The FBI and Secret Service agents made their way through the streets of San Francisco’s foggy Richmond District neighborhood, about two miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, toward a narrow Victorian house that looked like it had tumbled out of the shadows of Alfred Hitchcock’s imagination. The building rose two floors to a sharply pitched roof; nearly every inch of the exterior had been painted the color of midnight.
The agencies had spent the better part of two weeks in October 1980 pursuing a case that had all the ingredients of a potential media firestorm, one that could stir up the country’s most traumatic political memories. Now—on Halloween—their digging had led investigators here, to 6114 California Street.
It was called the Black House, and stories about what went on behind its walls had been the subject of curiosity and speculation for more than a decade. The agents climbed a brick staircase, and knocked on the jet-black front door.
They were soon met by a bald, middle-aged man with a goatee: Anton Szandor LaVey. No introductions were necessary. LaVey, the high priest of the Church of Satan, was once rumored to have played a mystical role in the death of a former Hollywood star. He’d been expecting these agents to pay him a visit.
A day earlier, Senator Ted Kennedy had left San Francisco after campaigning for President Jimmy Carter, whose general election showdown with Ronald Reagan was inching closer. It had been a long, tumultuous year for Kennedy, who was then in his late 40s. He’d tried to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Carter; when that bid failed, Kennedy resorted to playing the role of a good party soldier, summoning the remnants of his family’s old Camelot magic as he crisscrossed the country to win over voters for Carter.
Running for president had also awakened a fear that Kennedy had tried to hide even from his closest confidants: that he would be assassinated, just like his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Anonymous tormentors had been sending Ted Kennedy handwritten threats since the late 1960s. “Teddy has to die,” promised a note that was once mailed to his father. The death threats only multiplied when Kennedy was on the campaign trail in 1980. “He had to be conscious of it. There was always a danger,” Bob Shrum, Kennedy’s former press secretary and speechwriter, remembers. “There were always nuts out there, and that’s just the way it was.”
What Kennedy, Shrum and a handful of other staffers didn’t know was that one morning that October, teletype machines had clattered to life in FBI field offices across the country with a fresh transmission, seven pages’ worth of new intelligence information. The bottom of the first page contained a stark message: “SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY — VICTIM, CONGRESSIONAL ASSASSINATION STATUTE.”
An informant had contacted the FBI office in downtown Chicago and explained that a plot to murder Kennedy was being set in motion. It’s a story that has never been told until now, a bizarre piece of history that became public only when I discovered records of the investigation that the FBI quietly released in June in The Vault, the bureau’s online FOIA library. The files outlined a scheme that supposedly involved money, drugs and the mob. And according to the informant, the ringleader—the man who allegedly wanted Ted Kennedy dead—was none other than Anton LaVey.