By Joseph Lichterman
OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Michigan (Reuters) - The search for former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, missing since 1975 and thought to have been murdered by members of organized crime, brought investigators with shovels on Monday to an overgrown field in suburban Detroit, not far from where Hoffa was last seen alive.
A backhoe was driven onto the property, and video recorded from a helicopter by Detroit television station WDIV showed agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation digging for the union leader's remains.
By nightfall, there was no indication that any remains had been found and the search was halted for the day. An Oakland County sheriff's deputy said digging would resume at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
FBI special agent Robert D. Foley confirmed the search in Oakland Township about 20 miles north of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, where Hoffa was last seen.
Foley said he would not provide additional details because the investigation was open and the search warrant was sealed.
The search for Jimmy Hoffa, who was 62 when he disappeared, has become near mythical, providing fodder for rumors, books, and movies, including 1992's "Hoffa," starring Jack Nicholson.
Law enforcement officials decided to comb the lot after reputed mobster Anthony Zerilli, 85, told the FBI Hoffa was buried there. When Hoffa disappeared, the property was owned by a man Zerilli said was his first cousin. Zerilli is the son of former Detroit mob boss Joseph Zerilli.
Zerilli's attorney, David Chasnick, told reporters the FBI had spoken with his client over the past seven or eight months and that the agency believes "100 percent" that Hoffa is buried there. Anthony Zerilli, who has written about Hoffa's disappearance on the website Hoffafound.com, was in prison when the union leader went missing.
"This was a guy who was intimately involved with some of the players who would be well informed as to where the body would be placed," Chasnick said.
According to a copy of Zerilli's 21-page manuscript, provided by Chasnick, Hoffa was dragged out of a car, bound and gagged, hit with a shovel and buried alive under a cement slab in a barn on the property.
"In the movies, people drive around with bodies in a trunk, and put them in meat grinders, and incinerators, bury them in stadiums, put them through wood chippers," Zerilli wrote. "Those things just don't happen in real life, at least not in the real mob life."
Investigators have checked thousands of leads over the years. Last September, police removed a soil sample from behind a private home in Roseville, Michigan, after receiving a tip that Hoffa might be buried there.
Hoffa, the father of current Teamsters President James Hoffa, led the union from 1957 to 1971. In his final years as union president, Jimmy Hoffa was imprisoned for fraud and jury tampering. He was released in late 1971 when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence.
Law enforcement authorities have long held the theory that Hoffa was ordered killed by organized crime figures to prevent him from regaining control of the Teamsters. He had agreed to be banned from the union until 1980 as part of a deal that won his release from prison.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told reporters on Monday that a conclusion to the search for Hoffa's body was "long overdue."
"This has been one of those kind of open wounds for a long time," Bouchard said. "It's my fondest hope that we can give that closure, not just to the Hoffa family but also to the community."
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Bernie Woodall in Detroit and Nick Carey in Chicago; Editing by Andre Grenon, Toni Reinhold)