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Robert F. Kennedy

The killing of Robert F. Kennedy, the senator who would have surely been president had he not been gunned down, is at the same time an ostensibly simpler yet more mysterious crime than the assassination of his brother, the president.

The many possible keys to the JFK assassination lie in documents, events, and witness testimony, much of it accrued by two separate government commissions. The interlocking intelligence, military, and underworld operation that seem somehow to bear on the Dallas events speak more or less for themselves. Lee Harvey Oswald may have taken the final secret of JFK to his premature grave, but he left a paper trail behind him.

The secrets of Robert Kennedy’s assassination lie locked in the most secure vault of all – a man’s mind. Sirhan Bashira Sirhan, who still sits in jail today, his sentence commuted from death to life, has never been able to remember what happened the night of June 5, 1968, when he lunged out of a crowd and opened wild fire in Kennedy’s general direction. Unlike the politically preoccupied Oswald, Sirhan never had any strong political convictions. And unlike Oswald, the globetrotting marine whose biography is a cryptogram of curious connections, Sirhan’s life leading up to the assassination is remarkable only for its unremarkability. No satisfactory motive for his action has ever been revealed because even he does not know why he shot Kennedy – or even if he did.

First, the facts. Then, the questions:

On California’s primary election night, Bobby Kennedy – senator from New York, former U.S. attorney general, and, of course, younger brother of the president slain four and a half years earlier – celebrated his crucial victory in that large state with a speech at his campaign headquarters in Los Angeles’s fashionable Ambassador Hotel. The win in California looked certain to propel him past Hubert Humphrey – Lyndon Johnson’s waffling vice-president – and fuzzy-minded liberal Eugene McCarthy into the Democratic presidential nomination when the party convened that summer in Chicago.

After rousing his supporters with the exhortation, “On to Chicago! Let’s win there!” Kennedy made his way off the podium through a pantry in the kitchen of the Ambassador. The place was jammed with warm bodies. These were the days before the Secret Service received a mandate to guard presidential candidates as well as the president, and for some reason the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was off the case (the department would later claim that Kennedy had ordered them away, a claim never substantiated and apparently designed, like any number of notions promulgated by defenders of the official version in the first Kennedy assassination, to somehow hold the victim responsible for his own death).

As Kennedy pushed through the throng, a dark-skinned young man – later identified as the partial amnesiac Sirhan – leaped at the senator and shouted, “Kennedy, you son of a bitch!” Flailing a .22 caliber pistol, he squeezed off a string of shots. Kennedy crumpled, blood oozing from the back of his head and spreading smoothly into a pool on the pantry floor.

A day later he was dead.

Five months later, Richard Nixon, who eight years beforehand had lost the narrowest election in U.S. history to Kennedy’s older brother, defeated Kennedy’s replacement on the Democratic ticket (Humphrey) by the second smallest margin.

The Los Angeles Police Department, at the time the most respected municipal law enforcement agency in the country thanks to its spiffy Dragnet image, took over the investigation, forming a task force dubbed Special Unit Senator. Determined not to repeat “the mistakes of Dallas,” the LAPD formulated an impenetrable case against the lone assassin who was subsequently easily convicted.

But there were discrepancies and omission from the official version. Some of the most important:

The blood seeping from Kennedy’s head came from a wound behind his right ear. Powder burns indicated that the shot came from no farther than two or three inches away. Sirhan was at all times in front of Kennedy. Even granting the ad hoc (and false) explanation that Kennedy suddenly turned his head away from the gunman, Sirhan never got closer than a few feet. Given that single piece of evidence there is no physical possibility that Sirhan could be the sole assassin. The coroner who ascertained the position of the fatal wound, Thomas Noguchi, was fired and had to sue to get his job back.Based on evidence of bullet holes and bullets found in the pantry, at least thirteen shots were fired. Sirhan’s pistol held just eight shots and they were accounted for, having been recovered from Kennedy’s body and the bodies of other wounded victims. The LAPD explained some of the extra bullet holes as “dents caused by food carts” and suppressed photographs of its own officers examining other holes. Ceiling panels and door jambs where extra bullet holes were sighted and photographed were destroyed.

At least five witnesses – according to police reports – saw a woman in a polka-dot dress fleeing the scene of the assassination. Some of the witnesses – notably a young Kennedy campaign worker named Sandra Serrano – heard the woman shouting, gleefully, “We shot him!” Serrano asked the mystery woman whom they shot. “Senator Kennedy,” the woman replied, on her hurried way out. A couple identified only as “the Bernsteins,” who were interviewed briefly by a patrolman, told the same story, but they were outside the hotel, about one hundred feet down a staircase from Serrano’s position when they had a brief exchange with the woman who was still screaming “We shot him! We killed him!” The “Bernsteins” (who could not be located later) also asked the woman “Who was shot?” and received the same reply.

Sirhan has always maintained that prior to being hauled to the ground by, among others, pro football player Rosy Grier, who was Kennedy’s bodyguard that evening, his final memory of the evening was of drinking coffee with a young woman. Serrano and another witness, Thomas DiPierro, reported seeing Sirhan in the company of the polka-dot woman before the shooting.

The LAPD responded to their statements by dispatching Enrique “Hank” Hernandez to administer polygraph examinations designed not to ascertain the truth of their stories but to browbeat them into recanting, which, under Hernandez’s relentless and often abusive pressure, they both did.

The patrolman’s report of “The Bernsteins'” account vanished from the LAPD files. The police investigators claimed the woman in the polka-dot dress was Valerie Schulte, an attractive coed from U.C. Santa Barbara who was also a Kennedy hanger-on. Schulte was there and wearing a polka-dot dress, but the dress and its attendant dots were the wrong color and she did not fit the description give by Serrano and DiPierro (both of whom noted that the polka-dot-dress woman had a “funny nose”). Nor, presumably, did Schulte, something of a Kennedy groupie, flee the scene shrieking “We shot him!” in a fit of joy.

These three points by themselves should have been enough to first of all, point the investigation in the direction of an assassination conspiracy; and just as important, to take it away from the LAPD, which clearly decided in advance that its own interests were best served by closing off any embarrassing avenues of inquiry that might reveal a plot to kill the probable next president of the United States hatched within their own inviolate jurisdiction. After all, shouldn’t the hypercompetent godchildren of Joe Friday have ferreted out such a nefarious caper before it came to fruition?

Besides face-saving, there are other possible – though more highly speculative – reasons why the LAPD would stymie rather than expand on conspiracy leads. The chief investigator for Special Unit Senator, the man who made all the decisions, was Manny Pena, an LAPD officer brought out of “retirement” for the occasion. In fact, he had never really retired. He was working for the CIA.

The intelligence agency had a cooperative deal with the L.A. cops and Pena allegedly had engaged in numerous assignments for the CIA under cover of the Agency for International Development (AID). Supposedly known to insiders as the CIA’s “Department of Dirty Tricks,” AID-cover units were said to specialize in assassination techniques.

Through Pena – and possibly Hernandez, who also boasted of taking part in secret operations overseas – the CIA becomes a suspect in the whitewash of facts that point toward conspiracy. Why the coverup?

Sirhan himself is the strangest element of a strange case. Not that the lad himself was terribly odd. But his memory black-outs; his “automatic writing” including the repeated scrawl, “RFK must die!” scribbled randomly in notebooks that the LAPD for some reason saw fit to label “diaries”; the analysis of a former army intelligence officer who gave Sirhan a Psychological Stress Evaluation; and the testimony of a witness in a later civil trial who quoted acquaintances of Sirhan’s as describing him in “a trance” – they all add up to one bizarre but unavoidable conclusion: when he shot Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan was hypnotized.

The defense psychiatrist, Dr. Bernard Diamond, explained away the diagnosis he could not deny by speculating that Sirhan must have hypnotized himself. After Sirhan was placed on death row, Dr. Eduard Simson-Kallas – then chief of the prison’s psychological evaluation program – spent thirty-five hours examining Sirhan. In an interview with FBI-agent-turned-investigative-reporter William Turner, Simson-Kallas labeled Diamond’s diagnosis “the psychiatric blunder of the century.”

Quoted in Turner’s book The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Simson-Kallas asserts that self-hypnosis never runs so deep that it induces memory blocks, and while partial amnesia can result from schizophrenia, Sirhan showed no other indication of that mental malady.

Turner and his coauthor Jonn Christian argue that Sirhan was a Manchurian Candidate assassin, the “robot of another,” firing at Kennedy not of his own twisted but otherwise free will, but as a result of a posthypnotic suggestion. They also believe, based on the basic physical evidence, that Sirhan did not actually shoot Kennedy (in fact, unspent .22 shells were found on Sirhan’s person, leading Turner and Christian to believe that Sirhan fired no bullets at all – only blanks).

The fatal shot was likely fired, the authors (and any number of assassination researchers) hold, by a security guard named Thane Eugene Cesar who was stationed right behind Kennedy and admitted drawing his gun – and even privately admitted firing it. Cesar somehow lost his clip-on necktie during the confusion. In the famous photo of a dying RFK sprawled on the pantry floor, a stray clip-on tie lies just a foot or so from Kennedy’s clutching right hand.

With the number of bullets flying around the pantry, however, Turner and Christian also believe that there must have been a third gun somewhere on the scene. Sirhan was nothing but a decoy; a mind-controlled patsy.

One deficienty in most Manchurian Candidate conspiracy theories is the absence of any identified programmer for the “hypnoprogrammed” assassins. Turner and Christian find a candidate, though their evidence is rather thin.

They zero in on Willam Joseph Bryan, “the world’s leading expert” on hypnosis – or so Bryan claimed. Bryan’s moment of greatest acclaim came when he helped solve the Boston Strangler case by hypnotizing the suspect, Albert DeSalvo. Sirhan’s notebooks contained – among other ostensibly senseless jottings – the name “DiSalvo” written over and over again. Confronted with this “diary entry” Sirhan was baffled and said the name was meaningless to him.

When a journalist (an attractive female journalist, which with a character like Bryan is not an insignificant detail) asked the effusively self-promoting hypnotist for his opinion on Sirhan, the world’s leading expert on hypnosis became inexplicably enraged.

“I’m not going to comment on that case because I didn’t hypnotize him,” Bryan snapped, then terminated that interview.

Bryan’s dead body turned up in a Las Vegas motel room in 1977. Two call girls who “serviced” him regularly for the final two years of his life told Turner and Christian that Bryan not only boasted to them about hypnotizing Sirhan, but also about working for the CIA on “top secret projects.”

It may well have been bluster. But whoever hypnotized him, the fact that Sirhan was hypnotized is not really in doubt. Whether he was a subject of some CIA MK-ULTRA-related mind-control program or whether, as has been occasionally speculated, he was affiliated with some sort of occult group – another form of mind control – or both or neither, is one of those secrets locked and perhaps now lost in the cozy confines of Sirhan Sirhan’s securely sealed mind.