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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
... 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
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
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
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
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,
* 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
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
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
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.