Russell Buffalino

Russell Bufalino, ‘The Silent Don’ Who May Have Been Behind The Disappearance Of Jimmy Hoffa

Published November 6, 2019

Not only did Pennsylvania godfather Russell Bufalino supposedly hire Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran to murder union leader Jimmy Hoffa, he may have also tried to assassinate Castro.

The Bufalino crime family has long ruled the underbelly of Pennsylvania and New York with its most prominent godfather being the infamous Russell Bufalino.

Also known as “The Quiet Don,” Bufalino made his mark as one of the most powerful and low-profile leaders of the American Mafia in the mid-20th century, undoubtedly inspiring more than one fictional adaptation of his life.

Now, his legacy is once again going to hit the big screen — this time with a mostly non-fiction portrayal of his role in the infamous disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. In The Irishman, Robert De Niro will play Bufalino’s hitman Frank Sheeran who alleged to have shot Hoffa himself on the orders of the clandestine Don.

The crime lord himself will be played by Joe Pesci and while Martin Scorsese’s film mainly focuses on Sheeran’s perspective of what transpired in Philadelphia in the 1950s through the 1970s, Russell Bufalino’s story extended far beyond that.

The official trailer for The Irishman where reputed mob boss Russell Bufalino is portrayed by Joe Pesci.

How Russell Bufalino Became A Real-Life Godfather

Like many a mafioso, Russell Bufalino’s career in crime had humble beginnings. He was born on Oct. 3, 1903, in Sicily and his parents emigrated to Buffalo, New York when he was still a child.

Growing up poor in America, Bufalino turned to petty crimes like theft and larceny to get by. Before long he established a reputation for himself as a burgeoning crime lord. He continued to move up the ranks of the criminal world where he met the ruthless mobster Joseph Barbara who was known for his bootlegging operations.

As a fellow Sicilian, Barbara took Bufalino in and they joined forces in the mobster’s neighborhood of Endicott in New York. This was Bufalino’s gateway to the American mafia as well as to a life of power and fortune.

In 1957, Barbara asked Bufalino to arrange a meeting of mobsters in Apalachin, New York, where the mobster had a ranch. This Apalachin Conference, as it would later be called, was created in order to settle disputes over the murder of Albert Anastasia, the mobster who began the infamous hit squad, Murder, Inc. Prominent crime families from across the United States, Cuba, and Italy attended, and Bufalino ushered them all to Barbara’s residence.

Russell Bufalino Portrait

Getty ImagesBufalino would come to be known as “The Silent” or “Quiet” Don for his low-profile reputation.

However, local police had been tipped off about the meeting, and Barbara’s ranch was raided. Mobsters fled into the nearby woods, but not all of them escaped capture. Bufalino himself, as well as notable godfathers and other criminals, were taken in by local and federal agents.

Although the charges against these attendees were later dropped due to a lack of evidence of criminal activity, this bust ruined Barbara’s reputation in the mafia. He retired shortly after and Bufalino stepped in to take his place.

The Bufalino Family Reign

Now that Russell Bufalino was the leading godfather of Endicott, New York, he decided to expand his reach to Pennsylvania. He took control of the garment industry as well as gambling and loan sharking operations in Kingston, Pennsylvania.

At his most powerful, Bufalino had operations in Cuba, was a silent partner of Pennsylvania’s Medico Industries, the largest supplier of ammunition to the U.S. government, and had close ties with the U.S. Congress. It was also rumored that he helped the CIA in their 1961 plot to assassinate Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution.

Indeed, according to Times Leader, the CIA recruited Bufalino and several other Mafia figures including Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli, and Santo Trafficante, to aid in a covert plot to assassinate Castro in the months leading up to the Bay of Pigs Invasion via a poison drink.

Bufalino Walks With Hands In Hat To Court

Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesAt 64, Bufalino was arrested by the FBI on the charge of conspiracy to transport some $25,000 in stolen television sets. He was released on his own recognizance under $10,000 bail.

“The Quiet Don” featured in The Irishman even had a sway over the American film industry. When singer Al Martino was rejected for the part of Johnny Fontaine in the movie The Godfather, Martino called on the crime boss. Bufalino personally reached out to Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans, and soon enough Martino had the part. As Wanda Ruddy, the wife of the movie’s producer, later said, “Russell Bufalino had final script approval of The Godfather.” Of course — why shouldn’t a real-life godfather have a say?

Like his fictional counterpart, Russell Bufalino was also known to be famously mild-mannered. He reportedly loved prosciutto bread, red wine, and boxing. As a former police chief from the area recalled, “He was old-school. A perfect gentleman. You wouldn’t know he had two dimes to rub together from looking at his house or the car he drove.”

He ran most of his business operations out of his humble abode on East Dorrance Street in Kingston.

Despite his outward appearance, Bufalino was constantly under surveillance by the FBI. According to a 114-page FBI file about him, he was “one of the two most powerful men in the mafia of the Pittston, Pennsylvania area.”

Bufalino’s Relationship With Hitman Frank Sheeran

The Irishman Frank Sheeran

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who considered Bufalino to be his mentor.

Bufalino first met Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in 1955 at a truck stop in Endicott, New York when Sheeran’s truck had broken down and Bufalino lent him some tools — as well as a job offer.

When the pair first met, The Irishman didn’t know anything about the mafia. However, that soon changed when Bufalino personally invited him into his crime family and offered himself as a mentor.

As part of this deal, Bufalino often called upon Sheeran to do his business. According to Sheeran’s account as told to Charles Brandt in his biography, I Heard You Paint Houses, “Russell would ask me to drive him to different places and wait for him in the car while he did a little business in somebody’s house or in a bar or a restaurant…Russell Bufalino was as big as Al Capone had been, maybe bigger.”

According to Sheeran, this business soon turned to murder.

Umberto Clam House

Policemen standing outside of the Umberto Clam House after “Crazy Joe” Gallo was found shot to death at his birthday meal.

When Bufalino ordered Sheeran to make a hit on the notorious gangster “Crazy Joe” Gallo at the Umberto Clam House, Sheeran recalled, “I didn’t know who Russ had in mind, but he needed a favor and that was that. They didn’t give you much advance notice. I don’t look like a mafia shooter. I have very fair skin. None of these Little Italy people or Crazy Joe and his people had ever seen me before.”

Sheeran reportedly made the hit for Bufalino, who was feuding with “Crazy Joe,” and neither mafia member was ever convicted.

Did Russell Bufalino Call The Hit On Jimmy Hoffa’s Murder?

During his reign, Bufalino got close to the leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa.

The union boss was ambitious and not at all against organized crime. As Brandt said, “Hoffa wanted to solidify his control of the Union by getting rid of his enemies in the rank and file — what they called rebels…[so] he talked to his dear friend, Russell Bufalino.”

That’s when Bufalino introduced Hoffa to Sheeran. “It was a job interview over the telephone. Hoffa was in Detroit, Frank was in Philly. The first words uttered to Frank by Hoffa were ‘I heard you paint houses,’ meaning I heard you whack people — the paint is the blood that splatters on the wall. Sheeran replied by saying, ‘Yeah, I do my own carpentry too,’ which means I get rid of the bodies. Frank got the job, the next day he was flown to Detroit and he started working for Hoffa,” explained Brandt.

Sheeran went on to help Hoffa get the leadership position he wanted and stay there, that is until the union boss was taken down on racketeering charges. He went to prison, during which time he was replaced by a new leader, both in the eyes of the Teamsters and of the mafia.

When Hoffa was released in 1972, he was eager to regain his position. Bufalino, however, had another idea. The Quiet Don as portrayed in The Irishman had started to see Hoffa as a loose cannon and a liability bringing unwanted publicity to the mob. Bufalino thus believed that Hoffa had to be taken care of.

Jimmy Hoffa

Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesUnion boss Jimmy Hoffa, friend and associate with Russell Bufalino.

According to Sheeran’s later confessions, this is when Bufalino reached out to his hitman. Although the Irishman had maintained his friendship with Hoffa, his loyalties ultimately lay with his mentor. That meant that when the crime boss called him up for a hit, he didn’t ask questions.

Sheeran explained that Bufalino arranged for a few mobsters, including the hitman, to meet Hoffa at the Machus Red Fox restaurant. This is the last known location of the union boss, before he disappeared and was declared dead in 1982.

From here, Sheeran claimed that he drove Hoffa to an empty house in Detroit. The hitman led him inside and put two bullets in the back of his head. Next, he was dragged through the kitchen and taken to a crematorium, where he was turned to dust.

“My friend did not suffer,” Sheeran concluded.

Red Fox Restaurant

The Red Fox restaurant where Jimmy Hoffa was last seen.

While there is still no proof that Sheeran committed this crime aside from a few unidentified blood splatters in a Detroit house, The Irishman went to the grave declaring his guilt.

As for Bufalino, he was arrested in 1977 for extortion and by the time he was released had fallen on poor health. He remained head of his crime family until his death at a Scranton nursing home in 1994. The Silent Don was 90 years old and one of the few mobsters of his caliber to die of natural causes as opposed to a hit.

Now that you know the story of the Quiet Don who built up the Pennsylvania mafia, Russell Bufalino, learn about the gangster Angelo Ruggiero, who helped to bring the mob down. Then check out Freddy Geas, the mobster accused of killing the notorious Whitey Bulger.

Hannah McKennett
Hannah McKennett is a Dublin-based freelance writer that is dedicated to traveling the world while writing about it.