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The Death of Robert Kennedy: 40 Years After Assassination, Questions Persist

Were 13 shots fired? Was a secu­ri­ty guard involved? Who wore the pol­ka dot dress?

by Michael Tay­lor
San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle

The assas­si­na­tion was over in a few sec­onds. In the pho­to­graph of that moment, Bob­by Kennedy, his eyes open and glazed, lies on his back on a hotel pantry floor, his head cra­dled by a bus­boy dressed stark­ly in white — a tableau that seems almost angel­ic were it not so bru­tal.

Less than 26 hours after being shot ear­ly on June 5, 1968, right after win­ning the Cal­i­for­nia pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, Kennedy was dead. He was 42.

Three major assas­si­na­tions rocked Amer­i­ca in the 1960s. Two of the assas­sins — Lee Har­vey Oswald, the killer of John F. Kennedy, and James Earl Ray, who shot Mar­tin Luther King Jr. — are dead. But Sirhan Sirhan, con­vict­ed of killing Robert F. Kennedy 40 years ago this week in the Ambas­sador Hotel in Los Ange­les, is liv­ing out his days in the Cal­i­for­nia state prison at Cor­co­ran. He is 64 and has nev­er ful­ly explained what hap­pened that night oth­er than to say he can’t remem­ber it.

Sirhan was a seem­ing­ly unre­mark­able man. He was a Pales­tin­ian who was raised in the Mid­dle East until he was 12, when his fam­i­ly set­tled in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Before the Kennedy assas­si­na­tion, he held a series of menial jobs and at one point worked at the San­ta Ani­ta race­track and had hoped to be a jock­ey.

After Los Ange­les police found his diary, in which he had writ­ten, “RFK must die,” inves­ti­ga­tors con­clud­ed that he was angry about Kennedy’s sup­port for Israel and some­how had tied the assas­si­na­tion date — he wrote that Kennedy must be killed “before 5 June 68” — to the one-year anniver­sary of the Six-Day War.

Open and shut

Los Ange­les police, who declined Mon­day to com­ment on their inves­ti­ga­tion, deemed the assas­si­na­tion an open-and-shut case — Sirhan did it by him­self. Inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tors who have looked at the case over the years, how­ev­er, sug­gest oth­er­wise.

“The inter­est­ing thing is how under-exam­ined the Robert Kennedy assas­si­na­tion is, com­pared to Pres­i­dent Kennedy and Mar­tin Luther King Jr.,” said David Tal­bot of San Fran­cis­co, author of “Broth­ers,” a book that looks into Robert Kennedy’s own inves­ti­ga­tion into his broth­er’s death and his con­vic­tion that JFK was the vic­tim of a con­spir­a­cy.

“Bob­by remains the unknown ter­ri­to­ry,” Tal­bot said. “But even if you look at it min­i­mal­ly, there are ques­tions that come to mind.”

Among them:

– Sirhan fired his .22-cal­iber revolver from a few feet in front of Kennedy, accord­ing to police, yet Los Ange­les Coun­ty coro­ner Thomas Noguchi report­ed that the fatal shot was fired less than one inch from Kennedy’s head, behind his right ear. Of the four shots fired at Kennedy, all came from the rear. None of this was raised at Sirhan’s tri­al because his defense was based on the the­o­ry that he suf­fered from “dimin­ished capac­i­ty” rather than on any chal­lenge of pros­e­cu­tors’ evi­dence.

– Sirhan’s revolver held eight rounds; a radio reporter’s tape record­ing of the shoot­ing has sounds of what one audio expert describes as 13 shots. Sirhan nev­er had a chance to reload before bystanders tack­led him. Two of the sounds on the tape are what foren­sic experts call “dou­ble shots,” which means two shots so close togeth­er that they could­n’t have come from the same revolver.

– Sev­er­al wit­ness­es saw a secu­ri­ty guard just behind Kennedy draw his revolver, and one report­ed see­ing him fire it.

– Over the years, Sirhan has told inves­ti­ga­tors who inter­viewed him in prison that he was in a hyp­not­ic trance dur­ing the shoot­ing and can’t remem­ber it at all. He said he could not remem­ber writ­ing, “RFK must die.” He did not respond to an inter­view request for this sto­ry.

Night of cel­e­bra­tion

On the night Kennedy was killed, the hotel ball­room was filled with sup­port­ers cel­e­brat­ing his vic­to­ry in the Cal­i­for­nia pri­ma­ry and look­ing to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion in Chica­go. The last thing Kennedy said from the ball­room podi­um, just after mid­night, was, “My thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chica­go, and let’s win there.”

In the pantry, as Kennedy moved through the crowd, he was sur­round­ed by friends, includ­ing Paul Schrade of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, labor chair­man for Kennedy’s cam­paign.

“All of a sud­den, I got hit in the head by a bul­let,” Schrade said. “I shook vio­lent­ly. I thought I was being elec­tro­cut­ed. When I came to, I was on the floor.”

Schrade was one of five peo­ple besides Kennedy who were hit by bul­lets. For the past 33 years, he has been inves­ti­gat­ing the shoot­ing.

Mys­tery bul­let hole

Unlike the JFK assas­si­na­tion, which cre­at­ed an out­door crime scene in Dal­las sprawl­ing from the grassy knoll to the Texas School Book Depos­i­to­ry, the shoot­ing of Robert Kennedy hap­pened in a con­fined space. Stray bul­lets end­ed up buried in walls and the ceil­ing, where they could be tracked down.

In pho­tos, police inves­ti­ga­tors can be seen cir­cling what they lat­er said was a bul­let hole in a ceil­ing pan­el, behind where Sirhan fired. For Sirhan to have shot into that pan­el, he would have had to “either turn around or the bul­let would have to have made a U‑turn,” said Philip Van Praag, a retired elec­tri­cal engi­neer and audio expert who co-authored a book about the case.

Then there was the mys­tery of the woman in the pol­ka dot dress. Accord­ing to wit­ness San­dra Ser­ra­no, the woman fled from the hotel kitchen with an uniden­ti­fied man, shout­ing, “We shot him, we shot him.” When a bystander asked who got shot, the woman said, “We shot Kennedy.” Oth­er wit­ness­es report­ed see­ing the woman, though it is not clear whether they heard the com­ment.

In a new film about the assas­si­na­tion, “RFK Must Die,” Irish doc­u­men­tary mak­er Shane O’Sul­li­van asked Ser­ra­no about what hap­pened lat­er. She said Los Ange­les police spent hours try­ing to con­vince her she was wrong in what she saw, and she final­ly gave in. Forty years lat­er, how­ev­er, she told O’Sul­li­van that her orig­i­nal ver­sion was cor­rect.

‘I don’t remem­ber’

In fact, the icon­ic pol­ka dot dress is also some­thing fixed in the mind of Sirhan him­self.

William Turn­er, a retired FBI agent who wrote a book about the case, says he inter­viewed Sirhan in prison in 1975.

“He told me, ‘I don’t remem­ber any­thing after the woman in the pol­ka dot dress asked me for cof­fee, and heavy on the cream and sug­ar,’ ” said Turn­er, who lives in San Rafael. “He said he had amne­sia from that time until he was over­pow­ered in the pantry after the shots were fired. He said, ‘I must have done it, but I don’t remem­ber.’ ”

Turn­er thinks Sirhan was “hyp­no-pro­grammed to shoot” and that he was a real-life Manchuri­an Can­di­date — the fic­tion­al brain­washed dupe whose con­trollers want to assas­si­nate a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Turn­er sus­pects the same vil­lains as do the JFK con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists — “orga­nized crime and, pre­dom­i­nant­ly, peo­ple from the CIA.”

Van Praag and a fel­low inves­ti­ga­tor, for­mer Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Foren­sic Sci­en­tists pres­i­dent Robert Jol­ing, don’t sub­scribe to any one con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, but they are con­vinced more than one gun­man was involved. The two have writ­ten a book about the killing, whose title, “An Open and Shut Case,” is a dig at the police inves­ti­ga­tion.

Van Praag, a for­mer senior instruc­tor in com­mer­cial audio-video sys­tems for Ampex Corp., ana­lyzed a tape record­ing of the killing made by a Pol­ish radio reporter. He said he heard 13 shots over five sec­onds and was able to iso­late the sounds well enough to say that two dif­fer­ent weapons were fir­ing dur­ing those five sec­onds.

passed poly­graph

One of those weapons, accord­ing to the doc­u­men­tary, “Con­spir­a­cy Test: The RFK Assas­si­na­tion,” which ran on the Dis­cov­ery Times Chan­nel a year ago, could have been held by Thane Eugene Cesar, the secu­ri­ty guard who was near Kennedy.

Dan Mold­ea, who wrote a book, “The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Inves­ti­ga­tion of Motive, Means and Oppor­tu­ni­ty,” said he thought for years that “Cesar had done it.” But in 1987 he per­suad­ed Cesar to under­go a poly­graph exam­i­na­tion that the for­mer guard “passed with fly­ing col­ors,” Mold­ea said.

“He’s being accused of mur­der all over the place,” Mold­ea said, adding that he is now Cesar’s pro­tec­tor and would be will­ing to “bring him for­ward” if author­i­ties ever reopen the case.

In fact, reopen­ing the case is not a far-fetched idea.

Jol­ing says an “inde­pen­dent pan­el of foren­sic sci­en­tists” should be cre­at­ed to “rein­ves­ti­gate this mat­ter on all the evi­dence.” The case “should be resolved in a truth­ful, fac­tu­al and hon­est pre­sen­ta­tion,” he said.

“Let the chips fall where they may. That way, at least, the Amer­i­can peo­ple will know that some­body with­out a stake in the out­come made this find­ing.”

Online and on screen Doc­u­ments and oth­er infor­ma­tion about the Robert Kennedy assas­si­na­tion can be found at these Web sites:



www.aarclibrary.org www.robertfkennedylinks.com/assassination.html




A new doc­u­men­tary, “RFK Must Die,” will be screened at 9:20 tonight at the Rox­ie The­ater, 3117 16th St., San Fran­cis­co. Anoth­er doc­u­men­tary, “Con­spir­a­cy Test: The RFK Assas­si­na­tion,” ran on the Dis­cov­ery Times Chan­nel last year and can be found on YouTube.


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