DETROIT -- In a break in one of the nation's biggest unsolved cases, a hair from Jimmy Hoffa was found in a car that a longtime friend was driving the day the former Teamsters boss vanished 26 years ago, The Detroit News reported Friday.
FBI scientists matched DNA from hair taken from Hoffa's brush with that of a strand found in the borrowed car that Charles "Chuckie" O'Brien had been using on July 30, 1975, the newspaper reported, citing two unidentified sources.
O'Brien has maintained Hoffa never was in the car, and he repeatedly has denied any role in Hoffa's disappearance.
"We have re-interviewed Mr. O'Brien, but I can't say anything more about that," said John E. Bell Jr., agent in charge of the Detroit FBI bureau.
Hoffa, the legendary Teamsters president from 1957 until 1971, disappeared from a Detroit-area restaurant and is presumed dead. He was 62. His son, James P. Hoffa, is now Teamsters president.
DNA gives family hope
The younger Hoffa said at a news conference Friday that he had been in contact with the FBI during the past year about the DNA evidence.
"We'd always hoped there would be a deathbed confession," he said. "It hasn't happened yet. Hopefully, through DNA, we now have a breakthrough."
Hoffa said he had not talked to O'Brien in 26 years. But he said he confronted O'Brien shortly after his father's disappearance and asked: '"Where were you? How do you explain yourself?' His reaction was to run out of the room."
Hoffa disappeared after going to the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, supposedly for a meeting with reputed Mafia figure Anthony Giacalone and New Jersey Teamsters boss and underworld associate Anthony Provenzano.
Neither man showed up; both said no meeting had been scheduled.
The car O'Brien was using was owned by Giacalone's son Joe.
Investigators believe Hoffa was picked up outside the restaurant and killed. Despite a huge investigation, his body has not been found.
Family friend suspect
Investigators and Hoffa family members have said that O'Brien, who had been taken in by Hoffa as a child, was one of the few people who could have persuaded Hoffa to get into a car that afternoon.
Several weeks later, police dogs sniffed the shorts Hoffa wore the day before his disappearance and indicated Hoffa's scent was in the rear of the car.
O'Brien could not be reached for comment after calls were placed to his office in Memphis, Tenn., the newspaper said.
O'Brien's attorney, William E. Bufalino II, said his client, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., denies any involvement in Hoffa's disappearance "as he has over the last 26 years."
"I would challenge the FBI to use all their efforts to find the rightful killer," Bufalino said Friday. "Mr. O'Brien was contacted 26 years ago, five years ago, three weeks ago. There is nothing different that has transpired over the years."
Bufalino said the FBI indicated it is setting up a grand jury, and O'Brien -- who the lawyer said has undergone two cancer operations and four heart bypasses in recent years -- "will honor whatever commands they make."
Dawn Clenney, spokeswoman for the FBI's Detroit bureau, said she could not confirm the agency would call a grand jury.
James Burdick, a Michigan lawyer who represented O'Brien during the original investigation, called O'Brien a "notorious big mouth" who could not have kept such a secret.
"If (O'Brien) knew anything about it, he'd be deader than a doughnut 25 years ago," Burdick said Friday.
Burdick added that O'Brien's loyalty to Hoffa was too strong for him to willingly be involved in the union leader's disappearance.
"Chuckie spoke reverently about (Hoffa) all the time," Burdick said. "He took Chuckie and his mother in, clothed and fed them. If (O'Brien) had been unwittingly involved, he would have been unconscious with grief."
Agents met regularly
Bell said DNA tests were done on all the evidence, but he would not comment on the results. Federal agents have met regularly in the past 11 months to discuss the case, and decided at a meeting in November to conduct DNA tests, the newspaper said.
In a statement Friday, Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell said: "The union is heartened by news of a possible breakthrough in the case. We hope those who are responsible for the disappearance of the general president's father are brought to justice in a prompt manner."
Federal officials said they hope to decide whether to prosecute someone in the Hoffa case no later than December 2003, according to a federal court affidavit filed in June.
In 1975, the FBI said in a memo that the disappearance was probably connected to Hoffa's attempts to regain power within the Teamsters union.
"Our theory of the case hasn't changed," Bell said.