The other Kennedy conspiracy

The assassination of Robert Kennedy never received the scrutiny it deserves

Published November 21, 2011 9:20AM (EST)

Robert Kennedy after winning the California primary in June 1968, shortly before his assassination.
Robert Kennedy after winning the California primary in June 1968, shortly before his assassination.

Each November, the media recalls the assassination of President Kennedy and its attendant controversies. Rarely, however, is a second Kennedy anniversary acknowledged. On Nov. 20, 2011, Robert Kennedy -- JFK's brother and devoted political partner -- would have turned 86 years old had he not also been assassinated. Although the mainstream media has been all but silent on this case, the facts scream out for a deeper investigation.

The story of Robert Kennedy's assassination seems deceptively simple. After winning the California Democratic presidential primary on June 4, 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy traversed a pantry at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. A young Palestinian Christian named Sirhan Sirhan pulled a gun and fired. Kennedy died roughly 25 hours later. Five others were wounded. Sirhan was tried and convicted. End of story, right?

Not so fast. A crime is like a jigsaw puzzle. You can't solve the puzzle by forcing a piece where it doesn't belong. The theory that Sirhan killed Kennedy is an ill-fitting piece not supported by the physical evidence. Here are some facts that are not in dispute.

Fact: The medical evidence showed that Kennedy was shot four times from behind from a distance of 1 to 6 inches. The fatal shot entered Kennedy from 1 inch behind Kennedy's right ear.

Fact: All witnesses placed Sirhan in front of Kennedy. Not one witness put Sirhan's gun muzzle closer than a foot to Kennedy, and most witnesses placed the muzzle about 3 feet away.

Based on these two facts alone, Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi wrote in his memoir, "Thus I have never said that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy."

Fact: Seven bullets were recovered from six pantry victims. Another bullet was lost in the ceiling space. Sirhan's gun could only hold eight bullets. But an FBI agent photographed four additional "bullet holes" in the pantry. This so worried Los Angeles County officials that, nine years later, they asked the FBI essentially for a retraction, noting that if those were, in fact, "bullet holes," as the bureau unequivocally stated, "We should certainly find out who else was firing."

In recent years, an audiotape recorded by Stanislaw Pruszynski, a Polish reporter covering the 1968 presidential campaign for Canadian newspapers, resurfaced that supported the FBI's finding. Sound engineer Philip Van Praag used sophisticated equipment to analyze the tape and found at least 12 shot sounds on the tape. He also found that two pairs of shots came too close together to have been fired from a single gun.

The evidence clearly points to at least two shooters that night in the Ambassador pantry. In addition to the physical evidence, multiple witnesses spotted other men with drawn guns in the pantry.

Fact: Richard Lubic, a televison producer, was standing behind Kennedy during the shooting. Lubic saw an arm to his right with a gun but could not see who was holding the gun. After Kennedy fell, Lubic knelt to help Kennedy and saw a security guard, Thane Eugene Cesar, with his gun drawn and pointing toward the floor. The Los Angeles Police Department later put enormous pressure on Lubic to change his story. Lubic was visited at home by LAPD investigators, who told him, "Don't bring this up, don't be talking about this."

Fact: Donald Schulman, a young runner for a local TV station, claimed he saw security guard Cesar fire his gun. Schulman also told the LAPD he saw three guns in the pantry. (Some authors have mistakenly suggested Schulman wasn't in the pantry, but LAPD records confirm that he was.)

Fact: Sandy Serrano, a Kennedy campaign volunteer, told NBC News reporter Sander Vanocur on live TV about seeing a young woman in a polka dot dress and a male companion who had passed her on a fire escape. The woman in the polka dot dress said, "We shot him, we shot him!" Serrano asked whom they shot. The woman said, "Senator Kennedy," and ran off. A witness in the pantry, Vincent DiPierro, told the LAPD about a woman in a white dress with dark polka dots who seemed to be "holding" Sirhan just before the shooting.

Fact: The police were so interested in this "girl in the polka dot dress" that they issued an APB for her and specifically asked nearly all the witnesses interviewed whether they had seen anyone fitting her description. But when the story started to gain traction in the press, the LAPD declared that a blond girl on crutches in a bright green dress with yellow lemons dotting it was "the girl in the polka dot dress" and closed the book on this subject.

A new novel called "The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress" conjures an imaginary history for this illusory character. It's a shame the novelist didn't review the actual record, as the LAPD files suggest an even more provocative back story, which has not yet appeared in print, but will, when I finish the nonfiction book I'm writing about this case.

If one accepts the existing evidence, at least two people were firing bullets. And if two people were shooting, not only was there a conspiracy, it was such a sophisticated one that it has eluded prosecution for over 40 years.

The piece that has never fit has been Sirhan himself. Why did he never identify his co-conspirators? In addition, Sirhan has always claimed he had no memory of this crime. He had no idea why he shot Kennedy, nor did he remember writing in a notebook, over and over, "RFK must die."

Could Sirhan have been hypnotized? I know how crazy this sounds to people who haven't studied the history of mind control. It sounds like the stuff of Hollywood fiction. (On the other hand, where do you think Hollywood gets those stories? William Bryan, a renowned hypnotist who consulted on the making of the film "The Manchurian Candidate," called a radio show shortly after Kennedy was shot to suggest Sirhan had been hypnotically programmed.)

Several witnesses, including some of the Los Angeles police officers who interacted with Sirhan immediately after the shooting, commented on Sirhan's preternatural calmness before, during and after the shooting. LAPD officer Randolph Adair said in later years, "The guy was real confused. It was like it didn't exactly hit him what he had done. He had a black, glassed-over look on his face -- like he wasn't in complete control of his mind at the time."

Both Sirhan's defense team and the prosecution tried and failed to get Sirhan to recall shooting Kennedy under hypnosis. Both, however, presumed his guilt and tried to get him to "admit" it while in a trance, which Sirhan never did.

Sirhan's current attorney, William Pepper, recently had an expert hypnotize Sirhan in an open-ended fashion, during which Sirhan finally recalled that the touch of a girl in the pantry sent Sirhan into a mode where he thought he was firing at a target on a range. Could the girl in a polka dot dress DiPierro saw "holding" Sirhan moments before the shooting began have triggered his act?

On Channel 4 in the U.K. last month, hypnotist Derren Brown tested this scenario on his TV show "The Experiments." He took a highly hypnotizable subject and, over a two-month period, trained him to shoot and "kill" a celebrity. The subject, however, did not know this was the experiment's goal. Brown gave his subject a two-part trigger that would send him into a hypnotic state: a polka dot pattern and a unique cellphone ring tone. When he saw this pattern and heard the tone, the young man was taught to touch his head to focus his concentration, and then fire a gun at a target on a range. But his final test occurred not at a range, but at a taping of British entertainer Stephen Fry's show. As the subject watched the show from a back row, a hidden camera showed a girl in a polka dot dress enter and sit in front of the subject. The cellphone rang. The girl turned to the subject and whispered, "The target is Stephen Fry." The subject hesitated a moment, then touched his forehead, opened the case, pulled out a gun loaded with blanks, stood, and fired. Stephen Fry, who was wired with squibs (the exploding fake blood packets used in movies to simulate gunshots), fell down "dead." The hypnotized man showed no reaction at the time. When shown a video of his act later, the subject seemed genuinely surprised at what he had done.

If Sirhan was hypnotized, is there any chance he could be "innocent" of the crime, as his current lawyers are pleading? While I'm not aware of any American precedent to such a claim, there was a similar case in Denmark in the 1950s. Palle Hadrup, who had committed a murder, was charged only with temporary insanity because the jury believed he had killed under the hypnotic influence of another man, a hardened criminal who directed Hadrup to commit crimes.

Robert Kennedy had many enemies, but which of them were capable of such a sophisticated plot? Could the mob have hypnotized Sirhan? Could Aristotle Onassis have suppressed the FBI's evidence of conspiracy? Could Jimmy Hoffa have made sure that no troubling facts about the case were ever presented to a jury? Who had that kind of power?

The CIA had strong relationships with the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, and L.A. county officials. The CIA had enormous influence over the media, including national coverage of both Kennedy assassinations, as Carl Bernstein's explosive October 1977 expose in Rolling Stone magazine later demonstrated. Even powerful FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had never been able to rein in the CIA. If anyone had the power to pull this off and completely cover their tracks, it would be a small handful of people from the covert side of the agency.

Perhaps most significantly, the CIA was, by 1968, extremely experienced in various mind-control scenarios that involved drugs, hypnosis and a combination of the two. One of the CIA's initial forays into this area came through a project code-named ARTICHOKE. One ARTICHOKE document presents the question: "Can an individual ... be made to perform an act of attempted assassination involuntarily under the influence of ARTICHOKE?" This program later evolved into the MKULTRA program, an umbrella designation for hundreds of experiments that involved drugs, hypnosis and biological and chemical warfare.

But why would the CIA want to kill Robert Kennedy? Weren't they in bed together on the Castro assassination plots when RFK was serving as his brother's gung-ho attorney general? That's a widely believed myth. The 1967 CIA Inspector General report on the anti-Castro plots explicitly asks, "Can CIA state or imply that it was merely an instrument of policy?" and answers, "Not in this case," explaining that while RFK was informed of plots against Castro from the past, he was not informed of the plots that were continuing.

During his brother's administration, Robert was a constant thorn in the CIA's side. After the agency's disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961, President Kennedy asked his brother to closely monitor the CIA, which infuriated the operatives who had for years prided themselves on their independence from authority. After RFK was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964 and became a growing critic of the war in Vietnam and the Johnson administration, the CIA began to keep a close watch on him.

Fact: The CIA was so concerned about Robert Kennedy in the last year of his life that it put spying on him on a par with spying on the Soviet Union, according to a report in the Washington Post after it obtained this data.

Perhaps the CIA was also anxious about RFK because, as David Talbot (the founder and current CEO of Salon) recounted in his 2007 book, "Brothers," Robert Kennedy harbored suspicions about the CIA's possible complicity in his brother's death. One of Robert's first calls after JFK's assassination was to the CIA to ask if the agency had killed his brother. If members of the CIA were involved in the death of JFK, could they afford to let Robert ascend to an office where he'd have the power but to do something about that?

I'm well aware that extraordinary claims deserve extraordinary evidence. I have much more to support what I've said here, which I am laying out in book form. I hope only to have cracked your mind open, because Occam's Razor fails us when the simplest explanation is the carefully planned cover story.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Howard once said of Sirhan, "If he isn't guilty, it's the sweetest frame in the world." I think Howard got that right. He isn't. And it is.

By Lisa Pease

Lisa Pease is an expert on the assassinations of the '60s in general and the Robert Kennedy assassination in particular. She has appeared on numerous radio shows and on the Discovery channel to talk about various aspects of Cold War history. Several of her articles were published in "The Assassinations" (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003), a book she also co-edited. She is a regular contributor to, Common Dreams, Truthout and Michael Moore’s site.

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Robert F. Kennedy