excerpts from the book

Who Killed Robert Kennedy?

by Philip Melanson

Odonian Press, 1993, paper



Robert F. Kennedy was shot down just after midnight on June 5, 1968, minutes after proclaiming victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. His assassination had an enormous effect on the course of American politics. The country lost a prominent critic of the Vietnam war and a committed champion of civil rights: the Democratic party lost its strongest presidential contender, enabling Republican candidate Richard Nixon to win the November election. More than four-fifths of all Americans are convinced that they haven't been told the truth about President John Kennedy's assassination. Far fewer are aware that the investigation into Robert Kennedy's death was just as flawed and corrupt.


Murder in Los Angeles

Bobby Kennedy (as he was almost always called) hadn't planned to run for the democratic nomination in 1968. Many of his closest political advisors encouraged him to wait until 1972, when he had a better chance of winning. In 1968, Kennedy would be facing an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, who was still popular in the polls-despite growing protest against his escalation of the Vietnam War.

But then Eugene McCarthy, the other democratic presidential contender, captured 42% of the vote in the March 12 New Hampshire primary. That meant Johnson was vulnerable-and that Kennedy had a chance to win.

Kennedy's entry into the race on March 16 angered Johnson and McCarthy supporters alike. But Kennedy was convinced that if Johnson won, there'd be "more war, more troops [and] more killing"-and less money for the domestic programs he'd so vigorously supported as Senator. McCarthy opposed the war, but Kennedy wasn't convinced he could win the presidency, even if he captured the nomination.

By the June 4 California primary, Johnson had dropped out of the race and Hubert Humphrey, his vice-president, had announced his own candidacy. Kennedy had won important victories in the Indiana, District of Columbia and Nebraska primaries, but the nomination was still far from secure. California would be a key test-whoever captured that state's 174 convention delegates would have the best chance of becoming the party's presidential candidate.

Early California returns showed McCarthy ahead. But then Kennedy pulled into the lead, and by late evening it was clear he'd taken the state. To celebrate the victory and to hear Kennedy speak, a beyond-capacity crowd of over 1800 supporters began to gather at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The assassination

Tired but jubilant, Robert Kennedy stepped to the podium in the hotel ballroom and stood looking out over the sea of straw hats, balloons and smiling faces. He addressed the crowd with the same message of hope that had characterized his campaign. Lamenting the "division, the violence [and] the disenchantment" within America, he expressed confidence that "we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. I intend to make that my basis for running."

When the applause died down, Kennedy stepped off the podium and started to move toward the crowd. But someone in his party steered him in the opposite direction, toward the backstage exit. Earlier that day, hotel personnel (at the request of Kennedy's aides) had decided to take the Senator on a back route through the hotel's pantry area, to keep him away from the frenzied crowd.

Hotel maitre d' Karl Uecker led Kennedy and more than a dozen members of his entourage into a cramped corridor. Even there the crowd couldn't be completely avoided; dozens of busboys, waiters and campaign workers waited, hoping to get a close-up view. Kennedy smiled, nodded and stopped for an occasional handshake as he moved down the corridor and into the pantry.

It was about 12:15 am. Uecker was still slightly ahead of the Senator and to his right. Uniformed security guard Thane Cesar walked slightly behind, also on Kennedy's right. (In 1968, presidential candidates weren't given secret service protection, so the hotel had hired eight private security guards. Kennedy had requested that the guards keep their distance, so he wouldn't be surrounded by uniformed personnel.)

A young, dark-haired man began to approach Kennedy from the front. He was smiling, and bystanders thought he wanted to shake the Senator's hand. But the smile was betrayed by his words:

"Kennedy, you son of a bitch!"

High school student Lisa Urso saw the young man raise the gun and begin to shoot. "I saw the flash [from the gun] and then I saw the Senator .... He went forward, then moved backward...

Someone called an ambulance and the Senator was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital. There a team of six surgeons labored to remove the bullet lodged in his brain. But his injuries were too severe. At 1:44 pm the next day, Robert F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.

An open-and-shut case

In 1968 it wasn't yet a federal crime to shoot a presidential candidate, so the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) took charge of the investigation into Kennedy's murder. With the FBI's assistance, they spent the next fourteen months investigating the murder.

From the beginning, the LAPD claimed the assassination was an open-and-shut case. Numerous witnesses had seen Sirhan Sirhan, the 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant who'd been apprehended at the crime scene, fire at Kennedy. Sirhan himself admitted he must have shot the Senator (since so many witnesses had seen him), even though he couldn't remember anything about the evening from the time he'd had a cup of coffee with an attractive young woman until after he'd emptied his gun and lay pinned to the pantry steam table.

Sirhan also seemed to have a clear motive. When he was taken into custody, the police found in his pocket a newspaper clipping criticizing RFK for opposing the Vietnam War while favoring military aid to Israel. A background check revealed that as a young child in Palestine, Sirhan had seen the bloodied bodies of Arabs bombed by the Israelis, and his own brother was killed by an enemy truck as it veered to avoid sniper fire. Authorities reasoned that those early experiences had left Sirhan embittered against American politicians, like RFK, who supported Israel.

Even more incriminating was a notebook found in Sirhan's bedroom at his mother's house, in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. It contained anti-American, procommunist sentiments, and two pages of scrawled, repetitive references to killing RFK. The most damning of these read, "May 18 9:45 AM-68 My determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more the more [sic] of an unshakable obsession ... RFK must die."

The cover-up

From the beginning, a handful of journalists and citizens remained skeptical about the LAPD's conclusions. But when these critics tried to substantiate their suspicions with data from police files, they met massive resistance. The LAPD replied that the files were under lock-and-key, accessible only to those law-enforcement officials with a "need to know." The Los Angeles authorities even initiated legal proceedings against some critics who questioned the official findings.

... the LAPD continued to resist for three more years-until letter campaigns and media coverage made it politically inexpedient to keep the information secret any longer. On April 19, 1988, the files were sent to the California State Archives in Sacramento, where researchers could evaluate the evidence for themselves.

The files made it clear that the LAPD had engaged in a massive cover-up, both during the original investigation and in the intervening twenty years. They'd not only attempted to misconstrue or overlook data that didn't support their lone-assassin view, but they'd actively destroyed evidence that might suggest a conspiracy... Now it learned that:

* The results of the 1968 test firing of Sirhan's gun were missing.

* The test gun used for ballistics comparison and identification was destroyed.

* Over 90% of the audiotaped witness testimony was lost or destroyed. Of the 3470 interviews the LAPD conducted, only 301 were preserved. Key testimony-like 29 witness accounts that suggested conspiracy-was missing, while less important interviews-like that of Sirhan's Bible teacher-remained.

* On August 21, 1968, less than two months after the assassination, 2400 photographs from the original investigation were burned, in the medical-waste incinerator at LA County General Hospital. The LAPD claimed that the photos were duplicates, but there weren't any known logs or inventories of photos that could verify that.

Moreover, Scott Enyart, an amateur photographer who'd been taking pictures the night of the assassination and whose film had been confiscated by police, has never been given back all his photos. His pictures, the only ones that might have captured the actual shooting, weren't in the files.

But even with the limited data that remained, there was still ample evidence to substantiate what critics had been saying all along-that there was a conspiracy to kill RFK.

The evidence for such a conspiracy falls into three key areas. First, it now appears clear that it was impossible for Sirhan to have fired the bullets that killed Kennedy - which means there must have been a second gunman. Second, an abundance of testimony by eye-witnesses suggests that Sirhan had at least two accomplices. Third, Sirhan's political motive-his hatred of RFK for supporting Israel-seems to be either a fabrication of the LAPD or a motive planted by conspirators to divert suspicion 1 from a more sinister plot.

Evidence for a second gunman

... The autopsy revealed three gunshot wounds in Robert Kennedy's body-one behind the right ear, a second near the right armpit and a third 11/2 inches below the armpit wound. A fourth bullet missed his body but pierced the right rear shoulder of his suit coat. All bullets entered from the right rear, at fairly steep upward angles and in a slightly right-to-left direction.

... although witnesses disagree on whether Sirhan shot at RFK while the Senator was turned to his left shaking hands with busboy Juan Romero or whether the handshake had finished and Kennedy was walking forward, all agree that Sirhan approached Kennedy from the front and that the Senator never turned his back to Sirhan.

This is totally inconsistent with the autopsy evidence that the shots came from the rear.

... it's never been shown that it was possible for Sirhan to have fired the fatal shots at RFK. And if he didn't, there must have been a second gunman.

The LAPD's response to the question of extra bullets was to conduct a systematic

cover-up... they destroyed the ceiling tiles and doorframe wood in 1969, as well as records of tests done on the door frames or ceiling tiles. Then, when photos of this crucial area were released, they were identified only by number but lacked captions or labeling. Since there's no corresponding log to indicate what the numbers refer to, they aren't of much use as evidence.

When the destruction of the evidence was revealed in 1975, the LAPD claimed that they'd destroyed the tiles and frame wood because they were "too large to fit into a card file" (needless to say, so is a lot of evidence). Daryl Gates, who at that point was assistant chief of police, claimed that the destruction didn't matter because the tiles and frame wood contained no bullets and therefore weren't evidence.

The DA's office attempted to dispel mounting public suspicion by conducting what critics would dub "the great pantry raid." Investigators descended upon the crime scene to conduct a meticulous search for bullets and bullet holes. Ignoring the fact that the most relevant holes (in the door jamb and ceiling tiles) had been removed and destroyed seven years earlier, they concluded that the one supposedly surviving hole (which in 1968 had allegedly been labeled as a bullet hole) was in fact a nail hole. The day after the raid, an official spokesman dramatically announced that "no other bullets were found last night."

Don Schulman, a runner for KNXT-TV in Los Angeles, also reported seeing a gun other than Sirhan's. He'd been standing behind Kennedy as he walked through the pantry and had seen a security guard fire three times. Immediately after the shooting, Schulman reported his story on the radio and insisted that Kennedy was shot three times. Even though the early media reports and crime--scene witnesses generally asserted that the Senator was hit only twice, Schulman stuck to his story. The autopsy proved him right.

(In later law-enforcement interviews, when Schulman was under pressure to be "absolutely positive" about what he saw, Schulman stated that he didn't see the guard shoot Kennedy, as his first statement seemed to imply. He did assert that he saw the guard fire three times and Kennedy hit three times, but admitted he couldn't necessarily connect the two events.)

When the FBI followed up on Khaiber Khan's story (he was the Kennedy volunteer who'd seen a blond woman at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters three times prior to the assassination), they found an interesting discrepancy.

Two other workers at the headquarters, Ellenor Severson and Larry Strick, had seen Sirhan there (without a blond companion) at about 2:00 pin on June 2; they also asserted that Khan was present at that time. Strick claimed he'd asked Sirhan if he needed help, and Sirhan had replied, "I'm with him," pointing to Khan. Severson corroborated Strick's story. But Khan claimed that he wasn't at headquarters at that time, that he couldn't remember any such incident and that he'd never seen Sirhan before the assassination.

When the FBI and the LAPD began to pursue this angle of the case, they found that Khan had an interesting history. According to their files, he'd once been influential in the Iranian government and had later fled to the US to escape the Shah. Lately he'd been working at the local Kennedy headquarters, recruiting young volunteers for the campaign.

While this information on Khan's background was true, it was incomplete. In a 1965 article in The Nation, Fred J. Cook revealed important facets of Khan's life that never appeared in the official files. In 1944, at age 20, Khan joined British intelligence and ran an Iranian spy ring. After World War II, he served as a liaison between the occupying allied forces in Iran and several Iranian tribes, and was awarded an aristocratic title for his efforts.

Cook credited Khan with helping the CIA overthrow Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The coup rid the US of the left-leaning premier who'd nationalized a British oil company and put a puppet ruler, Shah Reza Pahiavi, in power.

According to Cook, Khan achieved great power in Iran, until a falling out with the Shah sent him into exile in London. From there he lived an opulent lifestyle, directing his spies to gather damaging evidence about the Shah's finances. In 1963, he entered the US; shortly afterwards, he was able to document the Shah's theft of US foreign aid and bring this to the attention of Congress and the Johnson administration.

Although his public discrediting of the Shah infuriated certain elements of the US State Department (which believed the Shah was an essential pillar of US interests in the Persian Gull), it undoubtedly also had the blessing, if not the backing, of some elements within government and intelligence circles.

There's certainly evidence that Khan was doing something that the British and US governments perceived as worthwhile. In London, two Scotland Yard detectives provided security for him, and he drove a Rolls Royce with Washington DC plates. Once in the US, the House of Representatives filed a bill to grant him political and economic relief from the oppression of the Iranian government.

Given Khan's background, political connections and wealth, it's highly unusual that he would choose to serve the Kennedy campaign as a local volunteer. The timing of his volunteer work is also strange. Although he claimed to have "personally spent considerable time" at Kennedy headquarters, in reality he'd only worked there four days (June 1-4).

Of course, none of these oddities render Khan guilty of anything. But the question remains why the investigating agencies simply ignored Khan's background as a master of espionage... was it because Khan might alert the LAPD to conspiratorial leads that they were determined not to pursue?

Who had a motive?

Who hated Bobby Kennedy enough to have him murdered? RFK began to accrue enemies during his brother's presidency (when he served as attorney general). Both Kennedys angered some of the most powerful individuals or groups in America, including:

* the Mafia, who'd been the victim of the administration's unprecedented crackdown on organized crime (RFK had actually deported New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello)

* FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who'd been forced by the attorney general to go after the Mafia (Hoover had denied for years that organized crime existed and preferred to concentrate on eliminating "communists")

* elements of the CIA, who'd participated in the 1961 attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs (the Kennedy brothers who felt they'd been misled by the CIA about the strength of Castro's forces refused to send air support when the invaders met powerful resistance; afterwards, JFK fired CIA director Allen Dulles, and Bobby Kennedy took on a role in CIA policy that was anathema to some of the most swashbuckling CIA veterans)

The old animosities only increased when RFK announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Both his old enemies and several new ones had a lot to lose from an RFK presidency. That list included:

* ex-Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, whom RFK, as attorney general, had sent to prison for jury tampering (if RFK became president, Hoffa would have had to serve his entire thirteen year sentence, but President Nixon pardoned him)

* right-wing and racist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, who feared RFK's strong commitment to civil rights

* Southern California ranchers who feared Kennedy's support of César Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union-and who, according to an FBI report, had once put out a $500,000 contract on RFK's life (if the union leaders succeeded in organizing thousands of farm workers, the ranchers' profits and power would plummet)

* hard-line cold warriors in the military and intelligence community-even the defense industry-who saw that an RFK presidency would create a complete reversal of US policy in Vietnam

With enemies like these, the pat explanation that Sirhan Sirhan assassinated RFK for his support of Israel seems far less persuasive-especially since RFK's Middle East stance differed very little from the other candidates'. The individuals or groups mentioned above had much more powerful reasons to keep RFK from becoming president in 1968.

Re-opening the case

The question is often asked: why bother to re-investigate this case? It's been so long, why stir up painful memories?

There are at least three arguments for reinvestigation. First, and most obviously, if Sirhan didn't kill RFK, his murderers should be brought to justice.

Second, we need to understand the root causes of the violence that threatens our democratic system. It's important to know whether Robert Kennedy was killed because of a muddled young Palestinian with a political grudge, or because powerful interests in America didn't want him to be president. If the latter's the case, those powerful interests can strike again, whenever they feel threatened.

Third, the LAPD's handling of the case must be reviewed, because law enforcement agencies and officials must be accountable to the public. The JFK and MLK assassinations have both been reviewed by organizations beyond the local jurisdiction, but the RFK assassination case has never been.

Even if it's too late to bring RFK's murderers to justice, it will strengthen American democracy to know the truth about. his murder. That truth can help check the powerful interests who manipulate the American political process to their own ends.

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