DETROIT – A one-time lawyer for the prisoner whose tip triggered the FBI-led search for the remains of Jimmy Hoffa met with authorities Monday to talk about information he claims to have about where the labor leader is buried.
James Elsman said an FBI agent accompanied a Bloomfield Township police detective to a meeting Elsman had set up with the detective.
Elsman claims he knows the approximate spot where Hoffa is buried, based on what tipster Donovan Wells told him in 1976. But another lawyer who represented Wells at that time scoffed at the claim.
At the meeting, Elsman said he asked to be allowed access to the search site so he could point investigators to the spot where he believes Hoffa is, based on his conversations with Wells. The investigators refused his request, he said.
Elsman said he asked the investigators to get written consent from Wells before he hands over any substantive documents to them.
Bloomfield Township Police Chief Donald Zimmerman confirmed the meeting took place, but would not comment on its substance. Dawn Clenney, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Detroit, declined to comment.
Elsman said Wells told him privately that he had seen a backhoe digging a grave on the horse farm in rural Oakland County now being searched by the FBI. Elsman also said Wells told him that he believed Hoffa was killed — probably on July 30, 1975, the day the former Teamsters president disappeared — by Mafia associates of New Jersey Teamsters leader Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano.
The lawyer said Wells also told him that the farm's then-owner, Rolland McMaster, at the time a Teamsters official, met with Provenzano in the Detroit area the previous day. McMaster's lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, said his client was in Indiana on the day Hoffa vanished and for several days before and after, making such a meeting impossible.
Elsman said Wells gave him fairly specific information about the location of the grave and claimed the FBI is not looking in the right spot. Wells lived on the farm for a time when it belonged to McMaster, Elsman and another former Wells lawyer, Joseph J. Fabrizio, have said.
Wells, who currently is in prison for marijuana trafficking, recently has been talking to the FBI about Hoffa, and has been more forthcoming than in earlier conversations, an investigator familiar with the search earlier told The Associated Press.
Fabrizio first told the AP on Friday that Wells had offered information about Hoffa to the FBI in 1976 during plea negotiations in a case involving the theft of shipments of steel. He said Wells' information concerned heavy machinery and suspicious activity on the farm, but did not recall anything as specific as a grave being dug.
Fabrizio said he found it hard to believe that Elsman would know so much. He said Wells was first and foremost his client and that he had represented him in other matters. Fabrizio said he asked Elsman, from whom he rented office space, to help with the 1976 case, because Elsman at the time was more experienced.
Meanwhile, activity picked up at the search site Monday morning with the arrival of a Florida tent company that specializes in temporary equestrian structures. Crews put a barn-size tent on a field near the existing barns and unloaded dozens of metal frames from a truck.
Last week, the FBI said it might have to remove a barn to dig beneath it, and horse riders had said that a temporary barn was coming.
Wells was awaiting trial on charges of stealing truckloads of steel coils when he met with three agents from the FBI's Detroit office on Feb. 4, 1976, Elsman said.
Wells, hoping for a reduced sentence, authorized Elsman to share his account of Hoffa's burial on the horse farm 30 miles northwest of Detroit, which was owned at the time by McMaster.
"It was the only thing I thought would satiate their taste for tradable material regarding the sentence — a quid pro quo," Elsman said. "The FBI had the interest because they hadn't solved that crime (Hoffa's disappearance), but they didn't show that interest during the interview" because the Detroit agents focused instead on what Wells knew about the thefts.
"He didn't give them anything they didn't ask about, and the interest was in steel," Elsman said. "They didn't bring it (Hoffa) up except cursorily. My guy, in that context 30 years ago, was only going to offer what was asked."
Clenney declined to comment on Elsman's allegations.
Elsman said Wells told him privately, "One, that he saw the grave being dug by a backhoe. Two, that he knew where that (backhoe) had stayed for six months," and he knew that it had been stolen and who stole it.
Hoffa was on his way to meet Provenzano and Detroit Mafia captain Anthony Giacalone when he vanished. Elsman said Wells told him Hoffa was killed before his body was brought to the horse farm.
Provenzano and Giacalone are both dead.