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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

The Search For Hoffa

Aired July 16, 2003 - 20:53   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The mystery of Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance remains just that tonight -- a mystery. Acting on a prisoner's tip, authorities dug up a backyard in Michigan today looking for evidence and David Ashenfelter, a staff writer for "The Detroit Free Press" joins us from the Motor City.
Thank for joining us. I know you've had a long day. What did investigators find and what were they looking for?

DAVID ASHENFELTER, THE DETROIT FREE PRESS: Well, they basically found what they always find -- an empty hole.

Basically, what happens, this prisoner from Jackson, Michigan told them that there was apparently a briefcase buried on the property. And he once lived in this house back in the 1970s, and went out there today with the sheriff's deputies from Oakland County, into, in fact, Bay County and walked around the property, looked at the swimming pool and said, "That's where it is." And they started digging. But they didn't find anything.

ZAHN: Well, help us understand why this tip was hot. Over the years you've had some 16, 000 pages of documents, many of the leads, of course, were dead ends. Why does this one even involve following up on?

ASHENFELTER: Well, it's, like, they just have to know. You know, they've received thousands of these things over the years. And some of them they can throw away as prank calls, but other ones they feel reasonably certain that they have to follow it up and the Oakland County sheriff, Michael Bouchard (ph) said today, "Look, we're skeptical. But we've got to go look. It's -- we just don't have a choice on this."

ZAHN: Earlier this evening, one of our producers was on the phone with Jimmy Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Crancer, and she said she doubts this case will ever be solved. What do you think?

ASHENFELTER: She's told me the same thing and really, unless somebody comes forward that was there with credible evidence and knows the inside information and there's still some inside information that will let the investigators know -- unless they come forward they probably -- probably will not be solved any more than the Kennedy assassination.

ZAHN: But that -- is that why this case is open some 28 years later after Mr. Hoffa's death?

ASHENFELTER: Well, it's open because he was such a -- just such an important public figure and it's just one of those whodunits that just has not produced an answer that and it's very much -- I liken it to the Kennedy case. he wasn't the same stature as Kennedy, but we don't know who did it.

ZAHN: And you've been working on this investigation as a reporter for some time. Just help our audience better understand what an odd experience it has been like for you, as you followed some of these leads that have led nowhere.

ASHENFELTER: This story can be a reporter's worst nightmare, because, first of all, a lot of us -- a lot of the reporters that worked on the story aren't around anymore. They've either retired or they've gone on to other markers. So the first thing as a reporter that you've got to master is 28 years worth of reporting. And you just really have to figure out, OK, what do they think was involved? What do they know? Where have the leads led? And if you can get your hands on the investigative information, you do that, which is what "The Free Press" did. "The Free Press" is in the process of receiving from the FBI, after a very long court battle, tens of thousands of pages on Hoffa's disappearance.

And basically, we don't really know a great deal more today than we knew 10 days after he disappeared. And that's that he went to the Mocas Red Fox restaurant outside of Detroit to meet with some reputed mobsters to make peace. He wanted to get back into the Teamsters. They didn't want him to. He was having a feud with a guy named Tony Provinciano out of New Jersey and he disappeared. They apparently did not show up for the meeting. They had very good alibis. Somebody else did and what became of him we just don't know. There were eyewitness sightings that day, but we really don't know what happened to him.

ZAHN: Well, we'll be counting on you to keep us informed. David Ashenfelter, thank you again for spending some time us tonight. Good luck.

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