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.


Fourteen years earlier, in the spring of 1966, the country was marked by unrest and experimentation. War was raging in Vietnam, flower power was blossoming at home, the Mamas and the Papas’ Southern California groove was all over the radio. It was an ideal environment for provocateurs, a fact that was not lost on LaVey, then a 36-year-old showman who claimed he’d worked in the past as an occult investigator and a performer in a traveling circus.

That April, he invented a new role for himself, shaving his head and forming the Church of Satan. LaVey organized his church around a philosophy of self-indulgence and excess—aptly mirroring the times—but still played around with devil worship motifs, vamping in a cape, and wearing a bulbous ring that he claimed could grant little children their wishes. His Jaguar even had a personalized license plate: SATAN9. “People like to have a hell of a time, don’t they?” LaVey asked during an interview around that time with Joe Pyne, a syndicated talk show host.

P.T. Barnum had a circus tent, and LaVey had the Black House, where he kept a pet lion and performed rituals. He would sometimes don a hood with two horns and surround himself with nude women in front of a fireplace that he’d converted into an altar. LaVey’s theatricality attracted the attention of some Hollywood players, like Sammy Davis Jr. and the actress Jayne Mansfield, who was rumored to have had an affair with LaVey. Black-and-white photos from that era show the two posing together campily. In one, Mansfield playfully clutches a skull while LaVey fans his cape out beside her, and in another, she prepares to drink from a chalice that he cradles in his hand.

The decade that followed proved to be a period of transition— for both LaVey and Kennedy. LaVey cut back on his public performances, and began writing books that cashed in on the pop culture fascination with films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. “He had ended what he called the ‘stuffed rat and tombstone’ news coverage which had primarily been published in men’s magazines,” explains Magus Peter Gilmore, the Church of Satan’s current high priest, in an email. “He was now granting his time to more serious discussions of his philosophy, beyond the flamboyant and spooky trappings which initially brought him attention.”

Across the country, meanwhile, Kennedy was wrestling behind the scenes with questions about his political fate. Supporters had once expected him to pick up his slain brothers’ mantle and make a bid for the White House, yet the 1972 and 1976 presidential races found Kennedy on the sidelines, immobilized by the specter of his 1969 car crash in Chappaquiddick that resulted in the death of a passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, and led to him pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

But Kennedy’s hesitancy faded by the end of the decade, and he was heartened by early polls that showed Democratic voters would favor him over Carter in a presidential primary battle. “He was running for president because he really believed President Carter was not addressing issues that were important,” says Stuart Shapiro, a former Kennedy senior staffer. “That’s why, after much soul-searching, he decided to take on a sitting president.”

Running for the country’s highest office, though, increased the odds that Kennedy could become a target for some deranged would-be assassin who might lurk, anonymous and undetected, at a busy rally. It was no idle threat. In March 1980, a tipster in Charlotte, North Carolina, contacted the police after overhearing a group of men in a movie theater bragging that they planned to assassinate Kennedy in Pittsburgh, with some stolen M-16 rifles. A campaign volunteer in Trenton, New Jersey, received a phone call from a man who vowed to gun down the senator when he visited the city in May.

Aside from blurting, “They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby,” while on a congressional flight back from Alaska, Kennedy shied away from sharing his assassination fears with aides or family members. Instead, he tried to project an air of invincibility, or at least indifference. “I remember being in Iowa, and when we’d first go out there, the Secret Service would create this huge space between him and the crowd,” Shrum tells me. “And he hated it. So he started working the rope line again.”

Privately, Kennedy sought out his physician and political adviser, Larry Horowitz, and handed him something important. “It was a letter my father had written to me at the start of his presidential campaign, in case he was assassinated,” Patrick Kennedy, his youngest son, recalled in his 2015 book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction. “In it, he talked about how much he loved me, and how I had given him so much love. He said he would never forget the times we went fishing and sailing.” Kennedy took to calling Patrick from the road every night—his way of letting his adolescent son know nothing bad had happened.

The informant who contacted the FBI in 1980 said he’d received a phone call, too, on October 20. The caller had identified himself as LaVey, the informant claimed, and disclosed that he wanted the man’s help with a plan to murder Ted Kennedy.


The FBI and the Secret Service knew two things for certain: LaVey still lived in San Francisco, and they needed to get a handle on the case—and quick.

Investigators didn’t have to contend with Twitter or Facebook, digital echo chambers that decades later would make political discourse more toxic and create ideal delivery systems for trolls to share threats. But they also had fewer tools at their disposal. “We didn’t have all of the modern vehicles of communication or detection that you have today,” says William H. Webster, who was the director of the FBI from 1978 to 1987. “Investigations involved a lot of interviews and personal contacts.”

The FBI’s San Francisco office pulled records it had on LaVey dating back to the mid-’70s, when a tipster told the bureau that LaVey had purchased handguns, a shotgun and a rifle. Other files showed that LaVey had once supposedly been “interested” in joining the National Socialist White People’s Party, which had been known, in an earlier incarnation, as the American Nazi Party.

LaVey had no arrest history, but he’d been linked to a tragedy once before. His relationship with Mansfield had reportedly ended with LaVey’s putting a curse on Sam Brody, the actress’ attorney and boyfriend, promising that he’d die in a car crash. In 1967, not long after the hex was supposedly cast, Brody and Mansfield were killed in a wreck on a highway near New Orleans. The improbable implication—that LaVey inadvertently caused Mansfield’s death—persisted long enough to fuel a 2017 documentary, Mansfield 66/67. (In truth, LaVey did not have magical powers.)

The Chicago informant—whose identity is still being kept secret by the FBI—told agents that he’d had dinner once before with LaVey, who explained to him the Church of Satan’s beliefs. When they supposedly reconnected by phone in 1980, LaVey told the man that he owed the high priest a favor. His alleged instructions were simple: In a week or so, the informant would receive a package, and he must ferry it to a mob boss on the South Side of Chicago; the mob would, in turn, take out Kennedy. After the phone call, the informant was visited by a member of the Church of Satan, whose purpose “was specifically to discuss the satanic cult and the plot against Senator Kennedy,” according to FBI records.

There was more. The informant told the FBI that LaVey was going to fly to Chicago on October 27, carrying with him eight kilograms of hashish and an unknown amount of cash. Was this another piece of the puzzle to the assassination plot? Taking no chances, the FBI, Secret Service and DEA sent agents to O’Hare International Airport to intercept flights from San Francisco and apprehend LaVey, like something out of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. But there was no sign of him at the airport. An attempt at monitoring a phone call to LaVey also failed.

The Secret Service had polygraphed the informant prior to the fruitless airport search. “Results were inconclusive,” investigators noted, “due to use of cocaine.” They pressed on. They had to find LaVey. “I was a young agent when President Kennedy was killed, and [investigated] some leads on the case,” says Francis Mullen, who had risen to executive assistant director of the FBI by 1980. “When Bobby was assassinated, I was in Los Angeles, coordinating some of the leads on that case. If a threat had come in on the third brother, we’d have to take it seriously.”

Two days after the search at O’Hare came up empty, agents flew to San Francisco, and made their way to the Black House. A woman who answered LaVey’s door told them that he was traveling, and wouldn’t be back for several days. Another whiff. The investigators warned her they had information that suggested “an attempt may be made on LaVey’s life,” according to the records. They encouraged the woman to get a hold of LaVey and urge him to make himself available for an interview.

Kennedy’s Secret Service detail was kept in the loop about the potential threat, but it’s unclear whether the senator was aware of the investigation. “I spent a lot of time with him privately, and I don’t ever recall hearing about that one,” Shapiro says. “But I can tell you there were times when the Secret Service wanted him to wear a bulletproof vest.” The informant, meanwhile, had been polygraphed again, and was facing increased scrutiny. The FBI began to notice inconsistencies in his account. Were the agencies being played?

Investigators returned to the Black House a second time, on Halloween. And this time, when the door opened, they came face-to-face with LaVey. For years, he had enjoyed toying with people’s imaginations, blurring the lines between performance and something darker. But now he was faced with no-nonsense federal agents, and they weren’t in the mood to play around.

For a man who referred to himself as the “Black Pope,” the notoriety of being linked to an FBI investigation might have been a welcome development when he was first seeking attention for his church. This older version of LaVey, though, decided to come right out with it: He had nothing to do with any assassination plot.

“LaVey advised that of any political official, he has the highest regard for Senator Kennedy and his family,” according to the FBI records. And LaVey could sympathize with the threats that Kennedy often received; he told the agents that he had been the victim of physical and verbal attacks because of his position in the Church of Satan.

LaVey checked his recent phone messages, and noticed that he’d received calls from the Chicago area on October 23 and October 27. But he told the agents that he didn’t know the identity of the caller and hadn’t tried dialing the number that had been left for him.

And then LaVey shared some surprising news with the agents: His role as the head of the church was all a charade. Most of the church’s followers, he said, were “fanatics, cultists, and weirdos,” the records show. “[H]is interest in the Church of Satan is strictly from a monetary point of view,” the agents noted, “and spends most of his time furnishing interviews, writing material, and lately has become interested in photography.”

Satisfied that Kennedy’s life wasn’t in danger, the FBI and Secret Service returned their attention to their informant. Though he was “sternly admonished” for misleading federal authorities, he was not charged with a crime. But he didn’t get off entirely. The Secret Service told the man his activities would be monitored on a quarterly basis and whenever an official who was being protected by the agency had to visit Chicago. If he had an explanation for why he bothered to send the agencies on a while goose chase in the first place, no agent bothered jotting it down.

This wasn’t the last time that LaVey popped up on the FBI’s radar, though. In the late 1980s, the bureau would investigate a spate of allegations about child sex abuse that was supposedly linked to satantic churches, including LaVey’s, fueling a so-called “Satanic Panic.” The allegations were never substantiated. “Our organization has always been above-ground about its law-abiding beliefs and practices, so wild stories are generally seen to be precisely that—not having any basis in reality,” Gilmore, the current high priest, tells me.

LaVey died in 1997, and the Black House was later torn down, replaced by a fairly generic-looking condominium.

For Kennedy, the LaVey case—such as it was—was just another bizarre subplot in a life full of them, the cost of being a Kennedy and leading a public life. No threat ever proved worrisome enough to persuade him to give up his Senate seat, which he held until his death from glioblastoma in 2009. “You either live your life or you don’t,” Shrum says. “And he decided to live his life.”