Historians of the underworld

Historians of the underworld

Mob journalists Scott M. Burnstein, George Anastasia tell stories through multiple media platforms

Journalist Scott Burnstein writes about historical and contemporary organized crime in books, blogs, documentaries and podcasts. Photo courtesy of Retrokimmer.com.

When media outlets need an expert to explain what might have happened to former labor leader Jimmy Hoffa’s remains, they often turn to Scott M. Burnstein.

Burnstein has been called upon by Eric Shawn of Fox News and others in recent months as new leads pop up regarding possible Hoffa burial sites. The former Teamsters Union president went missing on July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox, a suburban Detroit restaurant. His remains have never been recovered.

In explaining what might have happened to Hoffa, Burnstein is a reliable source for reporters covering the story. Burnstein is recognized as the expert on Mafia history in Detroit, Hoffa’s hometown.

Philadelphia journalist George Anastasia and Dave Schratwieser co-host the Mob Sit Down podcast.

A 44-year-old law school graduate and reporter for Michigan newspapers, Burnstein has family ties to Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang and other organized crime figures in Michigan. Burnstein’s great uncle married Meyer Lansky’s goddaughter. “I felt like I was living Goodfellas,” he said in a telephone interview.

With his knowledge of the Detroit underworld, Burnstein is part of a trend in Mob storytelling. City by city, as traditional media outlets cut back on organized crime coverage, Mob experts are using formats such as podcasts and blogs to tell the Mafia’s history. Burnstein’s podcast is called Original Gangsters.

Many in this arena have backgrounds as authors, historians, documentary filmmakers and journalists. Burnstein has been active in all of these fields.

Another Mafia observer working on multiple platforms is George Anastasia, an author and Philadelphia Inquirer staff member from 1974 to 2012. His books include Blood and Honor: Inside the Scarfo Mob, the Mafia’s Most Violent Family. Legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin called it the “best gangster book ever written.”

With veteran Philadelphia television reporter Dave Schratwieser, the 74-year-old Anastasia appears in YouTube videos and podcasts, reporting on the city’s Mafia history and current suspected mobsters. Anastasia also teaches a three-credit course on organized crime at Rowan University in New Jersey. His work with Schratwieser can be found at mobtalksitdown.com.

Anastasia is a fan of newer storytelling methods, but he cautions that any content lacking responsible oversight can have a downside. On some sites, there is no way of knowing what is factual or whether the person delivering the information has a track record in accuracy, he said.

“There is no filter anymore,” Anastasia said in a telephone interview. “Anybody and everybody has a platform.”

Hunt for Hoffa

With his record for accurate reporting, Burnstein, who serves on The Mob Museum’s Advisory Council, is one of the experts relied upon for a credible perspective on the nearly five-decade hunt for Hoffa’s remains.

Fox News’ Shawn has interviewed Burnstein several times. In addition to his duties as a television anchor, Shawn has spent years reporting on Hoffa’s disappearance.

Jimmy Hoffa at Caesars Palace Opening 1966
Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 has led, over more than four decades, to numerous theories about what happened to his body.

Shawn is one of the few reporters still covering the Mob for a national media outlet. His work appears on various platforms in addition to the Fox News cable channel. Shawn’s series, Riddle: The Search for James R. Hoffa, is on the Fox Nation subscription website. A version also is available as a podcast.

Hoffa’s middle name is Riddle, but the use of the word in the series title also reflects the mystery surrounding the 62-year-old union leader’s disappearance. Over the years, potential Hoffa burial sites have been investigated, but every lead has come up empty.

Shawn and Dan E. Moldea, an author, investigative reporter and Hoffa authority, have pinpointed what many consider a promising possible burial site at a former Genovese crime family dump in New Jersey. Moldea wrote the 1978 book The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians and the Mob.

An exploratory dig at the New Jersey site cannot occur without law enforcement approval. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican candidate for governor in New York, has urged authorities to conduct a dig at the site.

Burnstein recently wrote a story for radaronline.com exploring different potential burial locations, including the one in New Jersey and another in Canada.

Burnstein said his own reporting indicates Hoffa was disposed of somewhere in the Detroit area. “This was clearly a Detroit job,” he said.

Burnstein stressed that he takes other theories seriously, especially by people he respects such as Moldea.

Detroit to Las Vegas

Burnstein’s knowledge does not end at the Detroit city limits. He also has written about Chicago and Philadelphia mobsters, among others. But Detroit is his territory. His institutional knowledge of the city goes back generations and includes current connections among prominent families.

For instance, a story Burnstein recently posted on his blog site, gangsterreport.com, mentions Derek Stevens, a Las Vegas casino developer. Stevens owns three hotel-casinos in downtown Las Vegas — the Golden Gate, D Las Vegas and Circa Resort.

Scott Burnstein’s Original Gangsters podcast is widely followed by those interested in organized crime.

An adults-only resort, the 777-room Circa at Fremont and Main streets is the first hotel-casino built from the ground up in downtown Las Vegas in 40 years. It opened in 2020.

Stevens’ name came up in a story Burnstein wrote in April about Detroit gambler Don “Dandy Don” DeSeranno. The 75-year-old DeSeranno was considered Detroit’s biggest gambler from the 1980s into the early 2000s. However, DeSeranno had moved to Las Vegas in retirement and died there this year. Burnstein noted that the former gambler’s nephew is Derek Stevens.

Burnstein also has written about Jack “Jackie the Kid” Giacalone, the reputed Detroit Mafia boss.

At an event in Southern Nevada in 2013, Giacalone’s daughter, Chantel, bit into a peanut butter-infused pretzel and suffered brain damage in an allergic reaction.

A 27-year-old actor living in Los Angeles at the time, she had been modeling at a fashion show at the Mandalay Bay convention center on the Las Vegas Strip. Mandalay Bay is located where the Hacienda hotel-casino once stood. 

The Giacalones’ attorney claimed that an ambulance company was negligent in treating her reaction, according to news media accounts. In April, a Las Vegas jury awarded the Giacalone family a $29.5 million settlement.

Now 35, Chantel Giacalone lives at home with her parents, who provide round-the-clock care for their quadriplegic daughter.

Future projects

As he continues to branch out in his research and writing, Burnstein now is focusing on several organized crime factions in addition to the traditional Mafia. Included in these Detroit-area factions are outlaw biker gangs.

In his work, he wants to create a picture of Detroit that is as recognizable and real as the Boston portrayed by the movie industry’s Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg.

This includes offering his perspective regarding new leads in the Hoffa disappearance. On his Original Gangsters podcast, Burnstein has conducted interviews about the Hoffa mystery and much more. 

“At my core I’m a storyteller,” Burnstein said. “I just want to tell great stories.”

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.