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40 years after RFK's death, questions linger
San Francisco Chronicle


June 03, 2008

The assassination was over in a few seconds. In a photograph, Bobby Kennedy lies on his back on a hotel pantry floor, his head cradled by a busboy in white -- a tableau that seems almost angelic were it not so brutal.

Right after winning the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy was shot early on the morning of June 5, 1968. He died less than 26 hours later, at age 42.

But questions about his assassination remain. Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of killing Kennedy 40 years ago this week in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, is living out his days in the California state prison at Corcoran. Now 64, he has never fully explained what happened that night other than to say he can't remember it.

A Palestinian, at 12 he moved with his family to Southern California. He held a series of menial jobs and had hoped to be a jockey.

Los Angeles police found his diary, in which he had written, "RFK must die." Investigators concluded he was angry about Kennedy's support for Israel and had tied the assassination date to the one-year anniversary of the Six-Day War.

The police authorities, who declined this week to comment on their investigation, deemed the assassination an open-and-shut case: Sirhan did it by himself.

Independent investigators suggest otherwise.

"The interesting thing is how under-examined the Robert Kennedy assassination is, compared to President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.," said David Talbot of San Francisco, author of "Brothers," a 2007 book that looks into Robert Kennedy's own investigation into his brother's death and his conviction that JFK was a conspiracy victim.

"Bobby remains the unknown territory," Talbot said. "But even if you look at it minimally, there are questions that come to mind."

Among them:

-- Sirhan fired his .22-caliber revolver from a few feet in front of Kennedy, police said, yet Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi reported that the fatal shot was fired less than one inch from behind Kennedy's right ear. Of the four shots fired at Kennedy, all came from the rear. This wasn't raised at Sirhan's trial because his defense was based on the theory that he suffered from "diminished capacity" rather than on any challenge of prosecutors' evidence.

-- Sirhan's revolver held eight rounds; a radio reporter's tape recording has sounds of what one audio expert describes as 13 shots. Sirhan never had a chance to reload before bystanders tackled him. Two sounds are what forensic experts call "double shots," so close together that they couldn't have come from the same revolver.

-- Several witnesses saw a security guard just behind Kennedy draw his revolver, and one reported seeing him fire it.

-- Over the years, Sirhan has told investigators he was in a hypnotic trance during the shooting and couldn't remember it. He said he could not remember writing, "RFK must die." He did not respond to an interview request for this story.

On the night Kennedy was killed, the hotel ballroom was filled with supporters celebrating his California primary victory and looking to the Democratic convention in Chicago. Kennedy's last words from the podium, just after midnight: "My thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago and let's win there."

In the pantry, as Kennedy moved through the crowd, he was surrounded by friends, including Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers, labor chairman for Kennedy's campaign.

"All of a sudden, I got hit in the head by a bullet," Schrade said. "... When I came to, I was on the floor."

Schrade was one of five people besides Kennedy hit by bullets. For the past 33 years, he has been investigating the shooting.

Unlike the JFK assassination, which created an outdoor crime scene in Dallas, Bobby Kennedy's shooting happened in a confined space. Stray bullets ended up buried in walls and the ceiling, where they could be tracked down.

In photos, police investigators can be seen circling what they later said was a bullet hole in a ceiling panel, behind where Sirhan fired. For Sirhan to have shot into that panel, he would have had to "either turn around or the bullet would have to have made a U-turn," said Philip Van Praag, an audio expert who co-wrote a book about the case.

Then there was the mystery of the woman in the polka dot dress. According to witness Sandra Serrano, the woman fled from the hotel kitchen with an unidentified man, shouting, "We shot him, we shot him." Other witnesses reported seeing the woman.

In a new film, "RFK Must Die," Irish documentary maker Shane O'Sullivan interviewed Serrano. The witness said police spent hours trying to convince her she was wrong in what she saw, and she finally gave in. Forty years later, she told O'Sullivan her original version was correct.

The iconic polka dot dress is also fixed in the mind of Sirhan himself. William Turner, a retired FBI agent who wrote a book about the case, says he interviewed Sirhan in prison in 1975.

"He told me, 'I don't remember anything after the woman in the polka dot dress asked me for coffee, and heavy on the cream and sugar,' " said Turner. "He said he had amnesia from that time until he was overpowered in the pantry after the shots were fired. He said, 'I must have done it, but I don't remember.' "

Turner thinks that Sirhan was "hypno-programmed to shoot" and that he was a real-life Manchurian Candidate -- the fictional brainwashed dupe whose controllers want to assassinate a presidential candidate. Turner suspects the same villains as do the JFK conspiracy theorists: "organized crime and, predominantly, people from the CIA."

Van Praag and a fellow investigator, former American Academy of Forensic Scientists president Robert Joling, are convinced more than one gunman was involved. They've written a book about the killing. Its title, "An Open and Shut Case," is a dig at the police investigation.

Van Praag, a former senior instructor in commercial audio-video systems for Ampex Corp., analyzed a tape recording made by a Polish radio reporter. He said he heard 13 shots over five seconds and could isolate the sounds well enough to say that two different weapons were firing during those five seconds.

One of those weapons -- according to the documentary "Conspiracy Test" -- could have been held by Thane Eugene Cesar, the security guard near Kennedy.

Dan Moldea, who wrote a book, "The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy," said he thought for years that "Cesar had done it." But in 1987 he persuaded Cesar to undergo a polygraph examination that the former guard "passed with flying colors," Moldea said. He's now Cesar's protector and would be willing to "bring him forward" if authorities ever reopen the case

That's not a far-fetched idea.

Joling says an "independent panel of forensic scientists" should be created to "reinvestigate this matter on all the evidence.... That way, at least, the American people will know that somebody without a stake in the outcome made this finding."

Documents and other information about the Robert Kennedy assassination can be found at these Web sites:


E-mail Michael Taylor at mtaylor(at)
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