Was an innocent man framed for Bobby Kennedy’s murder? Much has been written about JFK’s killing, but few know the mysteries surrounding his brother’s death that have even convinced his son. As the killer is set for release, TOM LEONARD examines the case
Senator Robert F Kennedy still had the screams of a delirious crowd ringing in his ears after winning the California primary on June 5, 1968, when shortly after midnight he left the celebrations in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and made his way into the kitchens.
He’d been told it was a shortcut to the Press room and, ignoring the misgivings of his bodyguard about the security risks, he made his way through the cramped quarters, pausing to shake hands with kitchen workers.
The handsome politician was looking to follow his older brother John into the White House but, seconds later, instead followed him in falling victim to the ‘Kennedy curse’ when he, too, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian disgusted by Kennedy’s support for Israel, opened fire with a .22 calibre revolver.
Senator Robert Kennedy awaits medical assistance as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot
Kennedy was hit three times, including once in the head. Despite extensive efforts to remove bullet fragments from his brain, he died 26 hours later.
There seemed little doubt that the small, baby-faced Sirhan killed him and wounded five others — myriad witnesses saw him open fire and he confessed his guilt to police.
And yet even as Sirhan, now 77, was finally granted parole last month with the support of two of Bobby’s children — Robert Jr and Douglas — a fierce debate continues to rage as to whether Sirhan really did kill the senator.
Indeed, Robert Jr’s support for his release — a decision which must be approved by California’s governor and which was strongly opposed by his other siblings and by their mother, Ethel, who say they are ‘devastated’ — hinges on his belief that a second gunman actually killed his father.
Robert Jr’s reservations about Sirhan’s responsibility for one of America’s most notorious assassinations are shared by friends of his family and even by one of those wounded in the gunfire, Paul Schrade, a former union leader and friend of Bobby. Just as conspiracy theories continue to challenge the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting JFK five years earlier, so too have sceptics long questioned Sirhan’s conviction for killing RFK.
Police and prosecutors continue to dismiss such claims as fanciful, but that has hardly satisfied those who sniff an official cover-up.
Sirhan Sirhan (pictured), a 24-year-old Palestinian disgusted by Kennedy’s support for Israel, opened fire with a .22 calibre revolver
As with Oswald, the prima facie evidence against the Christian Palestinian was strong. Sirhan, who’d moved to the U.S. with his family aged 12 and had wanted to be a jockey, admitted his guilt in Kennedy’s assassination in a recorded confession to police four days later.
His trial heard Sirhan had watched a Kennedy speech at the Ambassador Hotel two days before the attack and had visited a shooting range for target practice shortly before the killing.
His binman testified that Sirhan had told him a month earlier he intended to shoot Kennedy. He’d made similar confessions in his journal. And he’d hung around near the Ambassador Hotel kitchens for around half an hour, asking if RFK would be coming that way, said witnesses. A jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death in 1969, although this was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972.
However, questions began to be asked almost immediately.
His defence team was criticised for not properly investigating the case before conceding Sirhan’s guilt, instead concentrating too much on persuading the jury not to impose the death penalty by arguing he had ‘diminished mental capacity’, possibly after being kicked in the head by a horse. Sirhan later said he’d only confessed to the killing at his trial because his lawyer had told him to.
His lawyer hadn’t even mentioned during the trial a post mortem report saying that Kennedy had been shot at point blank range from behind, including a fatal shot behind his ear. However, Sirhan had been standing in front of the senator and at some distance away, witnesses said.
Sirhan, now 77, was finally granted parole last month with the support of two of Bobby’s children (pictured in August)
And while Sirhan admitted shooting Kennedy, he insisted he remembered nothing of that day apart from the moment he opened fire.
He had no memory either of having written ‘RFK must die’ in notebooks at home.
Such curious haziness, together with Sirhan’s otherwise mild-mannered personality, prompted spectacular claims that he might have been the target of coercive hypnosis, brainwashed into assassinating RFK when given a certain cue.
Could that cue have been given by a mystery attractive dark-haired woman in a white polka-dot dress seen by several witnesses with Sirhan at the hotel?
When prosecutors produced a blonde woman who had been wearing a green polka-dot dress and claimed she was the mysterious woman in question, Sirhan’s lawyers failed to challenge the obvious discrepancies.
Although his defence originally chose not to argue he had been hypnotised, the theory has since gained new currency.
He was examined for many hours a decade ago by a Harvard University hypnosis expert, Professor Daniel Brown, who said Sirhan was incredibly easy to hypnotise.
Brown argued Sirhan was a real-life version of the main character in the 1962 Hollywood thriller The Manchurian Candidate, in which communists ‘hypno-programme’ an American POW to shoot a U.S. presidential candidate. Experts say CIA research has shown it’s possible to hypnotise people to become assassins.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (left) and Douglas Kennedy (right) have supported Sirhan’s recommendation for parole
Prof Brown outlined an extraordinary plot in which Sirhan had worked as a stable lad for a ranch owner with links to the Mafia and CIA.
He said that after once injuring himself falling from a horse, Sirhan was drugged and taken to a secret location for mind-control experiments like those performed by the CIA. The agency and the Mob have both been key players in conspiracy theories over JFK’s death. Sceptics of this outlandish tale say Prof Brown was taken in by Sirhan, who had read up on hypnosis and knew exactly what would sound convincing.
Leaving aside CIA mind control, there was the crucial question of how many bullets had been fired that night — and by who. Ballistics became a key battleground in the arguments over Sirhan’s guilt. Lead crime scene investigator DeWayne Wolfer had testified at the trial that a bullet taken from Kennedy’s body and bullets from two wounded victims all matched Sirhan’s gun.
But other experts who examined the three bullets said that they had markings from different guns and different manufacturers.
An internal police document emerged that concluded that ‘Kennedy and Weisel [a TV producer who was wounded] bullets not fired from same gun’ and ‘Kennedy bullet not fired from Sirhan’s revolver’.
In 1975, an LA judge called on a panel of seven forensic experts to examine the three bullets and re-fire Sirhan’s gun. The panel were unable to match the three bullets with Sirhan’s gun and, criticising the original police forensic examination, called for further investigation.
RFK was shot in Los Angeles after giving a victory speech following his win in the South Dakota and California 1968 Democratic presidential primaries (Pictured: Ethel, left, RFK, right)
Another question mark hung over exactly how many bullets had been fired. Witnesses said bullet holes were found in door frames in the hotel’s kitchen area, but the three bullets that hit Kennedy and the five that wounded others would have accounted for all eight rounds in Sirhan’s revolver.
Given he hadn’t had time to reload before two bystanders forced him down on to a metal countertop and shook the gun out of his hand, that suggested there had been a second gun. Police countered that the holes in the door frames hadn’t been made by bullets but the evidence had been destroyed after the trial.
Some have even talked darkly of a police cover-up, a theory that received a boost in 1988 when — after years of resisting calls to release their files on the case — investigators and prosecutors finally offered up a huge amount of new material.
It included an audiotape made in the hotel ballroom by a Polish journalist who had left the tape running after Kennedy left the victory celebrations. An audio engineer said it revealed there had not only been around 13 rather than eight gun shots, but that they had been fired from different directions and from different guns.
It’s worth noting that others disagree with that analysis, insisting there really were only ever eight shots and arguing that Kennedy almost certainly would have turned to protect himself after Sirhan rushed towards him, (shouting ‘You son of a b****, Kennedy’ according to some witnesses), thereby allowing the gunman to shoot him in the back of his head.
Those who have questioned the official view that Sirhan was the lone gunman found an important ally in Paul Schrade, the union leader who had accompanied Kennedy from the ballroom and who was hit by a bullet just above his forehead, although it miraculously bounced off his skull.
Mr Schrade believed that Sirhan had fired the bullets that wounded him and four others but he has been convinced for decades that he didn’t fire the one that killed Bobby.
Robert Kennedy was walking through the kitchen of the hotel stopping to speak with supporters when he was shot, June 1968
Now 96, Mr Schrade told a parole board hearing five years ago there was ‘clear evidence’ that a second gunman shot Kennedy. He insists investigators knew there was a second gunman but wanted to wrap up the case quickly so never pursued him.
Fellow witness Nina Rhodes-Hughes, a Kennedy campaign fundraiser who was there, has also fuelled the ‘second gunman’ theory, telling CNN in 2012: ‘What has to come out is that there was another shooter to my right.’ Most importantly, Mr Schrade passed his views on to Robert Kennedy Jr who swung around to the same view after visiting Sirhan in prison in 2018.
‘I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence,’ Mr Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the oldest of RFK’s 11 children, told the Washington Post in 2018.
‘I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country.
‘I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.’
So who was the second gunman? The finger has been pointed at Thane Eugene Cesar, an armed private security guard who was standing behind Kennedy when he was shot. Cesar, who died in 2019, admitted he drew his gun but insisted he never fired it, although he gave conflicting accounts over the years.
It’s been claimed that Cesar had extreme Right-wing views and hated the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy Jr is among those who believes Cesar killed his father, releasing a statement as soon as he died claiming the guard had ‘grabbed my father by the elbow and guided him toward Sirhan’. When Kennedy recoiled after Sirhan started shooting, he fell back straight on to the drawn weapon of Cesar, said the senator’s son.
So, hypnotised fall guy for a sinister CIA plot or just further proof of America’s hopeless addiction to conspiracy theories?
Whether Sirhan Sirhan is finally released or not, the battle over his place in American history seems certain to continue.
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