The Robert Kennedy Assassination
Robert F. Kennedy with Cesar Chavez
- Candidate Robert F. Kennedy to aide Fred Dutton, April 11, 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy, who had made many enemies during his time on the Washington scene, was well aware of the dangers he faced in trying to reclaim the Presidency lost in 1963 when his brother was killed in Dallas. Fate befell him just after midnight on June 5, 1968, moments after declaring victory in the California Democratic primary. Escorted through a kitchen pantry in the Ambassador Hotel, RFK was assailed by Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan firing a .22 pistol. Kennedy was shot multiple times, and five others were wounded by gunfire. While bodyguards and others wrestled with Sirhan, who continued to shoot wildly, Kennedy collapsed in a pool of blood. He died the following day.
In the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the evidence tying the alleged assassins to the case was circumstantial and almost too neat. But here, Sirhan was apprehended on the scene firing a gun within a couple of feet of Kennedy. An open-and-shut case? Ironically, the RFK assassination has the starkest physical and eyewitness evidence indicating a conspiracy involving Sirhan and at least one additional gunman.
Who was Sirhan Sirhan?
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan
An early indication that there might be more than meets the eye in this case came with the discovery of Sirhan's diaries. Page after page featured repetitive writing, with such phrases as "RFK must die" and "Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated" occurring over and over, coupled with such curious phrases as "pay to the order of" and "my determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more the [sic] more of an unshakable obsession." An entry from May 18 noted that "Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before 5 June 68."
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born in Jerusalem in 1944, and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 12. He had been employed exercising horses at the Santa Anita racetrack until an accident in 1966. He was obsessed with mystical powers, apparently believing that he was learning to control events with his mind, and fascinated with hypnosis. Psychiatrists determined that he was highly susceptible to hypnosis, and may have produced his strange writings while in a trance.
Sirhan has continually maintained that he has no memory of writing in his notebook, nor of the events that night at the Ambassador Hotel. This has led many to believe that he may have been a real "Manchurian Candidate," programmed to shoot RFK and then fail to recall who put him up to it.
The Polka-Dotted Dress Girl
Sirhan was seen in the hotel - including in the pantry itself - in the company of a girl wearing a polka-dotted dress. The girl and another male companion were seen running from the pantry after the shooting. RFK campaign worker Sandy Serrano, taking a break out on a balcony, saw them run from the hotel, the woman gleefully shouting "We shot him. We shot him." When Serrano asked who they meant, the girl replied "Senator Kennedy."
Unbelievable as this sounds, their behavior was corroborated by LAPD officer Paul Sharaga, who was told the same thing by an elderly couple in the parking lot behind the hotel. Sharaga was the source of an All Points Bulletin (APB) on the suspects. The girl was described consistently by most of the witnesses: dirty blond hair, well-built, with a crooked or "funny" nose, wearing a white dress with blue or black polka-dots.
There were many other witnesses to the polka-dotted dress girl, in the hotel and in the company of Sirhan in the weeks prior to the assassination.
A Second Gun
There was other eyewitness testimony of a second shooter. Dr. Marcus McBoom saw a man with a partially-concealed pistol in his hand, running from the pantry. Don Schulman reported seeing a security guard at Kennedy's side pull out his gun during the attack.
LAPD officers measuring
apparent bullet hole in doorframe,
with closeup from photo
These accounts and others take on added significance in light of the Robert Kennedy's autopsy report. Coroner Thomas Naguchi determined that RFK had been shot three times, all from the rear at a steep upward angle, with powder burns indicating that the fatal shot was fired at point blank range, 1 or 2 inches away. But no witness put Sirhan near enough, or behind Kennedy; eyewitness accounts consistently placed him firing at RFK from the front, and not closer than a few feet away.
Sirhan's Iverson .22 revolver held a maximum of 8 bullets. Two bullets were removed from RFK, and five from other victims. One of the three bullets to strike RFK grazed him and was determined by LAPD to have gone into the ceiling, though it was never recovered. That accounts for all 8, even conceding the LAPD's reconstruction which explained away bullet holes found in ceiling tiles, by positing that one of the bullets had ricocheted back down and struck victims (causing two ceiling holes in the process).
What is not accounted for are bullet holes in the doorframe where RFK's party had entered the pantry. Photographs taken by the FBI, LAPD, and AP show apparent bullet holes, which have been circled and initialed. Some pictures show police officers pointing at them; one AP photo is labeled "Bullet found near Kennedy shooting scene." Two police officers depicted in the photos told author Vincent Bugliosi that they had observed an actual bullet embedded in the wood of the center door frame. Hotel waiter Martin Patrusky said that police officers told him that they had dug two bullets out of the center divider. FBI agent William Bailey, in the pantry within hours of the shooting, said he could see the base of the bullet in the center divider. Other confirmation comes from photographers and even the carpenter who assisted in removal of the door frame for police evidence.
In 2004, a tape recording which featured the gunfire in the pantry surfaced. Made by Polish freelance journalist Stanislaw Pruszynski, the tape was analyzed by a team led by Philip Van Praag, who announced that the tape revealed thirteen shots fired in the space of five seconds. Sirhan's gun held eight bullets. As in the JFK acoustics evidence, this finding is the subject of debate.
Special Unit Senator
What did the LAPD do with all this evidence of conspiracy, and more not mentioned here? The files of their investigation, released twenty years after the assassination, show that the evidence was ignored, and in some cases actively countered. The LAPD set up a Special Unit Senator (SUS) group to handle the investigation, and the tactics of some of its members have been called into question. Enrique Hernandez, who conducted polygraph exams for SUS, was among the most aggressive.
Sandy Serrano, one of the prime witnesses to the girl in the polka-dotted dress and a male companion, was browbeaten by Hernandez into retracting her story. The following exchange is typical of the treatment given Serrano in lengthy interview sessions:
Hernandez: "I think you owe it to Senator Kennedy, the late Senator Kennedy, to come forth, to be a woman about this. If he, and you don't know and I don't know whether he's a witness right now in this room watching what we're doing in here. Don't shame his death by keeping this thing up. I have compassion for you. I want to know why. I want to know why you did what you did. This is a very serious thing."
Serrano: "I seen those people!"
Hernandez: "No, no, no, no, Sandy. Remember what I told you about that: you can't say you saw something when you didn't see it..."
Eventually Serrano went along with the LAPD. And once she had retracted her story, the "fact" that Serrano had made up the story was apparently used to discredit other corroborating witnesses, who generally didn't know that their story was being repeated by others. The pattern of isolation and even intimidation recurs repeatedly in the transcripts and tapes of interviews, many of whom retracted statements under pressure. In other cases, the interviews in the record do not contain information that the witness has later stated he or she told the police, and it is not always clear where the truth lies. Some evidence was simply ignored - or lost. This missing evidence included the memo of Paul Sharaga, the officer who interviewed the elderly couple who also saw a woman and man fleeing the scene of the shooting gleefully shouting "We shot him! We shot him!" Sharaga had enough presence of mind to retain the original mimeograph.
The door frames, which according to trained law enforcement officers had bullets embedded in them, were destroyed by the LAPD after Sirhan's trial. They were not admitted into evidence in that trial. Other evidence, including photographs taken in the pantry by a teenager named Scott Enyart, never saw the light of day.
The LAPD Summary Report deals with many of the witnesses to accomplices or other evidence indicating conspiracy, and dismisses them all in a variety of ways. In some cases, for example polka-dotted dress girl witness Booker Griffin, witnesses are said to have admitted making up their story, but inspection of the raw LAPD files fail to show such retractions.
The Trial of Sirhan Sirhan
But what about Sirhan's defense team? Wouldn't this evidence have to be given to his lawyers, and then come out a trial?
Several factors worked against this. First, not all evidence was shared with Sirhan's lawyers. Even the autopsy report, whose conclusion of point-blank shots from the rear would seemingly exonerate Sirhan of RFK's actual murder, was not given to the defense until they had already stipulated Sirhan's guilt. The defense early on decide to pursue a "diminished capacity" defense, and the autopsy report didn't change that strategy.
It is important to understand the motivations of each side in the legal system's "great engine of truth." Neither side had anything to gain by bringing in evidence of conspiracy. For the prosecution, it would simply muddle what otherwise seemed a simple case. And for the defense, conspiracy implies pre-meditation, and thus knowing guilt. Introducing evidence of accomplices would not be helpful to their client.
Sirhan Sirhan was his own worst enemy at the trial, using it as a platform for expressing anti-Semitic political views and touting the Arab cause. Whether these issues were really motivation for a shooting he claims not to remember executing remains a mystery.
The late Lawrence Teeter,
attorney for Sirhan Sirhan.
Finally, Sirhan's later attorney Lawrence Teeter uncovered evidence that Sirhan's lead trial lawyer, Grant Cooper, was compromised. Cooper was on one of the defense teams in the Friar's Club scandal case; one of the defendants in that case was none other than Johnny Roselli, who had been a prime participant in the so-called "CIA-Mafia plots" to assassinate Fidel Castro. One day grand jury papers were found on Cooper's desk at counsel table, possibly planted there, perhaps by Roselli himself. Cooper faced a potential indictment over this incident, which could be grounds for disbarment, and the matter was left pending for the duration of the Sirhan trial. Afterwards, Cooper was let off with a $1000 fine.
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. While he was on death row, California abolished the death penalty, and commuted his sentence to life in prison, where he remains. Attorney Lawrence Teeter was fighting for a retrial at the time of his own death in 2005.
Ted Charach produced a documentary entitled "The Second Gun" in 1970, and questions continued to grow around the RFK case in the early 1970s. Criminalistics professor Herbert MacDonnell had signed an affidavit in 1973 stating that a bullet removed from RFK's neck, exhibit #47, could not have been fired from Sirhan's gun. He further stated that, based on the differing number of cannelures (grooves), it could not have been fired from the same gun as exhibit #54, a bullet removed from victim William Weisel. In a 1974 public hearing, California state crime lab veteran Lowell Bradford concurred.
Paul Schrade, one of the victims (left),
and Congressman Allard Lowenstein.
Both pursued the RFK case for
In 1975, a court-appointed panel of seven ballistics experts was convened. While the headlines coming from the panel's work read "RFK Second Gun Theory Ruled Out," the reality was more subtle. Lowell Bradford, one of the panel members, said the question of a second gunman was "more open than before."
Subsequent research has uncovered serious problems with the marking of evidence bullets. Following the trail of Pasadena criminalist William Harper, researcher Rose Lynn Mangan discovered evidence of a "switch" of crime scene bullets. For example, she found that the Kennedy neck bullet (#47), which should have a "TN31" etched in its base, instead says "DWTN." There is reason to believe that even the Sirhan gun was swapped with another gun. LAPD criminologist DeWayne Wolfer had in fact introduced into evidence at Sirhan's trial the test gun, and represented it as the murder weapon, despite the different serial numbers.
It is worth noting that the 1975 panel discovered that two bullets allegedly removed from Sirhan's car contained traces of wood on both the base and the tip. Were these bullets dug out of the door frame?
Such malfeasance on the part of the LAPD may be hard to believe. But the dismissive treatment of witnesses to Sirhan's accomplices is hard to refute, despite attempts to do so.
There were pre-assassination sightings of Sirhan in the company of a woman whose description matches the polka-dotted dress girl, and these sightings indicate that they were stalking Robert Kennedy.
On May 20, night manager Albert LaBeau of Robbie's Restaurant in Pomona encountered a man with a coat thrown over his arm - in the company of young woman. The pair were aggressively trying to gain access to a lunchroom where RFK would be - climbing over a stair railing in one of multiple attempts. LaBeau picked Sirhan's photo out of a set of 25 pictures of young dark-skinned males.
Ten days later, a campaign worker named Laverne Botting was approached by a young woman and two men, trying to get a copy of Robert Kennedy's schedule. Her story was corroborated by another volunteer, Ethel Crehan.
Portion of Sirhan's May 18 diary entry
(click to enlarge)
On June 1, three days before the primary, Dean Pack was hiking with his son in the Santa Ana mountains when they came upon a young man who resembed Sirhan, shooting a pistol in the company of a girl and another man. The three were quite hostile; Pack had a "funny sensation that it would be possible for them to put a bullet in your back."
Several witnesses saw a similar-looking girl, in a polka-dotted dress, in the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the primary. Irene Gizzi saw three people, matching the trio seen by others, and noted that they didn't seem to fit in with the exuberant crowd. As noted before, the girl and another man were seen in the pantry, rushing out of it, and leaving the hotel gleefully shouting "We shot him!"
The "Walking Bible"
Another strange story in the RFK case concerns Jerry Owen, the "Walking Bible." Owen himself went to authorities shortly after the assassination, with the story that he had happened to give Sirhan and another man a lift, and had subsequently gone to the Ambassador Hotel to collect $300 for a horse he was going to sell to Sirhan. Owen said he encountered there a blonde girl and two other men.
In the end, the LAPD determined that Owen, whose background of criminal violations included a conviction for arson in conjunction with a church building, was telling a tale. But why would he make up such a story?
Authors Bill Turner and Jonn Christian researched the Owen story and interviewed Bill Powers, a cowboy who ran Wild Bill's Stables less than a mile from where Owen lived. Powers told them that Owen had told him, before the assassination, about a horse trainer named Sirhan. Powers also said that had seen Sirhan in the back seat of Owen's car during a visit where Owen flashed large bills to pay off a pickup truck Powers had sold him.
If Owen knew Sirhan, was his story a pre-emptive cover story for meeting up at the Ambassador Hotel, possibly to supply a getaway vehicle?
Sirhan is still serving out a life sentence in a California prison. Following the 9/11 attacks, he was for years held in solitary confinement. On occasions when he is up for parole, his case is always denied for lack of remorse (Sirhan claims no memory of the crime).
His 2016 parole hearing was unique, in that 91-year-old RFK aide and pantry shooting victim Paul Schrade attended. Schrade, who was behind RFK, believes that Sirhan shot him, but did not shoot Kennedy. At the hearing, he apologized to Sirhan, saying "I should have been here long ago and that's why I feel guilty for not being here to help you and to help me."
Schrade spoke at the hearing about the case for a second gunman. When the commissioner at one point interjected "Quite frankly, you're losing us," Schrade shot back "I think you've been lost for a long time."
Schrade has been joined in 2018 in his belief that RFK's murder remains unsolved by no less than Robert Kennedy Jr., Kennedy's son, as reported in the Washington Post.
Who Killed RFK?
Sirhan Sirhan was in the pantry firing a gun that night at Robert Kennedy, with intent to kill. But the autopsy report, coupled with dozens of eyewitnesses to the scene, cast grave doubt on the otherwise obvious conclusion that Sirhan actually fired the shots that hit RFK. Furthermore, the evidence is strong that Sirhan was stalking Kennedy in the company of a young blond girl and another male companion.
Many researchers have cast suspicion on Thane Eugene Cesar, a security guard with right-wing views on race who was escorting Kennedy by the arm through the pantry. Cesar was seen drawing his gun and possibly firing it, and told false stories about a .22 he owned (that he had sold it before the assassination, rather than after). But at least one witness claimed to see a different gunman to the rear of Kennedy firing the fatal shots.
The girl in the polka-dotted dress was never found - the LAPD insisted that campaign worker Valerie Schulte was the girl seen by some, despite differences in her appearance and clothing. There was another man, Michael Wayne, who was seen running from the pantry and subsequently tackled and taken away for questioning. Wayne had similarity in appearance to one of the individuals reported to have been seen in the company of Sirhan, and more intriguingly he had in his possession the business card of radical Minuteman Keith Duane Gilbert.
John and Robert Kennedy
Sirhan may be lying when he claims to have no memory of the assassination. Journalist Robert Kaiser, who worked with Sirhan extensively as part of the defense team, caught him in several lies and presents in his book R.F.K. Must Die! a nuanced treatment of Sirhan as having multiple sides: at different times clever and evasive, mystical, ingratiating, studious, and schizophrenic. Sirhan may be lying about his lack of memory; it is also at least possible that he and his accomplices did stalk RFK, but that the highly suggestible Sirhan had been hypnotically programmed to block memory of the shooting and his associates.
Who were the accomplices? The LAPD decided not to try to find out. Sirhan's sometimes-stated contention that he killed Kennedy for political reasons, in particular RFK's support for Israel, doesn't hold up well under analysis. For one thing, the TV documentary he cited as provoking him was seen in L.A. on May 20, and Kennedy's speech supporting fighter jets to Israel wasn't given until the 26th. But it was earlier, on May 18, that Sirhan first wrote "RFK must die" over and over in his notebook.
Political views related to the Arab-Israeli conflict may have motivated Sirhan Sirhan. But that motivation was not necessarily that of his accomplices, whoever they were. The tenuous conspiracy leads that exist, including Jerry Owen and perhaps Michael Wayne, point toward right-wing religious extremists, but there is not enough to go on to make any definitive statement. The giddy behavior of the polka-dotted dress girl and her companion seem hardly that of professional killers. But Robert Kennedy had accumulated many powerful enemies during his career - CIA officers, organized crime bosses, Vietnam war hawks, ardent segregationists. Given the fear that Kennedy's achieving the Presidency could induce in them, it is not at all clear who the ultimate sponsors of Sirhan and his accomplices might have been.
In his fierce devotion to his older brother Jack, Robert Kennedy earned the moniker "ruthless." His ongoing battles to take down organized crime in America, his haranging of CIA officers to "do more" against Castro, and his willingness to roust executives and journalists out of bed during the 1962 Steel Crisis all contributed to that image. He was feared by many in Washington, at least until Jack took his fateful trip to Dallas in 1963. "Bobby is just another lawyer now," Teamster's president and nemesis Jimmy Hoffa was said to have remarked in the aftermath.
But the "ruthlessness" was always only one side of Bobby Kennedy, the "runt's" tough exterior shell surrounding a sensitive and compassionate core. In the years after his brother's death, he shed the outer shell. Kennedy went to South Africa and spoke against apartheid, he visited the poor in inner cities and in Appalachia, and took on the betterment of poor and disadvantaged people's lives as his cause. It is hard to imagine a starker contrast than there would have been in 1968 between RFK's campaign for social justice, and Richard Nixon's call for "law and order." But that contest was not to be.
In April of 1968, on the way to Indianapolis for a campaign event, Bobby Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been just been killed. Ignoring advice to cancel, Kennedy proceeded and addressed the crowd, telling them at "I have some very sad news for all of you.....Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis." Expressing kinship with those who felt "hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act", RFK said: "I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling," but advocated instead compassion, and went on to quote Aeschylus: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
The quote which opened this essay ("If they're going to shoot, they'll shoot") reminds us that Robert Kennedy's journey in his final years was an American version of Greek tragedy. He knew the guns were out there, yet did not veer from the path laid before him.
After his own murder in Los Angeles, Bobby Kennedy's body was put onto a funeral train in New York City, destined for Washington DC and burial in Arlington National Cemetary. For eight hours, the tracks were lined with mourners, saying goodbye to one of the few politicians in America who genuinely championed their cause.
- Rex Bradford, June 2019
People lining the tracks as RFK's funeral train passed.