RFK Assassination at 50: Is This the Real Kennedy Conspiracy?

The late senator's son has questioned details about the official account of his father's murder.

June 6, 2018 5:00 am
Sen. Robert Kennedy shaking hands with kitchen help en route to podium in ballroom to deliver his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel prior to his assassination. This is the 50th anniversary of RFK's death. (Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Sen. Robert Kennedy shaking hands with kitchen help en route to podium in ballroom to deliver his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel prior to his assassination. This is the 50th anniversary of RFK's death. (Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the Washington Post this May. (The late RFK was, of course, the Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy.) “I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

The June 5, 1968 murder of 42-year-old Robert F. Kennedy was the fourth assassination to rock America in less than five years, following the deaths of his brother (November 22, 1963), Malcolm X (February 21, 1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968).

Those three killings remain shrouded in controversy and mystery. Some members of the King family insist James Earl Ray was framed. Questions still linger about the police investigation of Malcolm X’s death. And you might be faintly aware that not everyone is convinced Oswald acted alone. (Dozens of books have theorized numerous nefarious forces were behind the killing, with suspects including the mob, the CIA and Kennedy’s own VP, Lyndon Johnson.)

By comparison, RFK’s murder seemed straightforward. Sirhan Sirhan was tackled at the scene with a .22-caliber revolver in hand—he continued to fire shots even as he was taken down. He confessed to the crime, was convicted and remains in prison to this day. (It should be noted virtually no one argues Sirhan is a complete innocent. 93-year-old Paul Schrade—who was wounded during the assassination—champions re-examining Sirhan’s case but states, “Yes, he did shoot me. Yes, he shot four other people and aimed at Kennedy.”)

Yet it’s hard to look at the evidence and not feel like the record is, at best, incomplete. Could there be a real chance someone else fired the shot that killed Robert F. Kennedy and has for decades eluded being identified, much less punished?

The Rush to Judgment

Paul Schrade was the director of the United Auto Workers and a supporter of RFK. He had accompanied the presidential candidate into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic primary.

Schrade was shot in the head during the attack. He was even the subject of RFK’s reported last words: “Is everybody okay? Is Paul all right?” (To get a sense of the evening, here’s a short TV report on the shooting, including a portion of RFK’s victory speech:)

50 years later, Schrade remains critical of the subsequent investigation: “They wanted a quickie.”

The choice to wrap up the investigation quickly makes sense: They literally had a man with a smoking gun. In addition, Sirhan’s defense team focused on avoiding the death penalty instead of proving his innocence. Their case centered on Sirhan having a “diminished capacity” at the time of the crime, rather than suggesting he hadn’t fired the actual shot that killed Kennedy. This legal strategy failed, and he was sentenced to death. (California’s Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972, causing Sirhan’s sentence to be commuted.)

Unquestionably, the authorities sent to prison someone who deserved to be locked up. RFK aside, Sirhan wounded five people. (All survived.) But critics insist they were so determined to put the guilt on Sirhan and he alone they ignored and even suppressed evidence challenging that conclusion.

Among the major reasons for concern:

The Angle of Attack. It was determined a shot to the back of the head killed RFK. Coroner Thomas Noguchi found powder burns on RFK’s jacket and hair, indicating shots were fired at close range.

Why This Seemingly Doesn’t Make Sense: Sirhan attacked RFK from the front and was quickly tackled. Theoretically, RFK could have turned away from Sirhan, causing him to be shot from behind. However, Schrade and other witnesses challenge this account—in general, the consensus appears to be that Sirhan fired two (or at most three) shots before getting taken to the ground, at which point he continued firing until he used up all eight shots.

Speaking of eight…

The Shot Count. Analysis of an audio recording of the attack suggests 13 shots fired.

Why This Seemingly Doesn’t Make Sense: As noted, Sirhan’s gun had eight bullets. The audio is by no means definitive evidence. But when the eight bullets are all accounted for—three struck RFK and the five wounded took one each—it’s notable that there are photos of investigators examining apparent bullet holes in doors after the shooting.

Particularly since the doors were later destroyed, along with ceiling tiles and over 2,000 photos.

And none of this could be confirmed until 1988, as a good chunk of the evidence was sealed away for 20 years after the crime. (So two decades passed before the curious could determine what was missing.)

Throw in an internal police document concluding “Kennedy and Weisel [a wounded ABC News producer] bullets not fired from same gun” and in 2012 a witness insisting the FBI “twisted” her account to ignore a second shooter and it’s easy to see why some say important details have either gone missing or been intentionally hidden.

Of course, none of these stray details definitively proves anything. It’s possible that the authorities correctly determined Sirhan acted alone, only to create doubt through the incompetent way they handled evidence. (As opposed to, say, being so determined to close the case they consciously decided to destroy anything that might keep it going.)

Now it gets weird.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Sirhan was a Palestinian Christian—his motive for the killing was RFK’s support for Israel.

In many ways this makes no sense. (Richard Nixon, the man RFK would have faced in the general election, was hardly a champion of the Palestinians—he would later staunchly support Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.)

Of course, Sirhan would hardly be the first person to commit a violent act that—upon closer examination—seems crazy as well as monstrous. Yet upon closer examination, Sirhan’s role only grows stranger. He insists he has no memory of the attack. He had apparently engaged in automatic writing, filling pages of notebooks with “Kill RFK.”

Was Sirhan brainwashed? If so, who did it? This is where the conspiracy theories really kick in. There were reports of a woman in a polka dot dress allegedly saying, “We shot him, we shot him” as she left the scene. (A witness insisted she reported this and FBI pressured her to change her account.)

Was the woman in the polka dot dress involved?

Was someone else?

Was Sirhan a Manchurian Candidate, programmed to protect the true mastermind(s) to this day?

On this last count, at least, we can offer a reasonable answer.

And that answer is: “Doubtful.”

A Hypnotist on Hypnosis

Marc Savard has been hypnotizing audiences for 25 years, ultimately winding up in Sin City. (He has won two “Best of Las Vegas” Awards from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.) He trains others in hypnosis and also applies it to his personal life, noting his wife “delivered all four of our babies using only hypnosis as anesthesia.” (This included “fourth-degree tearing,” during which the doctor did his stitching while she was “holding the baby and having a conversation.” And yes, this did instantly make her a “legend in the hospital.”)

Here Savard is traumatizing volunteers with a deadly “snake” (one that, to the rest of the audience, sure looks like a belt):

Savard describes his job as “tricking the brain and the nervous system to go to sleep without ever actually letting you go to sleep.” He believes that every individual can be hypnotized by one method or another.

So could Sirhan be just a patsy? (Indeed, not just a patsy, but a patsy with programming that’s lasted half a century.)

Count Savard among the skeptics. Quite simply, people have limits. “Hypnosis is a lot like nightmares,” he explains. “The moment the dream starts becoming too much for your nervous system, too scary, challenging your morals and beliefs, you wake up in a cold sweat.” (He cites as an example from his own shows a woman who was completely receptive to every suggestion until he told her to journey into a past life. This woke her up, because her religion didn’t believe in them.)

Hypnosis would be likely to work on Sirhan only if he were already receptive to shooting RFK: “There’s a level of wanting to do the job in the first place.” Savard notes this “largely eliminates the need for hypnosis,” since it’s what they’re inclined to do to start with.

Savard says there’s another reason to doubt Sirhan could by willed into killing RFK by some outside hypnotic influence. Audience members have posed this dilemma: “Could you hypnotize someone and give them an axe and tell them that everyone in the audience was a tree?”

The result would be surprisingly…boring. “The subconscious would wake them up almost a hundred percent of the time. They know that it’s wrong,” Savard says.

And if the audience that night happened to contain a serial killer?

Savard says morality might not stop them, but another consideration likely would: “Would they do it with this many witnesses?”

Quite simply, our subconscious wants us to be safe, just the same as our conscious does. And that’s what makes Sirhan’s claims so unlikely. Even allowing for him committing a crime where capture was nearly certain, why wouldn’t he offer up information that might reduce his sentence? “Think about self-preservation here. If he’s hypnotized to remember details that would exonerate him, his subconscious mind would reveal this information so fast.” (Quite simply, Savard says it’s “really difficult to get someone to do some type of criminal activity without them remembering.”)

In summary: “How good does this hypnotist have to be? It’s virtually impossible.”

Wondering What Happened

There are details of the official account of the RFK assassination that don’t quite make sense. Yet if you add another participant, it only gets crazier. That would mean either:

-Sirhan remains genuinely unaware of his fellow conspirators, meaning he was programmed by arguably the greatest hypnotist ever to live. (A genius so gifted yet so modest they remain unknown to us decades later.)


-Sirhan knows others were involved, yet has chosen not to drop a dime on anyone for 50 years and counting. (Which is particularly baffling because odds are good they’re dead by this point.)

In rejecting one of Sirhan’s appeals, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich noted that Sirhan’s claim of a second gunman “at close range with the same type of gun and ammunition as [Sirhan] was using, but managed to escape the crowded room without notice of almost any of the roomful of witnesses, lacks any evidentiary support.”

(He also observed: “Even if the second shooter’s bullet was the one that killed Senator Kennedy, [Sirhan] would be liable as an aider and abettor.”)

It’s unclear what reinvestigating the RFK assassination would achieve. We’re now 50 years removed from the crime. A great deal of evidence has been destroyed. Plus the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department both regard the RFK assassination as a closed case, meaning they won’t provide any assistance.

Yet it still seems worth seeking the closure that comes with certainty, even if it just confirms the verdict. As RFK said: “Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.”

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