FBI files: Investigation launched in '74 after Col. Harland Sanders received death threat

KFC founder got a menacing letter in 1973, but case never solved

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2011 

At the request of a federal prosecutor, the FBI in 1974 investigated an odd letter sent to the Shelbyville home of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders, according to documents released by the agency.

The hand-written letter, addressed to "Col. and Mrs. Sanders," said: "This is to inform you that you are in grave danger of being murdered. For details go to any recruiting station and call the Los Angeles Nike Missile Base."

It was signed by "The General."

The letter is among the documents contained in "The Vault," an updated online resource of FBI records that have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Vault contains searchable dossiers on Chicago gangster Al Capone, movie star Marilyn Monroe and the 9/11 hijackers, among others.

FBI spokesman Jason Pack said Wednesday in an email the Sanders documents had previously been requested through the Freedom of Information Act. But he said the Sanders file appears to be among those "newly posted publicly on The Vault."

Sanders received "millions of fan letters during his lifetime," KFC Public Relations Manager Rick Maynard wrote in an email Wednesday.

"While it was prudent for the Colonel to take this single threat seriously, we have no reason to believe the anonymous letter was anything more than a prank," Maynard said.

Sanders was a pioneer in the restaurant-franchising industry and held a U.S. patent for inventing a refined process of frying chicken quickly and evenly in a pressure cooker. His "11 herbs and spices" recipe was reformulated after he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken to John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack Massey for $2 million in 1964.

The FBI report refers to Sanders as "the trademark for Kentucky Fried Chicken and an internationally well-known figure."

The letter to Sanders was written on the letterhead of United Paper & Press, and was postmarked Dec. 5, 1973 in California, but wasn't reported to the FBI until February 1974. Someone at KFC informed the FBI about the letter, but the informant's name has been blacked out, according to FBI documents.

At the time that the letter was delivered to his Shelbyville home, Sanders had been in Canada on a promotional tour and his mail had been left unattended for about 10 days, but that doesn't explain why the letter wasn't reported sooner.

In any case, Sanders told the FBI he had recently been in Los Angeles for a dinner for City of Hope, a world-renowned cancer and medical research center, held at the Beverly Hilton hotel. However, he told the FBI "no incidents occurred during his stay in Los Angeles or in the recent past which would prompt someone to write him in a threatening manner," according to an FBI report dated March 2, 1974.

The FBI report says the letter did not appear to violate the federal extortion statute. But George J. Long Jr., who was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky from 1970 to 1977, requested an investigation "in view of the victim's extensive travels and international reputation."

The FBI report says Sanders "was advised the FBI could not afford him protection."

If anything came of the investigation, it isn't reflected in the documents that were released. Sanders died in 1980 at age 90.

The released documents also include a 1970 letter from Sanders to then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in which the Colonel invited Hoover to come to Kentucky to celebrate Sanders' 80th birthday. To commemorate the occasion, KFC threw a gala party for Sanders at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, which coincided with the company's opening of a new international headquarters.

"It's not very often that people of our age can get together and celebrate, but I've found a good excuse," Sanders wrote in an Aug. 25, 1970 letter. "On September 16th, I'm going to be 80 years old." (His birthday was actually Sept. 9.)

Sanders wrote to Hoover, "To help me enjoy the day, I'd like to have you and a group of us old folk come on down to Louisville as my guests. I do believe that us folk can show those young people what celebratin's all about."

Sanders went on to write that he would arrange transportation and hotel reservations. He concluded, "Hopin' to hear from you all soon, I remain, Colonel Harland Sanders."

Hoover apparently declined the invitation by a card, according to handwritten notation in the file.

Maynard, the KFC spokesman, said "Although the Colonel certainly had friends in high places, there is nothing in our historical files to indicate that Mr. Hoover attended the Colonel's 80th birthday party."

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