NEW YORK — Charles O’Brien, a close associate of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa who spent decades denying that he was involved in Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder in 1975, died on Thursday at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 86.
His stepson, Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard University, said the cause appeared to be a heart attack.
Mr. O’Brien, widely known as Chuckie, was a child when he first met Hoffa in about 1943, and the two became close. Hoffa referred to him as “my other son,” and he was Hoffa’s closest assistant in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, including from 1957 to 1971, when Hoffa was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
When Hoffa disappeared in a Detroit suburb in 1975 (a judge declared him “presumed dead” in 1982, though no body has been found), Mr. O’Brien came under suspicion, with news accounts and some law enforcement authorities speculating that he drove Hoffa to a fatal encounter. Mr. O’Brien, although his accounts of the events surrounding the disappearance were sometimes vague, maintained that he had not been involved and that he would never have sold out his friend and mentor.
“I’m tired of being accused of something I didn’t do,” he told the Miami Herald in 1985. “If I thought something was gonna happen to the old man, it wouldn’t have happened to him. Because if someone was gonna do harm to Mr. Hoffa, they were gonna have to do harm to me first.”
The suspicions, though, persisted. They even made it into Martin Scorsese’s recent film “The Irishman,” in which Mr. O’Brien is portrayed by Jesse Plemons. Goldsmith, who wrote the 2019 book “In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth,” has been a strong defender of his stepfather and has fought to counter the assumption that he was involved in the crime.
“The circumstantial case against Chuckie fell apart long ago,” he wrote last month in an essay for The New York Times that was critical of the film, “and his known whereabouts on the fateful day make it practically impossible that he picked up Mr. Hoffa. Unfortunately, the government never made this information public. And so Chuckie’s innocence in one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century remains mostly hidden, his guilt remains publicly presumed, his honor remains soiled.”
Charles Lenton O’Brien was born on Dec. 20, 1933, in Kansas City, Mo. His father, also named Charles, worked in a gas station and was a driver and bodyguard for a mobster named Charles Binaggio. He abandoned the family when his son was 7, after which Mr. O’Brien’s mother, Sylvia Pagano, alternating between living in Kansas City and Detroit, often left Chuckie in the care of others.
Mr. O’Brien was 9 when he met Hoffa.
“When he flashed his heartwarming smile at me,” Mr. O’Brien said in an interview for Goldsmith’s book, “I knew we were going to be close.”
He was sometimes described as Hoffa’s foster son or as having been raised by him, but Goldsmith, in his book, said neither was true. Yet Mr. O’Brien did spend considerable time with Hoffa and his family and helped organize picket lines and other union activities while still a boy. After he graduated from high school in Kansas City and married Mary Ann Giaramita, he settled in Michigan, where Hoffa was by then a top state Teamsters official. Eventually he persuaded Hoffa to hire him as an organizer.
Mr. O’Brien became Hoffa’s trusted assistant; Mario Puzo once said he modeled the character Tom Hagen in “The Godfather” — the “consigliere” — after what he had heard about him. Mr. O’Brien himself, though, played down his advisory role. “I didn’t advise Hoffa — he advised me,” he said.
“I’d be with him,” he said. “If something had to be done, I did it.”