Joe Paterno believed organized gambling could be behind a series of threatening letters that the late Penn State football coach and his staff were sent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to his FBI file obtained Wednesday by The Washington Times.
“It now appears to [Paterno], the purpose of letters is to disrupt his football team,” an FBI memo said.
“[Gamblers] may be using this technique to benefit themselves in future point-spread betting involving PSU and opponents.”
The file’s 868 pages don’t mention Jerry Sandusky, though dozens of names are redacted. They also don’t mention the child sexual abuse scandal that led to the longtime assistant coach’s conviction in June on 45 of 48 counts of child sexual abuse.
Forty-four pages of Paterno’s file, spanning incidents from 1976 to 1995, weren’t released. The FBI, which didn’t indicate what period or topic the unreleased pages cover, cited exemptions concerning unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and revealing a confidential source.
The voluminous file depicts Paterno as careful, level-headed and intimately connected to the years-long investigations, down to suggesting the involvement of gamblers after the first threat arrived in October 1976.
One of the letters to a Paterno staffer in December 1977 mocked the FBI’s involvement and Paterno’s gambling theory.
“So you think I am a gambler — the only gambler is Paterno — he is gambling with your life. … I want to make him suffer. I want it to be on his concious that he was responsible for a tragic accident to you.” It was signed “Crank.”
Paterno died from complications of lung cancer on Jan. 22 after coaching Penn State’s football team from 1966 to 2011. Earlier this year, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh criticized Paterno, among others, in his report on Penn State’s response to Sandusky’s child sexual abuse. The report said it is “reasonable to conclude” that Paterno and other top Penn State officials “repeatedly concealed critical facts” relating to abuse allegations against Sandusky. The report criticized those officials for exhibiting a “striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.”
Years earlier, Paterno’s concern about the letter threats fills the FBI file.
Signed “A Very Bitter Father,” a 1976 letter told one of Paterno’s staffers: “He is responsible for me loosing my son and I plan on putting him in the same position I am — brokenhearted — because you lost someone close to you. … I am out to get Joe Paterno and I will go to all extremes to do it.” Another letter demanded that Paterno quit Penn State by Jan. 1, 1977, or face the loss of a member of his family, staff or team. A third letter, sent directly to Paterno, said his son chose Penn State because of the coach but got a “bum deal” and “lost interest in everything and went from bad to worse.” The writer said that if something happened to Paterno’s family or others, it would be like Paterno “pulled the trigger.”
The “Bitter Father” letters reference dissatisfaction over the treatment of a former Penn State student, possibly a football player, who left the university after two years. They arrived within days of a phoned threat to Three Rivers Stadium’s security office during Penn State’s game with Pittsburgh that a gun was in the stadium and Paterno would be shot on national television.
Other anonymous letters targeted a female member of Paterno’s staff. One letter, postmarked in Pittsburgh, said the female staffer’s life was “in Joe Paterno’s hands.”
“The above letters are very upsetting to Coach Paterno,” an FBI memo from Dec. 16, 1977 said.
Paterno shifted theories, according to the file, hinting at an unnamed person who he didn’t bring on staff when hired as head coach in 1966. Nothing came of the idea. Paterno asked his staff to review former Penn State football players for potential suspects. At Paterno’s direction, a now-deceased assistant, John Chuckran, provided the FBI with names of people suspected of harboring “ill feelings” toward Penn State. A national letter of intent for an ex-Penn State player was pulled to compare his handwriting with those in the letters. There wasn’t a match. One Penn State assistant coach suggested the FBI search for leads at Panucci’s Barber Shop in McKees Rocks, Pa., describing it as a clearinghouse for local sports information.
Paterno declined local police protection, according to the file, and, at one point, urged authorities to let him sit down with the person behind the letters if he was apprehended and help him. A recording device and trace were placed on Paterno’s home phone in 1977 and 1978.
An unsigned, detailed letter of apology eventually arrived from a man who blamed his wife’s death and son’s drug use and alcoholism on Paterno. That didn’t stop the threats.
In blue ink, an unsigned note to Paterno said the author would “never be satisfied until I do away with you or some member of your family” and the writer “can’t get him out of my mind, for 365 days a year for what he did to my son.” Paterno promptly turned over the letter, as with the others, to the FBI, taking care to insert it in a cellophane sleeve to preserve any fingerprints.
In November 1980, the late Penn State television play-by-play man Ray Scott received a letter asserting Paterno would be killed within three months.
The investigations were closed in 1981 without apprehending a suspect.
The file briefly details a series of bizarre phone calls Paterno received in 1994 and 1995 from a Portland, Ore., man that one FBI report described as “very delusional.” The man claimed he wanted to make Paterno “a billionaire,” hire him to coach one of his seven football franchises and educate Paterno on his “nutritional knowledge” to cure cancer and other diseases.
The calls spurred a detailed nationwide investigation by the FBI and Penn State’s Department of University Safety.
The reports concluded the caller posed no threat.