by Shane O’Sullivan
At 12:16 a.m. on June 5, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was shot three times from behind as he walked through the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California Democratic primary and expected to challenge Nixon for the White House, promising to withdraw from Vietnam, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Forty-one years later, we still don’t know who killed him.
Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, was convicted as Kennedy’s lone assassin. Today, revisionist historians depict him as “the first in a line of Arab terrorists” leading up to 9-11. Political commentator Alan Dershowitz bizarrely claims the assassination was “the beginning of Islamic terrorism in America,” despite the fact Sirhan was a Christian who grew up in Pasadena, with no criminal record and no links to terrorism whatsoever.
At first, it seemed an open and shut case. Witnesses saw Sirhan step down from a tray-stacker, approach the senator “like he was going to shake his hand” and reach for his Iver Johnson .22 revolver. Then, the sound of firecrackers in a crowded, narrow corridor. Kennedy raised his right arm to defend himself and was hit twice under the armpit and once behind the right ear at close range. The senator wheeled backwards and slumped to the floor, fatally wounded by a bullet to the brain.
The autopsy concluded all three shots were fired at an upward angle from an inch behind Kennedy, but witnesses variously placed the muzzle of Sirhan’s gun from a foot and a half to five feet in front of the senator. Not one could place the gun within an inch of Kennedy’s right ear. Maitre d’ Karl Uecker and attorney Frank Burns, standing between Sirhan and the senator, later insisted Sirhan never got close enough to fire the fatal shot described in the autopsy. Uecker diverted Sirhan’s gun after the second shot and, with five others injured, extra bullet holes in the pantry suggested more than one gun was involved.
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences last year, forensic audio expert Philip Van Praag provided a compelling explanation for these discrepancies. Van Praag carefully analysed a recently discovered audio recording of the gunshots—the only known recording of the shooting. He concluded that thirteen shots were fired in the pantry: eight from Sirhan’s position in front of Kennedy and five from behind. Three shots from behind hit Kennedy, and their audio characteristics perfectly match those of the .22 revolver owned by private security guard Thane Cesar, who was standing behind Robert Kennedy and was holding the senator’s right elbow at the time of the shooting.
This is not just another Kennedy conspiracy theory. This is serious evidence, casting major doubts on Sirhan’s conviction and exposing gross failings in the American criminal justice system.
To compound the mystery, for over forty years Sirhan claims he has never been able to remember the shooting. Before the trial, defense and prosecution psychiatrists repeatedly hypnotised Sirhan in an unsuccessful attempt to recover his memory. Defense psychiatrist Dr. Bernard Diamond concluded Sirhan was in a hypnotic state at the time of the shooting. Prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Seymour Pollack agreed Sirhan was suffering from “diminished capacity” and was not fully conscious of his actions. They recommended a charge of second-degree murder. The jury became confused by the weeks of psychiatric testimony, so instead, Sirhan got the death penalty, which was later commuted to life.
The most damning piece of evidence during the trial was the strange notebook found in Sirhan’s room after his arrest, the product of an intense interest in mysticism in the months leading up to the assassination.
At five foot two, Sirhan had once dreamed of becoming a jockey. After a fall from a horse in 1966, his dream died and, unemployed and with few friends, he spent hours alone in his room working on his mystical powers. He was a member of the Rosicrucian Society (AMORC) and learned self-hypnosis through AMORC correspondence manuals. Hypnotizing himself by candlelight in a bedside mirror, he wrote page after page of “automatic writing” in his notebook—pouring his subconscious thoughts and desires onto paper in strange repeated patterns, in a bid to visualize and attain his goals.
A month before the assassination, Sirhan read an article in the Rosicrucian Digest advising him to “Put it in writing”:
Plan to Dare something different—something exciting! Plan to become a success in some endeavor and be ready to jump barefoot into the excitement of living. But here’s a word of advice: put it in writing! Put your plan, your goal, your idea in writing, and see how it suddenly catches fire. See how it gains momentum by the simple process of writing it down! Try it. Pick a goal. Set a target date. I Dare you to write it down!
On May 18, 1968, Sirhan dared to write it down:
May 18 9:45 AM, 68
My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming more the more of an unshakable obsession . . . R.F.K. must die—RFK must be killed Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated R.F.K. must be assassinated . . . R.F.K. must be assassinated assassinated . . . Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before 5 June 68 Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated I have never heard please pay to the order ofofofofof
Where did this sudden desire to kill Bobby Kennedy come from? While previous notebook entries raged against the Zionists, who had humiliated the Arabs in the Six-Day War the year before, Kennedy was never mentioned. In court, Sirhan blamed his surge of hatred for Bobby on a Kennedy campaign documentary he saw on television a couple of weeks before the shooting.
In a transparent play for the Jewish vote, the film juxtaposed Kennedy with the Israeli flag and reported on Bobby’s support, as a young reporter in 1948, for the birth of Israel. Sirhan later explained:
Up until that time, I had loved Robert Kennedy, I cared for him very much and I hoped he would win the Presidency until that moment, sir. But when I saw, heard, he was supporting Israel, sir, not in 1968, but he was supporting it from all the way back from its inception in 1948, sir. And he was doing a lot of things behind my back that I didn’t know about . . . it burned me up, sir. And that is most likely, sir, when I had written this.
But Sirhan’s snap decision to assassinate Kennedy for his support of Israel is hard to believe and the notebook chronology makes no sense. The most damning notebook entry was written on the morning of May 18, but the documentary was first shown in the Los Angeles area two nights later. Kennedy didn’t advocate sending fifty jet bombers to Israel—Sirhan’s stated motive at the trial—until a speech on May 26 at Temple Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon.
How could Sirhan write of his increasingly “unshakable obsession” to kill Kennedy on May 18 when he wasn’t even aware of Kennedy’s support for Israel until two days later, and the bombers weren’t mentioned until six days after that? To complicate matters, Sirhan recognized the writing in the notebook as his but couldn’t remember writing it. It seems clear the notebooks were written in a hypnotic trance, but did Sirhan hypnotise himself or were others involved?
Witness accounts of Sirhan’s behavior on the night of the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel also suggest an altered state of mind. A couple of hours before Kennedy’s speech, Western Union Teletype operator Mary Grohs watched Sirhan stand staring, mesmerized by the Teletype machine in the press room: “He came over to my machine and started staring at it. Just staring. I’ll never forget his eyes.”
Later, when Sirhan came face-to-face with Kennedy in the pantry, waiter Vincent DiPierro’s most vivid memory was the “sick smile on his face” while he was shooting. Other witnesses also noticed Sirhan’s strange smile and brow furrowed in “tremendous concentration” as he fired.
One witness described Sirhan’s “superhuman strength” as half a dozen burly Kennedy aides tried to pry the gun from his grasp after the shots. Burly maitre d’ Karl Uecker was surprised at the strength of Sirhan’s grip as he smashed his hand on the steam table to try and shake the gun free. Despite the furious activity swirling around him, writer George Plimpton described Sirhan’s eyes as “dark brown and enormously peaceful.” Joe LaHive thought Sirhan looked “very tranquil” as he was being kicked and punched in the pantry.
Sirhan in Custody
How also to explain Sirhan’s jovial banter in custody? According to Sergeant Bill Jordan, “He was happy to talk about anything other than the Kennedy case . . . I was impressed by Sirhan’s composure and relaxation. He appeared less upset to me than individuals arrested for a traffic violation.” At three thirty in the morning, Sirhan seemed so disoriented, Deputy DA John Howard had to remind him he was in Los Angeles. Was Sirhan a callous, cold-blooded murderer, smugly dusting himself off after a job well done, or in a dissociated state, completely unaware of the shooting?
Later that morning, when examined by Dr. Crahan in his cell, Sirhan shivered, appearing to have a chill. Months later, every time Dr. Diamond brought Sirhan out of hypnosis, he had a habit of shivering as he readjusted to full consciousness. Was he slowly emerging from a trance as Dr. Crahan examined him nine hours after the shooting? Despite this witness testimony, Sirhan was not tested for drugs or alcohol after his arrest.
The combination of witness evidence, his interviews with Sirhan, and what he saw in the psychiatric sessions with Drs. Diamond and Pollack certainly convinced defense investigator Robert Blair Kaiser, who stated: “I hold it now, maybe ninety-five percent certainty . . . that he really didn’t remember shooting Robert Kennedy, that he probably killed Kennedy in a trance and was programmed to forget that he’d done it, and programmed to forget the names and identities of others who might have helped him do it.”
Six years after the shooting, Dr. Diamond told researcher Betsy Langman: “Let me immediately state that it was immediately apparent that Sirhan had been programmed . . . His response to hypnosis was very different . . . strange, in many respects. And he showed this phenomenon of automatic writing, which is something that can be done only when one is pretty well trained.”
Diamond called the idea that Sirhan could have been programmed by someone else as a “crackpot theory.” He believed Sirhan “programmed himself exactly as a computer is programmed by its magnetic tape [through a] correspondence course in self-hypnosis . . . This seems the most logical explanation of all the things that happened.”
MKULTRA Programmed Assassin?
In 1968, the idea of a “Manchurian Candidate” was still dismissed as a Hollywood fantasy, but unknown to the public or Sirhan’s small army of psychiatrists, the CIA had in fact been secretly trying to create such a programmed assassin since the early 1950s. One of the program’s chief instigators, Richard Helms, was Agency director at the time Robert Kennedy died. Until Congress discovered the secret MKULTRA programs in the 1970s, the American public and the court of psychiatric opinion were still in their own twilight state, dissociated from what the CIA was doing in their name—assassinations, experimental testing, and mind control.
Leading psychiatrists at Harvard and Columbia medical schools now believe Sirhan was hypnotically programmed to kill Kennedy. Dr. Herbert Spiegel, a world authority on hypnosis and professor of psychiatry at Columbia since the early fifties, shares this view. Dr. Spiegel devised two of the most widely used tests for measuring a subject’s susceptibility to hypnosis. His Hypnotic Induction Profile grades subjects from 0 to 5, with grade fives (some five to ten percent of the population) the most highly hypnotizable and open to suggestion.
“On the basis of what Dr. Diamond described,” says Dr. Spiegel, “Sirhan seemed to be a very hypnotizable person. He had Sirhan act like a monkey or do all kinds of bizarre things which only a high [on the scale] could do. Now, if he were a one or a two, it’d be impossible for [Diamond] to get him to do that.” Dr. Spiegel postulates that Sirhan was programmed during a couple of months of conditioning, which played on his love for Palestine and his deep desire to avoid Israeli jets dropping bombs on his people, bombs which he experienced first-hand as a child in Jerusalem.
At a certain point, Sirhan’s rage at perceived Zionist injustices was targeted towards Kennedy and his support for Israel. A cue-word or the image of Bobby Kennedy would trigger a trance in which Sirhan acted out a post-hypnotic program to try to kill the senator. The June 5 deadline in Sirhan’s notebook was the anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War the year before that had been so ruinous for the Arabs.
There are few clues as to how Sirhan may have been recruited, but being unemployed in the months leading up to the assassination, he spent his days at the local library or the racetrack. He had few friends, so nobody really knew what he did with his days. I think somebody got to him during this time. Today, Sirhan is America’s last surviving political assassin; locked away in the same California prison as Charles Manson for a crime he can’t remember committing. He has been eligible for parole since 1985, but his case has never been properly re-examined.
Author David Talbot notes that Bobby Kennedy became “America’s first JFK assassination-conspiracy theorist” after his brother’s death. In turn, the friends of Robert Kennedy have become some of the most vocal RFK assassination-conspiracy theorists. UAW official Paul Schrade, shot in the head while walking behind Kennedy through the pantry, has led the campaign to get this case reopened for thirty-five years.
How can an assassination that radically altered the course of American history be followed by such a hapless and willfully negligent police investigation and such a farcical trial, in which the LAPD criminalist with sole access to the physical evidence lied repeatedly under oath?
Forty years after a tragic event that killed the hope and idealism of the 1960s, can we say beyond reasonable doubt that Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy? Not on this evidence.
L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley has not yet bothered to examine the new audio discoveries in the case, and the California Department of Corrections is blocking attempts by Sirhan’s lawyer to begin regression therapy to recover Sirhan’s memory. The case needs to be urgently reopened before key witnesses pass away and history is written by a handful of LAPD officers whose anxiety to avoid another Dallas led to a serious failure of justice.
Sirhan In His Own Words
Sirhan told the court he arrived at the Ambassador hotel about eight in the evening. The crowd was very mixed and everybody was “all dressed up . . . The whole place was milling with people, sir. There were many TV cameras, a lot of bright lights, sir.”
He walked up the circular stairway to the lobby and saw a big sign for Republican Senate candidate Max Rafferty and the name rang a bell. Rafferty’s daughter Kathleen was in Sirhan’s Russian class at high school. He dropped into the Rafferty reception in the Venetian Room, thinking he might see her. The room was filled with “brilliant lights” but Kathleen wasn’t there.
There was a pleasant mood throughout the hotel, so Sirhan went to the bar and bought a Tom Collins cocktail. He didn’t normally drink but “it was a hot night. There was a big party, and I wanted to fit in . . . ” He liked the Tom Collins, it tasted like lemonade. Sirhan stayed at Rafferty headquarters for about an hour, then bought another Tom Collins and went outside to a lawn area.
Around 9:30 to 9:45, auto mechanic and Kennedy supporter Enrique Rabago got separated from his friend and walked out onto the front porch to look for him. He spotted Sirhan sipping a drink alone and started chatting to him about the election.
“Are we going to win?” asked Rabago.
“I think we’re going to win,” Sirhan replied.
“I don’t know, [Senator Eugene] McCarthy is ahead now.”
“Don’t worry about Kennedy if he doesn’t win,” said Sirhan. “That son of a bitch is a millionaire. He just wants to go to the White House. Even if he wins, he’s not going to win it for you or me or any of the poor people. He’s just going to buy the Presidency.”
Later, Sirhan remembered standing in front of a teletype machine in the press room, staring at it over the shoulder of Western Union teletype operator Mary Grohs, as the keys tapped out their messages. “I was mesmerized,” he said. “I had never seen anything like that before . . . The keys were going all by themselves.”
Grohs told the LAPD that sometime between 9:30 and 11:00 p.m., she saw a young man with “intense eyes” staring at the teletype machine. He was “dressed like a poor Mexican” and she told him the teletype tapping out Kennedy election returns was further down the line. He looked at her “with that intense look,” then walked away without saying anything.
Later, when Sirhan was brought out of the pantry through the Colonial Room, Grohs jumped up and screamed “That’s the man I talked to!” and Sirhan gave her “the same intense look.” When defense investigator Bob Kaiser learned about Grohs after the trial, he called her up and after some hesitation, she recounted the episode: “Well, he came over to my machine and started staring at it. Just staring. I’ll never forget his eyes. I asked him what he wanted. He didn’t answer. He just kept staring.”
“In retrospect,” Kaiser asked, “do you think he might have been in some kind of trance?”
“Oh no!” she said. “He wasn’t under hypnosis . . . I just assumed he couldn’t speak English.” When Kaiser tried to pursue the matter, Grohs asked for his name. “I want to talk to the police about you. They told me not to say anything about this.”
Was Sirhan’s staring a form of hypnosis or was he just naturally curious? In Sirhan’s own words: “I was shit-faced drunk.”
By now, Sirhan had drunk four Tom Collins cocktails. “It was like drinking lemonade. I was guzzling them. My body is small. It was hot in there, and I wasn’t used to it. I was feeling it, and I got sleepy. So I wanted to go home.” At the trial, Sirhan added, “I was quite high and I was alone. If I got any more drunk, there was nobody with me to take care of me . . . so I decided to go home, sir.”
He left the hotel and walked uphill and back to his car. When he got in, he realised he was in no condition to drive. He had no insurance and was afraid he’d get a ticket or get in an accident.
“What did you do, then?” asked Sirhan’s attorney Grant Cooper.
“I decided, sir, to go back down to the party and sober up, drink some coffee.”
“Did you pick up your gun?”
“I don’t remember, sir . . . I must have, but I don’t remember.”
“And where did you go when you got back to the Ambassador?”
“In search of coffee . . . I don’t know where I found it, but eventually I found some.”
Sirhan found a big, shiny coffee urn, surrounded by “piles and piles of cups and saucers.”
“Did this place look like a kitchen?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Did you see any people there?”
“I don’t remember, sir. I was so glad to have found the coffee, that was the only thing on my mind, sir . . . As I was pouring my coffee, some girl came up and said she wanted some, too. I like my coffee with cream and sugar, lots of cream, and that’s exactly the way she liked it . . . so I gave her my cup and poured myself another.”
“Do you remember what this girl looked like?”
“She had some dark hair . . . about my age.”
“A good looking girl?”
“What was the next thing you did?”
“The next thing I remember, sir, I was being choked.”
“Do you remember anything in between?”
“That you were standing in the pantry?”
“That is what I later learned in this court, sir.”
“That you walked up to Senator Kennedy and put a gun toward his head, possibly within an inch or two, and you pulled the trigger and he eventually died.”
“Yes, I was told this.”
“Now, you believe it is true?”
“And after that you were choked?”
“I was choked, yes, quite severely . . . I don’t know who was doing the choking but he was doing a good job at it.”
©2008 by Shane O’Sullivan. Excerpted from Who Killed Bobby?: The Unsolved Murder of Robert F. Kennedywith permission from the publisher, Union Square Press, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Shane O’Sullivan is the author of Who Killed Bobby? (whokilledbobby.net) and director of the documentary RFK Must Die (rfkmustdie.com). He may be reached at [email protected]. The 551-page hardcover may be purchased at whokilledbobby.net or barnesandnoble.com. “The most definitive work on the RFK case. It contains much new material that I am sure will contribute to a reopening” – William Turner, former FBI agent and author of The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy