such suit against Detroit Magazine Inc. he referred to himself as “a poet and a lecturer.”

The fiery and hot-tempered Hoffa had known connections to the Pennsylvania mob and often came under police scrutiny for racketeering and other underworld crimes.

As Bufalino later said about his friend Hoffa, “There’ll never be another one like that in the Teamsters. If he was a woman, he’d be pregnant every nine months. He didn’t know how to say no. He did so many favors for so many people.”

But Bill Bufalino came under scrutiny himself for his connection to the American mafia. In an attempt to clear his name, Bufalino ended up suing the Attorney General at the time, Robert F. Kennedy, and Senator John McClellan for defamation. Neither suit was successful.

The End Of Bufalino’s Friendship With Jimmy Hoffa

Although Bufalino was a constant subject of suspicion, this never resulted in any real consequences for him. Jimmy Hoffa, though, was not so lucky.

Bufalino Hoffa Random Lawyer

From Left, Bill Bufalino walks beside Jimmy Hoffa and aide Chuck O’Brian, as they leave the Federal Courthouse before Hoffa is sentenced for jury-tampering charges.

In 1967, Hoffa was arrested for jury tampering, fraud, and bribery. During his prison sentence, he was replaced in both the eyes of the Teamsters and the mobsters who had helped him to reach his presidency and in 1971 he relinquished his post, allowing Frank Fitzsimmons to become the new union leader.

Around this time, Bill Bufalino also broke off his relationship with the union boss. Bufalino believed that Hoffa had used other people for his own gain and no longer wanted to be a part of his schemes — at least that’s what Bufalino reported.

“I went to see him every week until we came to the point that every time he was dissatisfied with something, he had to have somebody to blame,” Bufalino says.

Jimmy Hoffa

Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesJimmy Hoffa, who gave up his position as Teamsters president after his prison sentence for fraud and bribery.

Perhaps closer to the truth was the fact that Hoffa’s eroding relationship with the mob meant Bufalino had to choose between his underworld connections and his old friend. He chose the mob.

Also in 1971, Hoffa was pardoned and paroled by President Nixon on the condition that he would not hold union office again until 1980. However, the hot-headed Hoffa was not one to stand down. Despite every mobster turning down their support for him, he set his sights on the 1976 Teamsters election — much to the disdain of the Bufalino crime family.

Was Bill Bufalino Involved in Jimmy Hoffa’s Disappearance?

Then, on July 30, 1975, Jimmy Hoffa mysteriously disappeared from the Machus Red Fox Restaurant parking lot in Detroit. He had been on his way to meet with a pair of mobsters to discuss his return to the Teamsters union. He was never to be seen alive or dead again.

Red Fox

Getty ImagesThe Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Detroit, where Jimmy Hoffa was last seen on July 30, 1975.

Only two days following Hoffa’s disappearance, Bill Bufalino hosted a lavish wedding for his daughter at his estate in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. This wedding was closely monitored by the FBI and according to their files Bufalino’s son, Bill Jr., was in charge of ferrying several members of the underworld to the ceremony.

In attendance was mob royalty, including several mafiosos who were suspected of Hoffa’s disappearance and, likely, murder. These included Bufalino’s cousin Russell Bufalino, as well as Tony Giacalone and Tony Provenzano, the two men that Hoffa was planning to meet the day he disappeared.

No one suspected Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, Russell Bufalino’s right-hand man and hitman, who was also present at this wedding. But later, the hitman would confess to killing Jimmy Hoffa on the orders of Russell Bufalino in his tell-all book I Heard You Paint Houses, on which Scorsese’s new film The Irishman is based.

Bufalino denied having any knowledge of his late friend’s disappearance or his family’s involvement in the crime when questioned. In fact, he offered up his own theory about what happened to the union boss.

Frank Sheeran

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Sheeran/Brandt/Splash.Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who later confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa on orders from mob boss Russell Bufalino, Bill Bufalino’s cousin.

According to Bufalino, the former union president had been involved in a plot between the CIA and the American Mafia to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In order to keep Hoffa from leaking any information about the plot, he was taken out.

What Bufalino did not mention, however, was his cousin Russell Bufalino’s connections to this very same plot.

Bufalino eventually stepped out of retirement so as to avoid representing many of the mobsters implicated in the disappearance of his late friend. But even his death from leukemia in 1990, Bufalino insisted upon these mobsters’ innocence. “If I knew, I would tell,” Bufalino said. “I would have quit right then and there if I thought they had anything to do with it or if I thought they had guilty knowledge.”

Now that you know everything about Bill Bufalino’s connection to Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, read about Richard Kuklinski, the mafia’s other most prolific hitman who also confessed to killing Hoffa. Then, learn about Angelo Bruno, the mob boss who may have also had a hand in Jimmy Hoffa’s death

Hannah McKennett
Hannah McKennett is a Dublin-based freelance writer that is dedicated to traveling the world while writing about it.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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McKennett, Hannah. "Meet Bill Bufalino, The Lawyer Who Abandoned Jimmy Hoffa Right Before His Disappearance." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 8, 2019, https://allthatsinteresting.com/bill-bufalino. Accessed May 25, 2024.