by Mel Ayton
For most Americans over 45 the images are still vivid – Robert Kennedy shaking hands with kitchen staff of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel; Kennedy lying in a pool of his own blood; Kennedy’s unofficial bodyguards and friends grabbing the young Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, as he rapidly fired off his pistol shots before he could be subdued; the prostrate bodies of the other victims, wounded by Sirhan’s obsessive intent in hitting Kennedy; the nation once again mourning the loss of another American hero dead before his time.
What Robert Kennedy might have done as president is one of history’s great-unanswered questions. His death also prompted many to ask – why was he murdered?
Although the grief over Robert Kennedy’s death has subsided over the years, the suspicious circumstances about the assassination have grown. Opinion polls over the past 35 years have shown that a majority of Americans believe his murder was part of a larger conspiracy. The list of culprits has grown as the years have passed, including organized crime, who wanted Kennedy dead because of his crack-down on the mob, the military-industrial complex, who feared he would put an end to the war in Vietnam, rogue elements of the CIA bent on revenge for the Kennedy brothers’ abandonment of the Bay of Pigs exiles during their 1961 invasion of Cuba, Western ranchers upset with his support for migrant farm workers, the KKK and the American Nazi party, upset with his support for civil rights, and a Greek shipping magnet who wanted to rid himself of his ‘nemesis’.
The issue of conspiracy began on the night when Robert Kennedy was shot and witnesses recalled seeing a girl in a polka-dot dress who cried out “We shot him.” Conspiracy advocates were also critical of the trial lawyers who failed to move the jury, the psychiatrists for their conflicting conclusions, and the Los Angeles Police for not pursuing possible links between Sirhan and organized crime, Sirhan and the right-wing, Sirhan and the left-wing, and Sirhan and the terrorist organization, Al Fatah.
Robert Blair Kaiser, the author of the first book to proclaim conspiracy, advanced two possibilities. The first, initially proposed by novelist Truman Capote, posited Sirhan had been an unwitting co-conspirator, hypnotized by others, like Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate. There was no hard evidence to support this theory. The second was that Sirhan, with his study of the occult, managed to hypnotize himself into killing Kennedy.
Several legislative and judicial panels from the early 70’s to the mid-80’s found serious problems with the original investigation. It had been carried out by the SUS (Special Unit Senator), a Los Angeles Police team of detectives and aided by FBI investigators, but not all leads were followed, not all avenues pursued. Critics presented witnesses who had allegedly observed a second gunman, and they pointed to anomalies in the ballistics evidence. The critics sufficiently established doubt about Sirhan’s guilt and a growing legion of supporters, including RFK aides, joined in the chorus of disapproval at the way the case had been investigated. The LAPD and district attorney’s office attempted to frustrate these challenges to the official version of the shooting by secrecy restrictions, bureaucratic maneuvers, silence and counterattack. The way the LAPD acted did nothing but fuel a sense of injustice that in turn eroded public trust.
There were definite disconcerting inconsistencies in testimony and evidence. A 1975 judicially appointed panel found bullet markings that were different from the markings on Sirhan’s gun. Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles coroner who autopsied Kennedy’s body, concluded with certainty that Kennedy’s mortal wound in the head was made by a shot which came from behind the senator at a point only a few inches away, point blank range. Yet witnesses said that Sirhan had been in front of Kennedy and was not closer than a few feet. These glaring inconsistencies led many to believe there had been a second gunman positioned behind Kennedy.
The principal discrepancy in the investigation turned on the number of shots fired. Sirhan’s .22 caliber revolver held eight bullets and all of these were discharged in a few moments of pandemonium. Three hit Kennedy, one fatally. The remainder struck other members of the entourage, and a couple of shots hit the ceiling, one lost in the ceiling interspace. But the photographs of the crime scene, and the recollections of some of the police officers involved in the investigation purportedly identified two more bullets lodged in the wooden frame of the pantry’s swinging doors. And if there were two more bullets than Sirhan’s pistol could possibly have fired, then another gun must have been involved – and another killer. Critics questioned why the doorframes and other physical evidence had been destroyed by the LAPD.
In 1995 investigative reporter Dan Moldea, a former conspiracy advocate, published the results of his investigation into the murder of Robert Kennedy in The Killing Of Robert Kennedy – An Investigation into Motive, Means and Opportunity (1995). Moldea pored over the mountain of evidence in the case. He studied the forensic and ballistic reports and interviewed scores of witnesses, including many of the police officers involved who had never been interviewed previously. What he found suggested a botched investigation involving the mishandling of physical evidence in the case, the failure to correctly interview some witnesses, the premature (but non-sinister) destruction of key pieces of physical evidence, and the lack of proper procedures in securing and investigating the crime scene. Moldea successfully addressed the issues of alleged bullet holes in doorframes (too small to be made by bullets) and the number of shots fired (eight, not 10 as conspiracy advocates allege).
Moldea also discovered why official re-investigations of the assassination in the 1970s were unable to positively match bullets from Sirhan’s gun with test-fired bullets. Sirhan’s gun had been damaged by “heavy leading” (barrel fouling) that compromised further tests carried out by California authorities. Although the state’s ballistics panel had guessed that the reason they could not positively match the victim’s bullets was because the gun had been repeatedly fired, it was Moldea who settled the issue by interviewing police officers who confirmed a number of firings had indeed taken place. The heavy leading, Moldea discovered, was caused by numerous test firings of Sirhan’s gun by Los Angeles Police Officers who were, in effect, souvenir hunters. “Thus, (LAPD ballistics expert DeWayne) Wolfer and only Wolfer could have positively matched the three victim bullets,” wrote Moldea, “before the leading of and permanent damage to the barrel of Sirhan’s gun. Wolfer legitimately made these matches and testified honestly. His analysis could not be confirmed by the firearms panel or anyone else, because the barrel became damaged immediately after he conducted the tests.”
For decades conspiracy theorists had posited the idea that a girl wearing a polka-dot dress had accompanied Sirhan in the hotel, and she may have been Sirhan’s “controller” or co-conspirator. The allegations arose from statements made by a Kennedy campaign supporter, Sandra Serrano, who had purportedly been sitting on an external staircase outside the Ambassador Embassy Room. Pantry eyewitness Vincent DiPierro also supported the story of a polka-dot girl. DiPierro, the son of the Ambassador’s maitre d’hotel, said he saw a “pretty girl” standing next to Sirhan seconds before the shooting. She was “wearing a polka dot dress.” DiPierro, however, later identified the girl as Valerie Schulte. Schulte had been wearing a bright green dress with yellow polka-dots, was pretty and blonde and, as DiPierro stated, had a “pug-nose.”
Although the LAPD maintained Serrano retracted her story under intense questioning, conspiracy theorists said she had been bullied into saying her story was false. Serrano had been given a polygraph test by Sgt. Hernandez on June 20, 1968. Asked if she sat down on the stairway at the time of the shooting she replied, “Yeah, I think I did…people messed me up…stupid people…just in all the commotion and everything…I was supposed to know more than I knew…I told (DA staffer John Ambrose) I heard the people say “We shot him” or “They shot him” or something. And I remember telling him that I had seen these people on the …on the stairway.” According to the LAPD Summary Report, “Polygraph examination disclosed that Serrano has never seen Sirhan in person; further, that Miss Serrano fabricated, for some unknown reason, the story about the girl in the polka dot dress. Responses to relevant questions indicate that no one made statements to Miss Serrano telling her that they had shot Kennedy or that she heard any gunshots during the late evening of June 4 or early morning of June 5, 1968. Miss Serrano was informed of the results of the polygraph examination.”
Serrano eventually admitted that her story was founded on a lot of guesswork for “…two reasons, so I didn’t look like a fool, which I look like now. Another reason, because everybody figures…you know…I was sitting there (in the police station) hearing descriptions and descriptions of these people. Oh God, no, maybe that’s what I’m supposed to see…more than I did. It messed me up, that’s all, and I figured, well, they must know what they’re doing – I mean, they are police, after all. They have to know what they’re doing.”
Additional proof that Serrano may have been lying was provided by a Fire Inspector who swore Serrano was not on the outside stairs at the Ambassador at the time she stated.
Another woman came forward to provide some answers to the polka-dot girl story that was causing alarm in news stories of the time. Twenty-three-year-old Kathy Fulmer, who fit Serrano’s description, said she had been wearing a green suit and polka-dot scarf at the victory celebration. She also ran from the hotel shouting, “He’s been shot.”
And, as Moldea pointed out, there had been considerable opportunity that night at the Ambassador for alcohol to fuel outbursts from young conservatives when they discovered their liberal enemy had been taken out of the presidential sweepstakes. During the evening friction had been developing between the thousands of liberal supporters of RFK and Sen. Alan Cranston and that of right-wing Sen. Max Rafferty supporters. An FBI report reveals how, on the night of the shooting, a group of young people had been handing out bumper stickers in the hotel lobby. They were reddish orange in color with black lettering. According to Ambassador Hotel Security Chief William F. Gardner, the leaflets referred to JFK’s death. New York reporter Jimmy Breslin believes the sticker said, “Expose The Kennedy Death Hoax.”
Moldea believes this report is crucial as it shows how anti-Kennedy activists were at the Ambassador that night and may have been the source of the gleeful cries that Serrano said she heard. Serrano may also have been witness to an innocent cry of “We (i.e., the American People) shot Kennedy”; a natural response that reflected the intense concern Americans had at that time to the growing senseless violence that had occurred in previous years.
Earlier efforts to clear up the RFK mysteries pointed to Thane Eugene Cesar as a second gunman. He was a part-time security guard who carried the only other known pistol in the pantry that night. But he was never a serious suspect. Moldea tracked him down and eventually persuaded him to take a polygraph. (Moldea said it exonerated him.) Moldea’s research was truly a tour de force clearing up the many inconsistencies in the evidence and providing sufficient answers to establish what will likely be the best understanding of what actually happened in the Ambassador kitchen pantry on the night of June 5, 1968.
Moldea also addressed the issue raised by conspiracy advocates concerning the fatal wound Kennedy sustained in the back of his head. When Moldea investigated the dynamics of the shooting he concluded that Kennedy had been turning to his left when Sirhan fired the fatal shot. Furthermore, the reliable witnesses to the shooting, Moldea pointed out, all said the distance from Kennedy to Sirhan’s gun was between 1 ½ to 3 feet. Therefore it was not a farfetched proposition to say that the muzzle of Sirhan’s gun had or nearly touched Kennedy’s head in the chaos that ensued.
As Moldea explained, “All twelve of the eyewitness’ statements about muzzle distance is based on – and only on – their view of Sirhan’s first shot, (the shot which Moldea has argued, did not hit Kennedy in the head). After the first shot, their eyes were diverted as panic swept through the densely populated kitchen pantry. The 77 people in the area began to run, duck for cover, and crash into each other.”
One of the most reliable witnesses, Lisa Urso, who was able to see both Kennedy and Sirhan, saw Kennedy’s hand move to his head behind his right ear. As the distance from Kennedy to the gun after the first pop was three feet it is likely he had been simply reacting defensively to the first shot fired. Urso described Kennedy’s movements as “…(jerking) a little bit, like backwards and then forwards”. Moldea believes the backwards and forwards jerking, “…came as Kennedy had recoiled after the first shot; he was then accidentally bumped forward, toward the steam table and into Sirhan’s gun where he was hit at point blank range.”
There is additional evidence, related here for the first time, that indicates Sirhan’s gun eventually became positioned next to Kennedy’s head.
According to Boris Yaro, a photographer for The Los Angeles Times, “Kennedy backed up against the kitchen freezers as the gunman fired at him POINT BLANK RANGE (emphasis added).” This positioning of Sirhan’s gun is also supported by key witness Frank Burns, who was identified as one of the five in the group (the others were Karl Uecker, Juan Romero, Jesus Perez, Martin Patrusky) who were closest to the senator. Although Burns stated the gun was never less than a foot or a foot and a half from Kennedy, he nevertheless described the dynamics of the shooting in such a way to make it entirely feasible that Sirhan’s gun moved to an area inches away from Kennedy. Burns had suffered an abrasion on his face that he thought was caused by a bullet passing near his cheek. It was likely a powder burn from Sirhan’s pistol. Burns said: “…I had just caught up with him (in the pantry), and he was a step or so past him. And I’d turned around facing the same way as he turned toward the busboys, I was just off his right shoulder, a matter of inches behind him.”
After Sirhan fired his gun Burns said, “The noise was like a string of firecrackers going off, it wasn’t in an even cadence. In the process, a bullet must have passed very close to my left cheek because I can remember the heat and a sort of burn. I remember an arm coming towards us, through the people, with a gun in it. I was putting together the burn across my cheek, the noise and the gun and I was thinking, ‘My God, it’s an assassination attempt.’ I turned my head and saw the gun and quickly looked back to the senator and realized he’d been shot because he’d thrown his hands up toward his head as if he was about to grab it at the line of his ears. He hadn’t quite done it. His arms were near his head and he was twisting to his left and falling back. And then I looked back at the gunman, and at that moment he was almost directly in front of me. He was still holding the gun and coming closer to the senator, PURSUING THE BODY SO THAT THE ARC OF THE GUN WAS COMING DOWN TO THE FLOOR AS THE BODY WAS GOING DOWN.” (Emphasis added)
To the national media, Moldea’s The Killing Of Robert Kennedy soon became the definitive book on the subject, answering the many questions and mysteries that had plagued government investigations and private researchers for the past three decades. But Moldea’s book failed to satisfy the self-styled critics. At various Internet sites, writers and researchers criticized his work, pointing out supposed flaws in his research. RFK researcher and author Philip Melanson rightly criticized Moldea for not competently inquiring into the allegations that Sirhan had been hypnotically manipulated. Sirhan’s attorney, Larry Teeter, a committed JFK conspiracy advocate, and Sirhan family friend Lynn Mangan, both of whom have been attempting to secure a new trial for the convicted assassin, also met Moldea’s conclusions with ridicule. In addition, Sirhan retracted his many statements admitting guilt, said he did not kill Kennedy, and that he had been “hypno-programmed” by conspirators. According to Teeter the RFK assassination was a “sequel” to the JFK murder.
But it was the publication of four books that decisively placed the assassination back on the agenda of unsolved crimes: Philip Melanson and William Klaber’s Shadow Play – The Untold Story of the Robert F Kennedy Assassination (1997); James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease’s The Assassinations – Probe magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X (2003); ex-FBI agent William Turner’s Rearview Mirror- Looking Back At The FBI, The CIA and Other Tails (2001); and Peter Evans’s Nemesis (2004).
Despite the notoriety of these four books, the conspiracy advocates’ claims to overturn Moldea’s conclusions about the guilt of Sirhan remain speculative at best. Moldea’s research about the ballistics evidence and his conclusions that no second gunman participated in the assassination have never been challenged successfully.
Amongst conspiracy advocates, only Peter Evans supported the argument that Sirhan actually fired the gun that killed Kennedy. Yet his allegations that Aristotle Onassis ordered the assassination are flawed. Evans alleged that Sirhan had been ordered to kill RFK by PLO official Mahmoud Hamshari. Evans claims to have unearthed evidence that Onassis had given Hamshari money to direct his PLO terrorists away from his Olympic Airways airlines at a time when planes were being hijacked and that some of the money was used to hire Sirhan to kill RFK. Evans claimed that Onassis was aware of the plot and, indeed, wanted RFK eliminated so Kennedy would not stand in the way of Onassis marrying JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. While Evans supports the hypnotized-assassin theory, he provides no evidence that Hamshari, who was assassinated by Israeli Intelligence agents in 1973, gave the murder contract to Sirhan.
In fact there are a number of inconsistencies in Evans’s theory. Although the author accepts the statements made by Onassis’s friends and relatives that the shipping tycoon admitted he had been responsible for RFK’s murder, he contradicts himself by quoting close Onassis aides as having had trouble sorting out their boss’s “exaggerations, half-truths and lies.” Evans is also unable to establish whether or not Robert Kennedy had had an affair with his brother’s widow. Throughout the book he accepts this as a given but he told news reporters that it was only “entirely possible.” In fact, there is no credible evidence to support the allegation.
Central to Evans’s thesis are entries in Sirhan’s notebooks that purportedly connect Onassis to the assassin. Evans alleges Sirhan’s notebooks make reference to Onassis’s son Alexander’s girlfriend, Fiona, whom Onassis detested, as well as to Stavros Niarchos, Onassis’s shipping rival. Evans wrote: “On the first page, Sirhan had written at the center of a roundel, amid Arabic writing, the single name, FIONA. And on another page: 2 NIARCHOS! On a third page, between the lines ‘One hundred thousand dollars and Dollars – One Hundreds,’ Sirhan had written in Arabic: ‘They should be killed’. And next to that, the number: THREE…Fiona, Niarchos and Kennedy: The names were startling by virtue of their very juxtaposition. But, as a lawyer, Yannis Georgakis (Onassis aide) was always skeptical: He did not trust facts that were startling, and circumstantial evidence made him uncomfortable. But three names and a sum of money written in a killer’s notebook (Sirhan’s references to $100,000 in his notebooks) – he had seen far flimsier evidence than that get a conviction in a court of law.” Evans was thus positing the idea that because Sirhan had made references to three names connected to Onassis – Fiona, Niarchos and Robert Kennedy – together with Sirhan’s references to a large sum of money – the shipping tycoon must have been connected to the assassination.
Evans’s juxtaposition of names is misleading. Sirhan had placed the name FIONA in a list of racehorse names – Fiona, Jet-Spec, Kings Abbey, and Prince Khaled. The Arabic script consists of one sentence “He should be killed” (not “They should be killed”) and does not refer to either Stavros Niarchos or Fiona. The diary entry “Niarkos” remains unexplained, as do many other entries in Sirhan’s notebooks, but there is no indication it refers to anyone on a Sirhan death list. The words in Sirhan’s notebooks were the result of simple stream-of-consciousness ramblings he learned from Rosicrucian literature as ways to improve his life. The notebooks are filled with names of people Sirhan knew – Bert Altfillisch, Peggy Osterkamp, and Gwen Gumm for example, and people he didn’t know such as Garner Ted Armstrong. The entries that refer to “One Hundred Thousand Dollars” most probably reflect Sirhan’s obsessions with wealth and appear a number of times in the notebooks.
The original police and FBI investigators could find no connection between Sirhan and any PLO contact. And Evans’s allegations that the PLO had been hijacking airplanes prior to Kennedy’s assassination are spurious. The PLO did not begin to use the terrorist tactic of hijacking airplanes until July of 1968, one month after RFK’s murder. There is also no evidence that Sirhan had been paid to carry out the murder and no money transaction has surfaced that would indicate that Sirhan or his brothers received large sums of money.
Also central to Evans’s thesis was the implication that Sirhan had spent a three-month period before the assassination being trained by terrorists or undergoing hypnotic indoctrination. Evans was wrong in stating Sirhan’s movements were unaccounted for, or “a blanket of white fog” as he put it. Evans quotes L.A. Police Officer Sgt. William Jordan, who told him that the special investigative team he worked on immediately after Kennedy’s assassination could not account for Sirhan’s movements in a three-month period in the year before the assassination. The LAPD investigative team gave no credence to the idea that Sirhan had been missing during any period from June 1967 to June 1968, despite the comments of Jordan.
In the year prior to the assassination, waitress Marilyn Hunt had seen Sirhan frequently in Pasadena’s Hi-Life Bar. He also was seen in Shap’s Bar during this time. In July 1967 Sirhan filed a disability complaint for workmen’s compensation. Between July and September 1967 Sirhan’s mother and brother Munir said Sirhan went often to the Pasadena library. Library records confirm he borrowed books during this period. Sirhan’s mother said her son “…stayed at home for over a year (sic) with no job”(October 1966 to September 1967). Also during this period Sirhan, by his mother’s account, often drove her to work. On Sept. 9, 1967 Sirhan began work at John Weidner’s health-food store. Weidner reported no long periods of absence up to the time Sirhan left his employ in March 1968. So how did Sirhan “emerge(ed) from this ‘white fog” in March 1968, (and) joined the (Rosicrucians)” as Evans states? (Author’s note: Sirhan actually joined the Rosicrucians in June 1966.)
Sirhan’s movements in the three months prior to the assassination leave no unaccountable period when he could have been indoctrinated. On March 7 Sirhan left his job at a Pasadena health food store. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination he discussed that murder with Alvin Clark, a Pasadena garbage collector. This would have to be after April 4, 1968 – which leaves only eight weeks unaccounted for before Kennedy was murdered. Even during most of that period Sirhan was reported to be in Pasadena. Sirhan’s friend, Walter Crowe, said he met Sirhan in Pasadena on the night of May 2, 1968 when they discussed politics. The last time he saw Sirhan was on the Pasadena college campus on May 23, 1968. Crowe said he was in Denny’s restaurant when Sirhan entered with a group of friends. This leaves only a two-week period not accounted for. But Sirhan refers to local newspaper and local radio reports throughout the month of May. Besides, Sirhan was living at 696 E. Howard Street, Pasadena. Family and friends have never suggested he was missing during this period.
Evans’s scenario is fundamentally implausible. How could plotters, for example, be sure that Sirhan, after his arrest, would not suddenly remember his contacts, turn state’s evidence, and be kept in a safe house by the district attorney? If the plotters believed Sirhan would be killed by Kennedy’s security, it had to have been the least thought-out plot conceivable.
Furthermore, had Sirhan suddenly “remembered” he would not have thrown away the chance to save his own life by failing to inform investigators of his involvement with Hamshari. His lawyers could also have built a strong case around the paid-assassin theory, arguing against the imposition of the death penalty that was eventually handed down.
Intriguing as Evans’s thesis is, there is no credible evidence that Sirhan had been directed to kill Kennedy by the PLO – apart from hearsay and second-hand accounts by a number of individuals who were close to Onassis. The record indicates that Sirhan was indeed motivated by political considerations but he was an “unaffiliated terrorist” rather than someone who had plotted with a terrorist group.
Although Moldea had successfully addressed the issue of Sirhan’s guilt in shooting Kennedy, the issue of motive and the suspicions that Sirhan had been hypnotized remained problematic. Moldea believed Sirhan had been acting out his crime for personal reasons, that the assassin’s claims to have acted in response to America’s policy on the Middle East was merely an excuse. Conspiracy writers maintained that Sirhan had no motive at all as they believed he did not kill Kennedy or if he fired shots he had acted as a patsy.
Conspiracy advocates point to Sirhan’s staring at a Teletype machine as evidence that he had been hypnotised. Yet, things around him frequently entranced Sirhan. This was part of his make-up. Sirhan told his police interrogators, “…everything…life itself is a challenge…when you watch a barber, sir, I just stand and watch that barber for hours. I…from the time I’m watching him I want to be nothing but a barber. You know, if I’m watching a dentist, boy, he fascinates me, and I want to be him. I was talking to (LAPD Officer) Frank here a while ago. The way he talked, you know…I was very fascinated and, you know, I was sort of superimposing myself in his position for…temporarily.” In fact, this would not be the first time Sirhan had experienced trance-like states. He experienced them as a boy growing up in Jerusalem, according to his mother.
A majority of hypnosis and mind-control experts within the scientific community dismiss the notion that subjects can be hypnotised to commit murder. They maintain that such a possibility of programming an unwitting and unwilling subject is not possible. Hypnosis expert Dr. Eyzel Cardena of the Society For Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis told this writer, “Most experts in hypnosis opine that the scenario you describe (i.e., a hypnotically-programmed Sirhan) is implausible.” UK hypnosis expert Dr. Graham Wagstaff of the University of Liverpool believes that, “…Controlled empirical research seems fairly overwhelming to support the view that hypnosis does not have some special coercive power over and above a comparable situation in which people feel motivated or pressured to perform anti-social actions…”
Furthermore, there would be no guarantee of success for a robotic assassin; it is an erratic tool. A hypnotist can plant a suggestion in the subject’s mind and ask him to forget that suggestion but there is no foolproof way of preventing another hypnotist coming along and recovering that memory.
Evans and other conspiracy advocates go to great lengths to imply that Sirhan was likely hypnotised to kill RFK. They have given credence to the claim made by hypnotist expert William Bryan that he had been Sirhan’s controller. Bryan was famous for having hypnotised the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo. Bryan also claimed he had worked for the CIA and, according to Jonn Christian, bragged to two prostitutes he had hypnotised Sirhan to kill Kennedy. Bryan’s credibility was damaged, however, when it was discovered that the California Board of Medical Examiners had, in 1969, found him guilty of sexually molesting women patients he had hypnotised. And, shortly before his death in Las Vegas in 1976, Bryan told Hollywood reporter Greg Roberts the Sirhan story was not true. Furthermore, there is no credible evidence whatsoever to support Bryan’s earlier reported claims he was Sirhan’s controller or the claims of one of Evans’s “unnamed” sources that Bryan had worked for the CIA’s hypnosis expert Sidney Gottlieb.
Evans quotes from John Marks’s book The Search For The Manchurian Candidate and cites the experiments conducted by Morse Allen, the CIA scientist that conspiracy advocates allege was successful in programming an assassin. Allen hypnotised his secretary, who had a fear and loathing of guns, to pick up a pistol and shoot another secretary. The gun, of course, was unloaded. After Allen brought the secretary out of the trance she allegedly had no memory of what she had done.
While conspiracy advocates promote this episode as proof of the CIA successfully developing programmed assassins, they fail to mention that Allen did not give much credibility to his own experiment. Allen believed that all that happened was that an impressionable young woman volunteer had accepted orders from a legitimate authority figure to carry out an order she likely knew would not end in tragedy. Allen also believed there were too many variables in hypnosis for it to be a reliable weapon. And all the participants in such trials knew they were involved in a scientific experiment. There was always an authority figure present to remind the subject or some part of the subject’s mind that it was only an experiment.
There is also evidence that Sirhan had known of how “diminished capacity” can be used to excuse acts of murder. Following his arrest Sirhan had asked Officer Frank about the Boston Strangler case and how Albert DeSalvo had committed the crimes because he had suffered a deprived childhood. Sirhan responded, “…but, correct me if I’m mistaken, is it when…the man is self-admitting? He admits that he’s, wasn’t trying, but they won’t believe him? Is this related to it?” Robert Blair Kaiser, who came to know Sirhan better than any of the defense lawyers, believed Sirhan knew that the Boston Strangler committed his crimes in a disassociated state.
Additionally, there is evidence, not presented at the trial, which proves that Sirhan had been feigning amnesia. Sirhan has always proclaimed that he could not remember writing in his notebooks, “RFK must die,” nor could he remember shooting Kennedy. To disprove this, the prosecutors at Sirhan’s trial brought in a handwriting expert who disputed the notion that Sirhan’s notebook entries were written in a trance. The FBI concluded that Sirhan had written the entries “haphazardly, jumping around the pages in the notebook,” and were not written under the influence of a hypnotic trance. It was also clear to ACLU lawyer Abraham Lincoln Wirin that Sirhan had remembered his notebooks contained incriminating evidence. Sirhan had asked Wirin to tell his mother to clean up his room. Wirin believed it was requested in the hope that his mother would see the notebook entries and destroy them.
There is also compelling evidence that from the start Sirhan had realized what he had done. He confessed to ACLU lawyer Wirin that he “…did it, I shot him.” He also told defense investigator Michael McCowan that he remembered shooting Kennedy.
McCowan was a private detective who assisted Sirhan lawyers. In the pre-trial period, McCowan had been talking to Sirhan about the shooting. McCowan had been startled when Sirhan related to him how his eyes had met Kennedy’s in the moment just before he shot him. McCowan asked Sirhan, “Then why, Sirhan, didn’t you shoot him between the eyes?” Without hesitating, Sirhan replied, “Because that son-of-a-broad turned his head at the last second.”
McCowan’s story is also supported by another telling incident that was reported in Robert Kaiser’s book, RFK Must Die published in 1970. During Sirhan’s trial, hotel workers Jesus Perez and Martin Patrusky both said Sirhan had approached them to ask if Kennedy would be coming through the pantry following his speech. Sirhan had contended he did not remember anything after he had collected his gun from his car. Yet, following the testimonies of the hotel workers, Sirhan had told McCowan, who was seated next to him, that he had not approached either witness. When McCowan reminded Sirhan that he supposedly remembered nothing of this period before the crime, Sirhan “…nodded and gulped.”
There is also supportive evidence showing that Sirhan had lied about his memory loss. In a conversation with defense investigator and author Robert Blair Kaiser, Sirhan had been telling him how he thought Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray had acted as cowards in shooting their victims from behind. Kaiser asked Sirhan if his act was less cowardly. Sirhan responded, “Hey, when you shoot a man in the back? There you go! At least Kennedy saw me.” Sirhan quickly and disingenuously added, “I think, I don’t know.” At the trial Sirhan’s lawyer, Grant Cooper asked the accused assassin, “It appears in your notebook what might appear to be goals (RFK Must Die), did you have them in mind when you wrote them down?” Sirhan replied, “Yes, sir, I did in reference to the assassination of Robert Kennedy…(only) for the time it was written…”
If Sirhan had been lying then how was the hypnotic defense and Sirhan’s amnesia defense constructed in the first place? Sirhan claimed his lawyers had first put forward the idea that he had been in a hypnotic trance-like state when he shot Kennedy. But there is evidence that Sirhan had foreknowledge of amnesiac states before he committed the murder and is presented here for the first time in this article.
Sirhan had read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book about the multiple murders of a Kansas farmer, his wife, and two teenage children. Perry Smith and Richard Hickock committed the murders in 1959 and Capote’s book of the murder, manhunt, trial and executions of the murderers was published in 1965. Sirhan identified with the short and stocky Smith, feeling great empathy for him. Smith had suffered a deprived childhood, had bouts of shivering and trance-like states, and believed in mysticism and fate. According to Capote, Smith, “…had many methods of passing (time)…among them, MIRROR GAZING…EVERY TIME (HE SAW) A MIRROR (HE WOULD) GO INTO A TRANCE (emphasis added).” At the conclusion of the book Capote quoted the opinions of leading psychiatrists Drs. Joseph Satten, Karl Menninger, Irwin Rosen, and Martin Mayman, about why people like Smith and Hickock committed such crimes and what their mental states were like during the commission of the murders. The psychiatrists attempted to assess the criminal responsibility of a number of murderers: “…murderers who seem rational, coherent and controlled and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizarre, apparently senseless qualities…”
In their examinations the psychiatrists found a number of similarities, including the fact that the men who they studied, “…were puzzled as to why they killed their victims, who were relatively unknown to them, and in each instance the murderer appears to have lapsed into a DREAMLIKE DISASSOCIATIVE TRANCE (emphasis added) from which he awakened to suddenly discover himself assaulting the victim…Two of the men reported severe dissassociative trancelike states during which violent and bizarre behavior was seen, while the other two reported less severe and perhaps less well-organised, AMNESIAC EPISODES (emphasis added)…..”. It is therefore likely Sirhan had used his knowledge of how murderers behave to construct a possible diminished-capacity defense.
Sirhan may have been mentally unstable and angry at a society that had relegated him to the bottom of the heap, as Dan Moldea concludes. But there is sufficient evidence, originating years before the shooting, that Sirhan clearly saw himself, like today’s suicide bombers, as an Arab hero. The PLO and most Palestinians certainly judged him this way. And Sirhan’s lack of remorse is entirely in keeping with the terrorist way of rationalizing political murder.
Sirhan and his brothers could not, or would not, assimilate into American society. They abhorred U.S. culture, disliked the mores of the American people, and, most importantly, hated the support Americans gave to the state of Israel. The family felt they were part of a minority group alienated and misunderstood within the larger community.
Sirhan told Robert Kaiser of how Arabs were treated like second-class citizens in the United States, “Just because we’re Arabs in this country,” he said, “we have no power, no prestige, no influence, no money – nothing really. We can be treated like dogs, like ants. Had it not been for me…Munir would be out there in one of those (Palestinian refugee) camps. He would have been deported (for having a criminal conviction)…The whole world knows Sirhan now. If they had deported his younger brother from America that would show an injustice on the part of America…But even without me, what’s all the difference? Munir was just a good-for-nothing Aye-rab.”
Would Sirhan have killed Robert Kennedy had there been peace between Arabs and Jews? It is possible. Sirhan fit the profile of an assassin bent on striking out at a country he felt had betrayed him. He was a disillusioned man who wanted to attain fame in the classical tradition of American assassins. On the other hand, it was Sirhan’s political motives that gave him pride, self-esteem, but also a deep-rooted anger. These were the sentiments that spurred him to act.
As most Americans were unaware of the Palestinian issue, very few journalists examined Sirhan’s background as a Palestinian Arab in an attempt to explain the tragedy. Instead, commentators wrote Sirhan off as yet another misfit with a gun who stalks and then murders a leading public official with no apparent motive except his own demons.
In time, Sirhan defenders found it difficult to accept that this was a murder that had its roots in a political motive. In fact, it was necessary to disprove a political motive if their thesis of a controlled assassin was to have any credibility.
Sirhan’s self-confessed motive was entirely consistent throughout the weeks, months and years following his act. Immediately following the shooting he cried out that he did it for his “country.” When asked by a police sergeant if he was ashamed of what he did he replied, “Hell, no!” In fact, he was so proud of his act that the morning following the shooting he asked jail guards for a newspaper so he could see what had been written about him. When no news stories of the assassination appeared due to press deadlines, he became upset. His insistence that his crime was political was followed up with repeated protestations that no other motive existed except a love for his people. “June 5th stood out for me…more than my own birth date! I felt Robert Kennedy was coinciding his own appeal for votes with the anniversary of the (Six Day) war,” Sirhan said. From numerous statements, he made to his lawyers and family it is clear he believed he had been adventurous, daring and brave – the qualities Arabs most admire.
In the hours and days following the shooting, he must have realized the shame he had brought upon his mother. How then could he accept guilt as a political assassin and at the same time escape culpability? The answer was to feign amnesia, while at the same time maintaining that he “must have shot Kennedy.” It held out some hope that his conviction might someday be overturned, but it also guaranteed him praise from his fellow Arabs and Palestinians. For Sirhan, this was the best of both worlds.
Sirhan was an immigrant in America who did not have full citizenship. He had been constantly seeking identity – a means to give some meaning to a life that was increasingly losing hope. Because Sirhan identified with the Palestinian cause, anything that humiliated Arabs was a personal insult to him and damaged his self-esteem. His sense of self began to rest on his identity as a Palestinian Arab. And he supported the Arab cause, believing he was tied to it by his bloodline.
The late Edward Said, one of the leading Palestinian intellectuals for the past 30 years, viewed the Palestinian/Arab cause as Sirhan’s rationale for the assassination. As a poor working class immigrant, Sirhan identified with his downtrodden people living as refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. The period 1967-68, the year following the Six Day War, became a crucial time in Sirhan’s life; it was the time when Israel became dominant in the region after successfully defending itself against Arab aggression.
Having failed to eject the Jews from Israel/Palestine, Arabs throughout the world felt powerless and weak and Arab pride had been severely damaged. Their condition exaggerated Sirhan’s feelings of inadequacy even though he lived thousands of miles away from the conflict. Many exiled Palestinians sought retribution and began to formulate plans to kill innocent civilians and hi-jack planes. Sirhan’s answer to these problems took the form of killing a major American politician who advocated support for Israel. Sirhan said, “…this momentum just took hold of me and by June 5th 1968 (The first anniversary of the Six Day War) I couldn’t control it anymore.”
In fact, Sirhan could have targeted any of the leading presidential candidates that year to publicize, through a violent act, the cause of the Palestinians. Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and Nelson Rockefeller all supported military aid to Israel and believed in the continuing American/Israeli alliance. So why did Sirhan choose RFK?
Initially, Sirhan would likely have been satisfied with any opportunity to kill a leading American politician. At one point, he even had UN Ambassador Goldberg in his sights. Sirhan said he first considered killing Vice President Humphrey, “It might not even have been just Kennedy,” Sirhan told Robert Kaiser, ” … Somebody who was big, tough, somebody who was – it wasn’t necessarily Kennedy – it could have been somebody else but someone who would still represent American policy that was pro-Israel. In fact, it – for example – might have been Humphrey. Because Humphrey was a person you didn’t particularly like either.”
However, in the years between 1963 and 1968, American political culture had been dominated by the idea of a Kennedy Dynasty and myths surrounding JFK’s assassination. Year after year books, movies, television documentaries, and political news stories gave a cult-like status to JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Sirhan, too, desired fame. Killing any of the other candidates would certainly have given him status throughout the Arab world. But his true target had an even greater symbolism attached to it. Sirhan would become the “Second Kennedy Assassin.” He knew that killing RFK would give him greater world exposure the other candidates could not provide. It was no accident that Sirhan set his sights on the candidate who was the brother of the martyred president. It was no accident that Sirhan chose the candidate who was most likely to become the next president.
One of Sirhan’s doctors, Dr. Martin Schorr, who examined Sirhan in the pre-trial period, said the assassin was, “…not a raving maniac. He’s got a keen sense of justice, but it is from his private world.” However, this sense of justice that Schorr spoke of was not from Sirhan’s private or fantasy world. Schorr, along with the majority of the American people, had not yet understood the logic of terrorist acts. Not only was Sirhan’s act logical but also it was embraced, condoned, and applauded throughout the Arab world. As Sirhan said, “(My act) was a warning to the U.S. You’d better listen and be more cautious. Be more fair. Remember Kennedy. Remember Kennedy.”
To the Western mind terrorists are deranged and evil even though their acts are not the product of insanity but possess a logic all their own. Terrorists have rational, if sometimes bizarre, motives. It is also true that many terrorists (like Al Qaeda’s Ramzi Youssef) display symptoms of a psychopathic nature – they are cold blooded and carry out their acts of terror without remorse. But their acts are not the products of delusional or irrational minds. Nor was Sirhan’s. He did indeed crave attention and success. He was depressed that society had relegated him to the bottom of the heap. He felt an allegiance and empathy with assassins of the past. And he dreamed of infamy. But without his sense of “Arabness” and without the bitterness and hatred towards Jews that had their roots in his childhood indoctrination, it is unlikely Sirhan would have assassinated Robert Kennedy. All the hatred that spewed forth from Sirhan’s gun can ultimately be traced back to three sources – Anti-Americanism, Palestinian nationalism and anti-Semitism. Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy may have been the first act in an international political drama that culminated in 9/11.