In the 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation futilely expended significant resources to block the landmark porn film Deep Throat from being shown. The name, of course, would become even more famous for its later involvement in the Watergate cover-up. As part of the feds’ sweeping probe, it turns out, the feds interviewed sports car legend and flea market mogul Preston Henn, according to newly-released files obtained by Jalopnik.
Back in May, after Henn passed away at 86, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI for any files it might have on the eccentric driver. We do this often when people die. Back in the day, the FBI had files on tons of people, from John Dillinger to Prince and everyone in between.
Henn’s history as a drive-in theater and flea market owner is common knowledge, as my colleague Stef Schrader recalled in her wonderfully-written obituary. A raucous man with an upstart career, he parlayed that money to become one of American racing’s most unique characters.
But admittedly, when I first glanced at some of the memos produced by the FBI in its 46-page file, I was taken aback. Turns out the feds looked into him for Deep Throat getting shown at one of his movie theaters.
Here’s one example:
The FBI has a long history of running wasting money on terribly egregious investigations. Still, the thought of sending agents out to find who distributed porn seemed absurd. I imagined Henn laughed his ass off at the interviews, at least to himself. The FBI sent you here? For porn? What the hell is wrong with you?
But the FBI is the FBI, and it absolutely tried to stop the distribution of Deep Throat.
The 1972 film represented a landmark moment for pornography, thanks to its relatively high production values combined with extreme explicitness. It was also subject to various obscenity cases and investigations, which is why the FBI was involved.
Existence of a rampant, desperate effort by the FBI to block Deep Throat from being shown emerged back in 2009, after the agency released portions of a file it had on the film’s director, Gerard Damiano. (The case even reached the FBI’s second-in-command at the time, W. Mark Felt, the key informant that helped expose the Watergate scandal who also took his “Deep Throat” alias from the film.)
Damiano’s file was released in response to a FOIA request from the Associated Press. It revealed an absurd escapade that involved FBI agents who seized copies of the film, had negatives analyzed in labs (his file actually contains stills from the movie), and interviewed actors and messengers who delivered films to theaters, the AP reported at the time.
The file includes memos between the FBI’s top men — L. Patrick Gray, William Ruckelshaus and Clarence Kelley, successive heads of the agency after J. Edgar Hoover — and field offices so widespread, it seemed nearly all of the country’s biggest cities were involved.
While much of the probe centered in New York, where many involved in the film lived, and Miami, where it was largely shot, agents from Honolulu to Detroit were involved.
Aside from investigative records tracking subpoenas, interviews, screenings and shipments of the film, the Damiano file includes various FBI agents’ play-by-play accounts of the movie’s plot, and the specific role of Damiano in the agency’s investigation.
A quick read of Damiano’s file suggests the investigation ran several years, throughout the 1970s. As The Guardian put it, the FBI’s “vain” attempt at blocking the film’s distribution was an attempt to “curb the spread of permissive thinking in the US, according to newly-released files.”
So how does Henn factor in?
The earliest mention in Henn’s file comes in a memo—dated Feb. 11, 1974— in which an agent recounts the trip of an FBI source to the Adult Film Association of America’s 6th annual convention, held the month prior in San Diego.
After checking into a Sheraton hotel, the source reported, he met up with Henn, who arrived at the convention early Sunday that week. Henn expained that he controlled multiple drive-in theaters, including three in Florida that he had to “take back” for unexplained reasons. The interview, it seems, wasn’t too helpful for the FBI’s fruitless task.
“Henn didn’t arrive until early Sunday morning and attended only the Monday morning business section,” the agency’s source reported, “but otherwise talked to no distributor present at the convention. Most of his time was spent in the bar—drinking. He left Tuesday morning, with ski equipment, to ‘do some skiing in Las Vegas.’ He said his ‘distributor,’ [redacted] and a man named [redacted] were in Las Vegas.”
Two months later, the FBI ran a credit check on Henn and pulled his criminal record in Florida. In 1968, Henn had been arrested by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and charged for possession of lewd and obscene films. No disposition was recorded.
By the looks of it, the FBI was trying to size up Henn to see if he would be open to an official interview.
In a memo dated June 27, 1974, an FBI special agent wrote that they were looking into Henn’s “involvement in ITOM matters.” ITOM was the FBI’s acronym for “Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matters.”
The memo goes on to say the agent’s trying to “ascertain whether it is felt subject would be amenable to interview the FBI regarding his knowledge of ITOM matters in Broward County.”
A month later, the agency had an answer: Henn wasn’t interested.
In a July 1974 memo, an agent wrote:
Regarding PRESTON HENN, [redacted] it is not believed that he would be cooperative with the FBI, although he would undoubtedly courteously receive contacting agents.
The FBI kept digging into Henn, but came up short on his involvement in distributing so-called “obscene materials.” A September 1974 memo describes how numerous law enforcement agencies had been contacted over Henn, but nothing indicated “involvement in ITOM matters.”
“[redcated] indicated that Henn has been uncooperative to law enforcement agencies during previous contacts,” the memo stated.
There’s no explicit mention of the mob in an October 1974 memo. But the threats of violence are certainly interesting to read, when viewed through the authorities’ long-running theory. [Henn’s relation to this situation isn’t immediately clear. But his name pops up later in a mob-related memo from the 1980s. More on that in a minute.]
In a heavily-redacted section of the October 1974 memo, there appears to be a reference between a “porno operator” and someone that person “makes no secret of the fact that he is afraid to talk about any contacts he has had with [redacted].”
“The only known direct contact between them occurred about late July, 1973 when [redacted] brown a person believed to be [redacted] office and ordered [redacted] not to show the film ‘Deep Throat’ in Broward or Palm Beach Counties,” the memo stated.
That same month, an incident went down at Harold’s Theater, which was apparently showing a counterfeit print of Deep Throat at the time.
[redacted] was reported to have forced [redacted] at gunpoint to take the counterfeit print of “Deep Throat” off the film projector and to take down an advertising sign on the outside of the theatre. [redacted] threatened to come back and kill [redacted] if he again exhibited “Deep Throat.”
The FBI’s source reported that counterfeit print was sold to a sex film distributor based in Palm Beach County for $1,500, and was later seized by the Miami Police Department during an August 1974 raid.
That November, the FBI again considered whether or not to interview Henn, but after learning that an agent had already spoken to him the previous year regarding a particular film theater, the agency concluded again that “it is not felt interview of HENN would be productive.”
Henn actually called the agency back several months later, in the spring of 1975, but the phone conversation was innocuous.
Mr. HENN advised that he is familiar with the movies, “Devil and Miss Jones” and “Deep Throat”, but that neither of these movies were shown at the Playboy Theater in Lake Worth nor at the Highway Drive-in Dania. He did advise that he believes the movie “Deep Throat” was shown at the Monroe Theater [which Henn operated] at one time but he had no details concerning this.
After a year of poking around, the FBI eventually concluded that it had nothing on Henn. In a memo dated May 13, 1975, a special agent wrote:
As reflected [in previous documents], the subject was interviewed in connection with another ITOM matter and furnished general known specific information concerning ITOM activities and personalities in the Fort Lauderdale area, however, with regard to his own activities was evasive and obviously uncooperative.
With no evidence to indicate Henn was “in violation of the Federal ITOM statute,” his case was recommended to be closed.
Toward the end of Henn’s file, there’s a memo from 1983 that mentions the existence of an informal group comprised of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies called the Organized Crime Intelligence Unit.
The document mentions investigations being conducted under the the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO—a law that was used to target the mafia over time.
According to the memo, the OCIU held a meeting on June 1, 1983 meeting, where discussion of a meeting with the Gambino crime family came up. A suspect observed by the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department had “participated in a meeting of the leadership of the Gaminbo Family, held in Pompano Beach, Florida.
And then a deputy from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office phoned into the meeting to mention that three individuals are under investigation for possible RICO violations.
The names of two of the individuals—one from Sunrise, Florida; another from Pompano Beach—are redacted, but there’s a third:
Preston Henn, not further described, who allegedly owns the Swap Shops throughout South Florida.
Henn faced a couple criminal charges in Florida filed against him from the 1970s (a burglary charge that ended with probation) into the 2000s (battery, after getting into a fight with a sheriff’s deputy). But it’s not clear what came of the RICO investigation. The only federal cases that involve Henn, currently listed in the PACER federal court database, pertain to civil lawsuits filed in recent years.
But it’s remarkable to think that, in 1983, as Henn finished tenth overall in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he was also being investigated for racketeering. It makes for another incredible facet to Henn’s already-eccentric life—which, again, I’ll point you to Stef’s obituary from back in May for more on that.
As for the FBI’s investigation into Deep Throat, it capped a weird era of the past when the federal government intervened to block the distribution of what it deemed “obscene.” Its effort to inhibit the film’s distribution was undeniably in vain; Deep Throat’s perhaps the most widely known pornographic film to ever reach a mainstream audience. Produced reportedly for as little as $25,000, it eventually netted hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
Well done, FBI.
If you’re interested, you can read through Henn’s entire FBI file below.