Strong Convictions

July 13, 2021

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Buffalo, NY -  Federal agents revived the hunt for Jimmy Hoffa’s remains this summer, amid new leads into the whereabouts of the legendary labor leader.  The claims are the latest to fuel a 40-plus year fascination with the unsolved case.  But they carry little weight with Keith E. Corbett ’71.

“The list of people who have reliable information about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa is really short, since almost everyone involved has gone to meet their maker,” he says.

Corbett is well-acquainted with the Hoffa case. 

He is a former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan and chief of its Organized Crime Strike Force.  Consequently, Corbett spent years leading investigations into the Detroit mafia and tallying convictions against its members, many of whom had alleged connections to the disappearance of the Teamster boss. His vast number of courtroom victories earned Corbett prosecutorial praise and national prominence as ‘the man who dismantled the Detroit mob.’ 

Corbett came to Detroit’s organized crime and racketeering section shortly after graduation from Notre Dame Law School.  He was one of five assistant prosecutors hired to work on misdemeanor and preliminary exams. 

“Then one day, the head of the circuit court asks, ‘Who wants to try a felony,’” Corbett recalls.  “All five of us raised our hands.  Then he said, ‘The trial starts in an hour.’  Four hands went down.  Mine stayed up.’”

That 1980 case saw Corbett successfully prosecute racketeering convictions against Detroit mafia captains Rafaelle (“Jimmy Q”) Quassarano and Peter (“Bozzi”) Vitale.  The pair was charged with extorting money from a western Michigan cheese company, though authorities long suspected the duo of being involved with Hoffa’s disappearance. 

A few years later, Corbett won convictions in another highly publicized political bribery scandal.  The trial embroiled Detroit Mayoral Associate Darralyn Bowers and then-Detroit Water and Sewer Director Charles Beckham, both of whom stood accused of channeling contracts to favored businesses. 

As Corbett amassed courtroom wins, the kudos followed.  Those who matched wits with the prosecutor applauded his “superior trial strategy” and “ability to recall key evidence with lethal precision.”

Still, Corbett’s most considerable victories were yet to come. 

In March 1996, federal agents executed Operation Gametax, the largest legal assault ever launched against the Detroit mafia.  The raid netted 17 high-ranking members of the La Cosa Nostra organized crime family on 25 charges of murder plots, casino infiltration, extortion and racketeering.  

Corbett led the prosecution and secured convictions for all but one of the co-defendants.  Among those imprisoned: Detroit mafia captains Vito (“Billy Jack”) Giacalone, Anthony (“Tony T”) Tocco and Anthony (“Bull”) Corrado, as well as the syndicate’s underboss Anthony (“Tony Z“) Zerilli. 

The linchpin of Corbett’s case, however, was Giacomo (“Black Jack”) Tocco, the reputed mob boss thought to have approved the plan for the high-profile hit on Jimmy Hoffa.    

“He ran the Detroit organized crime family for almost 30 years without ever having been charged with an offense,” says Corbett.  “Getting him convicted left the Detroit family largely disjointed and scrambling to find someone to run things.”

Corbett didn’t always aspire to be a federal prosecutor.

This son of a New York City cop and devout Irish-Catholic mother actually planned to pursue the priesthood.  He spent high school at a junior seminary and then enrolled in Cathedral College.  But two years in, Corbett decided to “broaden his horizons.”  He transferred to Canisius at the suggestion of fellow Brooklynite William D. Kelleher ’71 and the knowledge that it was a Jesuit college. 

“Our family had friends who were Jesuits and I learned about their academic history when I went through the Spiritual Exercises at seminary,” says Corbett, whose brother Garth ’74 followed him to Canisius.  “The Jesuits and Jesuits schools were always considered the apex of Catholic education.”

Two Jesuits, in particular, roused Corbett into becoming a prosecutor.

The late charismatic Religious Studies Professor Rev. Charles Lehmkuhl, SJ, liked to needle his student on any number of subjects.  “We didn’t agree on much but being able to discuss different ideas with someone who was intelligent and articulate was great intellectual exercise.” 

Corbett’s eristic nature also captured the attention and occasional ire of the late Political Science Professor Rev. Robert J. Nelson, SJ.  It was he, who suggested Corbett “channel his talent” for well-argued deliberation and persuasion into law school.  The disputant landed at Notre Dame, “the holy grail of all schools for Irish-Catholic kids,” where he studied trial law. 

Corbett sees a lot less courtroom action these days. 

He is currently of counsel at the Barone Defense Firm, where he represents individuals accused of white-collar crimes.  “Ninety percent of my clients are decent people who made a mistake or a poor choice on a particular day.”

Every so often, however, Corbett’s fearless brand of trial and litigation is back in the news.  Most recently, he served a brief stint as a special prosecutor in the investigation of financial crimes associated with the Flint Water Crisis. On occasion, he also teaches trial tactics to attorneys at the University of Michigan School of Law and at the Department of Justice in South Carolina. 

But at 71, this former prosecutor admits he “has more fun playing with (his) three grandchildren than going to work.”

Certainly, he’s earned that privilege.