The meeting proved to be his introduction into the dark world of labor corruption and put Phelan on a path that allowed him to meet with and act as a temporary bodyguard for labor leader Jimmy Hoffa Phelan, a former decorated detective with the New York City Police Department, currently works as a private detective in and around Bergen County. His book, "Codename: Octopus," details some of his adventures. He will be appearing at the Secaucus Waldenbooks in the Mall at Mill Creek on July 27 to sign his book and talk about his adventures.
In looking back over the years, Phelan came closest to reaching immortality during that period from late 1973 into early 1974 when he came into contact with Hoffa - before Hoffa disappeared dramatically in 1975.
Phelan met Hoffa for the first time at the Warwick Hotel in New York on Dec. 7, 1973.
"Hoffa was dressed conservatively in a gray suit and matching tie," Phelan recalled recently. "His posture was straight and he was built like a tank."
Phelan was hired to protect Hoffa during a trip to Washington D.C.
Once at the airport, Phelan recalled Hoffa stopping at the candy counter to purchase two boxes of Good and Plenty.
"I get these when I'm flying," Hoffa told Phelan.
Once in Washington D.C., all went well until Hoffa went to catch a cab back to the airport for his return trip.
"Outside the building, we stepped into the gutter to get a cab to take us to the airport," Phelan said. "About a half a block down the street a taxi took off from the cub and accelerated in our direction. It swerved into us."
Phelan jumped in front of Hoffa and pushed him back to the sidewalk. The taxi drove away. Despite this, Hoffa shed his bodyguard once they got to the airport.
That was Phelan's main contact with Hoffa. Some time later - just before Hoffa's famous disappearance - Phelan saw the labor leader again in an airport.
"He was on his way to St. Louis to see his daughter," Phelan said.
But something about Hoffa had changed, a look in the labor leader's eyes that didn't seem right to Phelan. "He had a look that reminded me of early Alzheimer's disease," Phelan said.
Phelan said he believes Hoffa was not murdered as most people believe, but may be in fact living somewhere out of the country.
After the disappearance, rumors claimed that Hoffa had turned informer on union activities, angering Union City labor boss Anthony Provenzano.
Phelan said Hoffa and Provenzano had become friends while both served time in federal prison, but had apparently had a falling out. Provenzano - who would later get convicted of racketeering - blamed Hoffa for drawing President John F. Kennedy's attention to the unions. Hoffa had used $1 million in union funds to support Richard Nixon's 1960 election bid.
Hoffa had begun his union-organizing career as a teenager in the 1930s and is credited with single-handedly shaping the Teamsters into a national negotiating power. He became president of the Teamsters in 1957. He was known for his hard bargaining and reputed links to organized crime. He had a bitter feud with President John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy - which would lead to his indictment and conviction of racketeering in the late 1960s.
After a power struggle, Hoffa reluctantly gave up his bid as Teamster presidency as part of a deal that would win him parole from jail - partly achieved through the intervention of then President Nixon.
Phelan agreed to act as Hoffa's bodyguard just after Hoffa's release from prison, and during a time when Hoffa actively sought to undue the agreement that freed him from jail. He was seeking help that would give him back control of the union.
During his rise to the top of the union, Hoffa had encountered numerous shady characters, many of who did not want him back as president. They apparently saw him as too unpredictable. But Phelan said Hoffa seemed unaffected by the power struggle during that week late in 1973.
"He didn't look or act like a guy who was ratting on anybody," Phelan recalled. "Hoffa looked calm and relaxed."
About 1 p.m. on July 30, 1975, the 62-year-old Hoffa left his home in Lake Orino driving a 1974 Pontiac Grand Ville for an urgent meeting.
Hoffa believed he would get the help of Anthony Giacalone, an organized crime boss from Detroit, and Anthony "Tony the Pro" Provenzano, head of the Teamsters local 460 in Union City, to help him wrestle control back from then-Teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons.
Witnesses saw Hoffa in a brightly colored polo shirt waiting in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in upscale Bloomfield Township near Detroit.
Hoffa made several calls from a payphone outside the hardware store nearby. One of these was to his wife - who was grilling steaks for a lunch he was supposed to return to.
He was upset. Giacalone was late. The FBI, however, said Hoffa had come a half-hour early, apparently mistaking the time of the appointment.
Hoffa had showed up at 2 p.m., and the meeting was apparently set for 2:30 p.m. Witnesses claim a maroon Mercury picked up Hoffa at 2:45 p.m.
Police later speculated that Hoffa was picked up in a maroon Mercury driven by his foster son Chuckie O'Brien - something O'Brien flatly denied when interviewed later by the police.
Witnesses claim there were several men in the car. The FBI investigations claim Salvatore Briguglio, his brother Gabriel and Thomas Andretta were in that car, all three top associates of Provenzano.
In several published accounts on the events, police speculated that Hoffa climbed into the back seat and was knocked unconscious. Police later found Hoffa's blood and hair on the back seat and in the trunk.
Days after his disappearance, both family and police believed he was dead, probably murdered. Police believed the Mafia had killed him.
Police claim Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Briguglio - an associate of Provenzano - strangled Hoffa and may have used piano wire.
Provenzano denied reports that he was on the scene when Hoffa was slain, producing witnesses that said he was taking a tour of several Hoboken locals on that day, and playing cards at Local 560's Union City headquarters at the time of the alleged killing.
Ralph Picardo, a former driver for Provenzano, in a television interview done in 1990, said Hoffa's killers stuffed the body into a 55-gallon drum and loaded it onto a truck, which was shipped to an unknown destination. Based on similar past testimony, Briguglio was subpoenaed by the FBI. He ultimately was shot to death a few years later in a mob-style slaying in New York City.
Federal authorities believe the mob killed Hoffa to keep him from regaining control of the union. But they could not gather enough evidence to charge anyone with the killing.
In 1982, Hoffa was declared legally dead. But the FBI has kept the case open.
Where has Hoffa's body gone?
Rumors as to where Jimmy Hoffa's body got buried persist today. Some claim he was deposited in the end zone of Giants Stadium, which was under construction at the time of his death. Local 460 and other Teamster Unions were part of that project.
Donald Franks, a former Teamster, said in a 1989 Playboy interview that he had been a part of the Hoffa killing and helped mix the union leader's remains in with concrete for the foundation to the stadium.
Another story claims the mobsters dumped his body in Lake Michigan. Another claims he was transported to Los Angeles where he was encased in concrete for a nightclub. One story says Hoffa's body was transported to Central Sanitation Services a few miles from where he was last seen, and the body was disposed of by means of a shredder, compactor or incinerator.
Robert Sullivan, author of the book "The Meadowlands," however, said FBI search dogs found no scent of Hoffa at that location.
Sullivan investigated another burial site in a trash dump located in the Marion section of Jersey City.
"The particulars of Jimmy Hoffa's burial in the Meadowlands are mostly derived from various oral histories recounted by people you wouldn't turn your back to for five minutes," Sullivan said in his book. "There are a number of versions of the Hoffa story, some of which do not even mention the Jersey meadows at all. All the most widely accepted versions of the Hoffa's kidnapping story mention the Meadowlands, however."
Phelan is not the first to claim Hoffa was not murdered.
FBI investigated several reports that claimed Hoffa remained alive in the weeks following his disappearance. One Teamster claimed that a man who looked like Hoffa (wearing fake glasses) had checked into a nearby hotel under the name "Jewell" on Aug. 2, three days after the disappearance.
The FBI also investigated reports that Hoffa had run off to Brazil with a go-go dancer.
Samuel K. Hinkel, a Teamster UPS driver from Lebanon, P.A., in a television interview for Life's Mysteries Unsolved claimed Hoffa is living in a quiet suburban neighborhood outside Des Moines, Iowa.
An award-winning writer
Phelan started his writing career in 1981 and has since been listed in "Who's Who in U.S. Writers, Editors and Poets." His poetry - which has been published extensively in newspapers, literary magazines, calendars and major anthologies - has won awards. He has also read his poetry on WOR TV channel 9 in Secaucus, at New Jersey State Council on the Arts Festivals, in Poets in Schools Programs at Bergen Poets programs, and other events across the country. His awards include the New York Poetry Foundation Award, Poetry Press Award, Golden Poet Award three years in a row, numerous honorable mentions, first place in the Teaneck Foundation for Children's County-Wide Poetry contest, Editor's Choice Award from the National Library of Poetry, recommended for the 1989 Pushcart Prize, author of "A Point Beyond Silence" and featured in the New York Times "On Books" column.
Phelan has also published other poetry books including "A Place of Shadows," "Diamonds into the Sun," and "Walking in Cadence." Tom Phelan had been presented with International Poet of Merit award and the Gold Medal of Honor in poetry.
Phelan is tentatively scheduled to appear Waldenbooks in Mill Creek Mall at 7:30 p.m. on July 27. Because the final details have not been confirmed, people to call the store at 864-6009 for more information.