New files reveal how the iconic broadcaster authorized Feds to do whatever they “felt necessary” following unhinged phone calls in the late 80s
In the early afternoon of January 14, 1988, Larry King was enjoying lunch at the Duke Zeibert’s restaurant in Washington, DC, famed hangout for everyone from presidents to prized quarterbacks. Across town at CNN’s DC building, where ‘Larry King Live’ was sometimes beamed out to millions of viewers, a producer had just received warning of an emergency at the host’s Arlington, Virginia residence. He would be calling home right away.
His secretary sent him a stark message: “Tell Mr. King he better get in touch with me because he’s interfering with someone in my life.”
“I am not going to leave my name, Mr. King better get in touch with me before 2:00 or else something serious is going to happen to him.”
Later, the spooked secretary recounted how an unknown male called and made it sound. “upset and irritated.” He left a return number, and likely made two further hang-up calls to the celebrity’s answering service. Clock ticking, back at Zeibert’s King wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Before time expired, he quickly dialed the number.
“Hello, this is Larry King and I’m returning your call.”
He was either anxious for answers, or assertive when under pressure. “speak up”Over the din of the restaurant. Larry said he was. He then turned neurotic, accusing him of having a relationship with his wife.
“You are seeing her tonight, I know you are seeing her tonight. You are having dinner with her tonight.”
With a condition, the threat was made clear. There would be troubles if any of these rendezvous were to take place.
Right now, the FBI takes to the stage
These disquieting conversations are outlined in FBI documents on King recently obtained by the Black Vault, and analyzed by RT investigative unit The Detail. While some files were apparently destroyed and others are missing, the remaining papers lay out the extortion threat and the Bureau’s response in grave detail.
The FBI’s Alexandria division conducted initial inquiries over two days and they were promptly sent to Los Angeles and DC. He was scheduled to fly to LA in order to tape his radio program and to attend the ACE Awards with an unknown individual. Noticing the severity of the situation memos were even sent to William S. Sessions Bureau director.
On January 14, mere hours after the threatening exchange, FBI operatives arrived at King’s residence in Arlington, Virginia. Manager Timing stamped the first call to Nash Street condo complex at 1:10 p.m. Concerning the mystery lady, the media celebrity denied that they had made plans, but he left the building for the evening. He also promised not to use his secretarial services or answer his phones.
King gave permission for the installation of trap-and-trace and recording equipment on his cellphone. He also gave permission for the agents to use his equipment, according to files. “the FBI felt necessary and deemed appropriate to utilise.” The Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) from the Eastern District of Virginia, who was overseeing the case, suggested to King that he telephone the unhinged caller in a sting operation.
They saw “no problem with entrapment and only requested that King be advised not to be intimidating or aggravating.”
Larry did the undercover work.
Flashback December 1964
According to files, King was in contact with the Bureau from December 1964 when he dialed long distance radio station WIOD, Miami asking whether J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious founder of the FBI, wanted to call the former President Lyndon B. Johnson. He also asked Vice President-elect Hubert Humphrey about joining him and sending congratulatory Telegrams to Richard E. Gerstein, the newly elected state attorney for Dade County.
King participated in Gerstein’s luncheon at Dupont Plaza Hotel, Miami with around 1,000 people. Hoover denied.
While Gerstein had been “generally cooperative with the Miami office,” the FBI believed he’d buddied up with “hoodlum elements in both Florida and Havana,”There would not be back-patting. The FBI and the president are not on the same page.
It wasn’t just America’s domestic spying agency that had a keen interest in Larry King, either. Declassified documents from the CIA detail how it closely monitored the content of his various shows via its Public Affairs division, particularly towards the end of the Cold War.
Any intelligence or national security figure that King interviewed, or any high-profile geopolitical subject matter explored, was at least the subject of a transcript or memo – including guests such as former CIA Directors Admiral Stansfield Turner and William Colby, and journalists Jack Anderson, Claire Sterling, and Vladimir Pozner.
King’s relationship was close enough to attend another elite luncheon at The Palm with then-Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, on February 10 1986. The heavily redacted diary for the director puts them alongside lawyer and former Treasurer of the DNC Edward Bennett Williams, and the self-styled ‘world’s best negotiator’, Herb Cohen – all organized by the director of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission, Stan Sporkin.
Flash forward to January 15, 1988
In his second interview with the FBI, King told the attendant G-men he didn’t know the caller, but he admitted that he met the “very nice” woman two years prior at one of his broadcasts and still had what he believed to be her phone number. He described her as only a “casual acquaintance.”
However, she did send him a letter the day of the threat. It was a strange note wishing him all the best after his recent heart surgery. Larry King called the suspect using a Californian phone line, his equipment set up and being monitored by Alexandria FBI agents, at approximately 10.30 am.
After several unsuccessful attempts, which he attributed to West Coast’s time difference, the suspect began talking. He finally got the truth out of the suspect. This wasn’t a well-planned scheme for money, the man hadn’t put out some kind of revenge hit, and there was nothing to suggest that he and the woman were in cahoots as part of an elaborate conspiracy.
Caller, whose identity is not revealed, admitted shamefully that he was only a mere “crackpot, not a violent individual” and he’d never harm anyone.
This file details his life. “distraught over his failed relationship,”He believed his lover had abandoned him to be the face of CNN. He was “Get drunk, angry” when he left the message and now “realized that he did many things he should not have done.”
Not much from King’s side of the conversation is disclosed, but the broken bumbler had no chance against the legendary interviewing skills of both a decades-long broadcaster and the FBI.
With that, the AUSA advised that the man hadn’t committed a federal violation, and it was decided that the FBI in Irvine, California, would pursue a closing interview to “strongly admonish his actions.”
In a transcript dated January 18 1988, a pair of special agents attempted this, though things didn’t quite go to plan. Indignant at the intrusion, the recalcitrant caller said he needn’t answer to the FBI and ordered them to leave. No further action was taken by the agents after they agreed to do so.
As far as Larry King’s accused lover, she was eventually traced to another address in California and described the man who had made the calls as a harmless alcoholic. Although she did confirm that she knew the talk-show host, the agent didn’t press her for more details about their relationship.
King, who was divorced from his fifth wife when the incident took place, continued to be one of the most respected hosts on US television. He hosted his CNN staple show until 2010 and had an unparalleled variety of guests including Bill Gates, dueling politicians, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He passed away January 23, 2021, aged 87, from sepsis, while still hospitalized with complications from Covid-19.
In the age of Twitter spats and online stalkers, it’s hard to remember a time when celebrities faced their haters via such a personal medium as a phone call. However, the tale from Larry King’s FBI files is a cautionary one.
If you’re going to get drunk and babble jealously at someone’s suspected new lover, make sure they’re not such a prominent figure – especially not a prominent figure that has the full-frontal force of the FBI on his side.