Hoffa Search Finds Town's Sense of Humor
By NICK BUNKLEY and MICHELINE MAYNARD
MILFORD, Mich., May 23 — The most popular items on the menu at the Milford Baking Company these days are the 95-cent "Hoffa cupcakes" featuring a green plastic hand reaching up through chocolate icing and candy sprinkles designed to resemble dirt.
Down the street, customers are lining up at Leslie Watson's art store to buy $15 T-shirts reading, "The F.B.I. Digs Milford, Do You?"
A week of digging by investigators at the Hidden Dreams Farm outside town has turned up no evidence of the remains of the former Teamster boss James R. Hoffa, but it has unearthed a cavalcade of colorful characters and stirred a morbid sense of humor in residents of this village of 6,300 people.
"All the extra buzz around Milford has been a lot of fun," Ms. Watson said Tuesday. The city's chief of police evidently agreed, buying a half-dozen cupcakes to take to F.B.I. agents as an afternoon snack.
In fact, agents are preparing to begin the next phase of their search for Mr. Hoffa, which commenced a week ago. Workers from a local demolition company said they were asked to arrive Wednesday to start tearing down a 100-foot horse barn.
The barn stands over the spot where an F.B.I. informant, now in prison, claims he saw Mr. Hoffa buried in 1975, rolled up in a rug. A large tent was erected on Monday to house the horses that will be displaced by the excavation.
The dig on the farm, about 30 miles northwest of Detroit, is the most extensive search for Mr. Hoffa's remains since he disappeared 31 years ago from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant 17 miles east of the farm.
Agents are said to be acting on information from Donovan Wells, who lived on the farm when Mr. Hoffa vanished.
At that time, the farm was owned by Rolland McMaster, a former Teamster official and protégé of Mr. Hoffa who union experts say turned against the labor leader shortly before his disappearance.
Now an ailing 75-year-old prisoner in Kentucky, Mr. Wells hopes to shorten his 10-year sentence on marijuana smuggling charges by helping the F.B.I. find Mr. Hoffa's remains.
Mr. Wells claims he witnessed a grave being dug with a stolen front-end loader or backhoe on July 31, 1975, the day after Mr. Hoffa was last seen, said James Elsman, a lawyer who defended Mr. Wells against theft charges several months later.
As what appeared to be a rolled-up carpet was dropped into the hole, Mr. McMaster remarked, "There goes Jimmy," Mr. Elsman recounted Mr. Wells as telling him.
Mr. McMaster's lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, disputed that account this week, saying Mr. McMaster, now 93, was in Gary, Ind., on union business the entire week that Mr. Hoffa disappeared.
Mr. Morganroth, who has also defended Dr. Jack Kevorkian and John Z. DeLorean, the late automotive executive, said he had several telephone conversations with Mr. McMaster on the day in question, reaching him by calling an Indiana-based phone number. "The Hoffa Wars," the 1978 book by the biographer Dan Moldea, also puts Mr. McMaster in Indiana that week.
Even so, F.B.I. officials have called the information from Mr. Wells the most credible lead they have received in years. About 40 to 50 agents have been scouring the farm since last week, bringing in archaeologists and anthropologists to assist.
"For them to go to all of this effort, there's got to be something to it," said a retired F.B.I. agent, Robert Garrity, one of the original investigators assigned to investigate Mr. Hoffa's disappearance.
Mr. Garrity did not recall whether the Milford Township farm was searched in the 1970's but said the F.B.I. considered Mr. McMaster as a "person of interest" in the inquiry.
Mr. Elsman, who sported a tan cowboy hat as he welcomed guests at his law offices this week, said he told the F.B.I. that Mr. Wells had information about Mr. Hoffa's disappearance in 1975 but that agents did not follow up on the tip.
Mr. Elsman said he could pinpoint the location where his former client said he saw the grave being dug. During a meeting Monday with an F.B.I. agent and a local police detective, Mr. Elsman said, he offered to go out to the farm but officials rejected the suggestion.
Special Agent Dawn Clenney, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in Detroit, would not comment on Mr. Elsman's claims. She said the search has yielded no evidence of Mr. Hoffa's remains.
Still, the scene outside the horse farm bustles with news media activity. Detroit television reporters have stood watch near an F.B.I. checkpoint at the farm's entrance since the arrival of federal agents. Businesses in the nearby village are taking advantage of the attention.
"Forget Waldo! Where's Hoffa?" asked the sign outside the Bakers of Milford restaurant. Across the street, Milford's Dairy Queen has posted rotating messages. Tuesday's read, "F.B.I. You R Out Standing in Your Field." That was more tasteful than an earlier sign, "To Find Hoffa, Look in the Yellow Pages Under Cement."
The town's business association is encouraging stores on Main Street to decorate with a Hoffa theme on Thursday so shoppers can "hunt for hidden treasures," according to fliers distributed to shop owners.
The hoopla is causing a few second thoughts, however. Elaine Aittama, a co-owner of the bakery selling Hoffa cupcakes, took a hand-printed sign boasting "Hoffa ate here" out of her window on Tuesday.
"I don't want to offend anybody," she said. "We're just trying to have a little fun with all the attention."
Nick Bunkley reported from Milford for this article, and Micheline Maynard from Detroit.