BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An angry letter and a bag of Golden Flake chips were taped inside Major Bashinsky's abandoned car when it was found near downtown Birmingham.
Days later the snack food heir's body was fished out of a public golf course pond a few miles away, and now police are trying to find out if the chips that made his family wealthy had anything to do with his death.
Bashinsky's father and grandfather founded Golden Flake, a brand that has been sold across the South for generations and was a fixture on Alabama coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant's TV show.
Police were counting on a coroner's report, expected sometime this week, to determine whether someone killed Bashinsky or he took his own life. He had last been seen leaving work two weeks ago; his adult daughter found his car March 7 and golfers found his body Monday.
"That's the big question at this point, whether it was a homicide or a suicide," Mountain Brook Police Chief Johnny Stanley said Wednesday.
The letter found in Bashinsky's Toyota Camry criticized members of his family for taking dividends out of Golden Flake, claiming it put the Birmingham-based company's more than 800 workers at risk, Stanley said.
He said other members of Bashinsky's family have received similar letters, but added that it's unclear whether the one in the car — and the bag of chips — are important to the case. Bashinsky, 63, wasn't involved in the company's operations — he was an attorney who handled tax, estate and financial planning issues.
"It had been taped inside the car where it would be seen. We don't know if it was misdirection or what," Stanley said.
The body bore signs of an injury, Stanley said, but he wouldn't elaborate. A search of the pond turned up evidence — reportedly the man's wallet — although police wouldn't elaborate on what was found.
The pond where Bashinsky's body was found is in a residential area. It would have been difficult for anyone to dump a body in the water without being seen.
Bashinsky's death is a "total mystery," his brother-in-law Steve Hewett said.
"We don't know of anyone who would want to do him any harm. And why would anyone who is such a devoted father to his children and husband and with no outward signs of any problems want to do anything to harm themselves?" Hewett said.
Bashinsky got a refill on his cholesterol medicine the morning before he disappeared, Hewett said.
Bashinsky's widow, Leslie Bashinsky, said it was excruciating not knowing what happened to her husband while he was missing. They have two children, ages 6 and 8, and he had two older children from a previous marriage.
"Obviously it's a huge shock to me. I would have never dreamed things would have turned out this way," Leslie Bashinsky told WBRC-TV.
Golden Flake was founded in 1946 by Major Bashinsky's grandfather and father, Leo E. Bashinsky and Sloan Y. Bashinsky.
"The Golden Flake family is saddened by the tragic news of Major Bashinsky's death and extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends," said Mark McCutcheon, President and CEO of Golden Enterprises, the parent company of Golden Flake Snack Foods, Inc.
The company's products — including potato chips, tortilla chips and 10 kinds of pork rinds — are ubiquitous on shelves in grocery and convenience stores all over in Alabama and 10 other states. Schoolchildren all over Birmingham tour the Golden Flake plant, eating warm chips right off the production line.
Sloan Bashinsky was a close friend of Bryant, the late University of Alabama football coach. Bryant's Sunday afternoon TV show during football season was sponsored by Golden Flake for years, and the coach munched its potato chips on air as he discussed the latest game.
Golden Flake remains close to Alabama's football program, and even sponsored a play about Bryant last year.
Golden Flake prospered as a regional producer, and its 2009 annual report listed net sales of $122 million. The Bashinsky family is the largest shareholder in Golden Enterprises through an investment company chaired by Joann F. Bashinsky, Major Bashinsky's stepmother.
Hewett, Major Bashinsky's brother-in-law, said Bashinsky's mother died of cancer when he was a teenager, and Joann Bashinsky inherited almost all of Sloan Bashinsky's stock in Golden Flake after his death. "Major might not even have any stock at this point," Hewett said.
The mysterious letters delivered to family members said dividends paid by Golden Flake "force us to act with urgency," without specifying what may happened.
Hewett said the letter complaining about dividends didn't make any sense.
"The family is the largest shareholder. Certainly they are entitled to dividends. The employees are the second-largest shareholder, so any dividends would be of benefit to them," he said.
Records on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission showed the company paid dividends of $734,801 for the 26-week period ending last Nov. 27, which was slightly less than the same period a year earlier.
Meanwhile, the company said in its 2009 annual report that net income rose 76 percent, Golden Flake's best results since 2002.
It's unclear what role, if any, the letters or Golden Flake's finances played in Bashinsky's death, the police chief said.
"If it turns out to be a homicide it would be a lot more significant," Stanley said. "But if it's a suicide ... we just don't know."