The Real Manchurian Candidate
Nearly four decades after the death of Bobby Kennedy, questions remain about the guilt of his killer, Pasadena’s Sirhan Sirhan
By Carl Kozlowski 11/16/2006
On the surface, Munir Sirhan would appear to be just another quiet, middle-aged, tax-paying citizen. He emigrated from Palestine to Pasadena when he was just 8 and grew up as a quiet kid amid a large family that took pride in assimilating into their new culture. He’s also the brother of one of America’s most notorious figures: Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of killing one of the nation’s most iconic politicians, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The death of RFK has haunted the life of Munir Sirhan and the rest of his family for nearly 40 years, despite an array of evidence that would make the killing seem like a slam-dunk to solve.
But as the horrific assassination of Bobby Kennedy returns to the public onsciousness this weekend with the release of the film “Bobby,” which blends historic footage of his 1968 presidential campaign with the intertwined fictional stories of 22 ordinary citizens at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that fateful day, the mysteries surrounding the shooting also cry out for investigation.
“It was horrifying to go through this. It was unbelievable. He had never said anything about Kennedy either way,” recalls Munir Sirhan, hiding his pain behind dark shades while sitting at a table inside a Pasadena Starbucks. “From the start, I doubted the charges because Sirhan couldn’t hurt a fly. He wasn’t capable of it, running at someone and shooting them. Now he’s spent nearly his entire life in prison, and he’s the only family I have left. But I still have hope the truth will come out, and I know he prays for that.”
The story of Sirhan Sirhan begins in a central Pasadena neighborhood in 1957. That was when his mother, a schoolteacher, moved to America with her six kids and husband, who had been a municipal employee back in his native Palestine. Despite being Eastern Orthodox, their move had been sponsored by a Nazarene church, and his dad only lasted six months in his new homeland before he had to return to Palestine to care for his sick mother.
Munir recalls that Sirhan, who was five years older, attempted to be a typical American teenager by studying hard at John Muir High School and maintaining a paper route before attending Pasadena City College. He says Sirhan used to study languages a lot because he harbored a dream of becoming a United Nations interpreter, hoping to bring peace to the world at a time when Israeli-Arab tensions were at full boil amid the era of the Six-Day War.
Perhaps more tellingly, Sirhan Sirhan also harbored a fascination with the occult, particularly the practice of hypnosis and mind control. It is that interest that Munir and many others believe forms the key to the mystery of how his ostensibly peace-loving brother wound up convicted of killing Robert Kennedy.
The official story of what happened in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968, is that Robert Kennedy had just finished his victory speech at the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel after winning the Democratic presidential primary in California. The victory had come during a year in which turmoil around the world and within America’s borders was reaching almost unprecedented levels: The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the My Lai Massacre, Tet Offensive and Siege of Khe Sahn, and riots in Paris as well as a crushing invasion by Soviets to counter newfound freedoms in Czechoslovakia were just some of the lowlights that year.
Amid all this, RFK’s campaign — which followed an incredibly successful career as America’s attorney general under his brother John and JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, in which he battled organized crime and oversaw a staggering 800 percent drop in crime nationwide — was seen as a sign of true hope that the “little man” in America was getting his voice heard. Bobby Kennedy had led media caravans through the poorest black urban centers and the most economically ravaged pockets of white rural poverty, shining a light on how far America had to go in order to truly fulfill its promises of hope for all of its citizens.
Such stands, however, brought him plenty of enemies as well, ranging from the suddenly beleaguered mob to the most powerful big-business forces in the nation, who wanted to maintain the status quo of leaving behind anyone who got in the way of making profits. So he shocked the party by effectively chasing LBJ out of his re-election campaign and surpassing Hubert Humphrey in California to take the lead for his party’s nomination.
And then, within moments of ending his speech and heading out of the Ambassador through its kitchen area, it is said that Sirhan Sirhan pulled out a .22-caliber revolver and shot Bobby Kennedy dead in addition to injuring six others.
But that official story has been so rife with contradictions and errors from the start that even when Sirhan confessed he had killed Kennedy “with 20 years of malice aforethought,” the judge wouldn’t accept it. After all, that patently ridiculous taunt would have meant he’d been planning to kill Bobby since he was 4 years old, and years before Kennedy had risen to any level of notoriety.
Even more strangely, Sirhan has always maintained, even under repeated attempts at intensive hypnosis, that he has no memory of the crime.
“Even when the family spoke to him, we tried to find out how, why and where because he couldn’t remember, and that was a concern. Coincidentally, there’s no actual photograph of the shooting itself, even with all the press there that day. Nearly 3,000 photos were destroyed by the LAPD from the moments around the shooting, and there were contradictions about things like the amount of bullets,” says Munir Sirhan.
“An FBI agent pointed out a discrepancy in the number of bullets from what police said, and I don’t think any eyewitness placed him closer than one to five feet away from Kennedy. There were extra bullet holes in the framework of the doors and ceiling, and numerous people recalled his facial expression when it happened, thinking he was under some sort of hypnotic suggestion. There are just so many questions …”
He pauses, thinking back across 40 years, wondering whether to discuss the most controversial aspect of the whole mess again. “And then you hear about MKULTRA.”
‘The polka dot lady’::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
While it might sound like something out of the wildly fictitious world of James Bond movies — or at least the world of “Get Smart” — MKULTRA was in fact a real-life, top-secret program that ran throughout much of the 1950s and ’60s in which the CIA attempted to master brainwashing techniques and hypnotize ordinary people into doing its dirty work. The question is not whether the program existed, but whether it was ever taken beyond the experimental phase and into directing its hypnotized subjects into committing assassinations and other such activities.
Those who believe that Sirhan Sirhan was an unwilling and unwitting accomplice to the program believe that government agents spotted him while they attended live hypnotist shows to look for MKULTRA subjects and saw that Sirhan was a particularly easy person to put under a spell.
“They were spending millions going to universities around the country looking for subjects. In December ’63, the CIA was thinking about getting rid of it, but their deputy director Richard Helms issued a memo asking to keep it alive. It’s believed he had just used the program to get away with the murder of JFK,” explains Michael Calder, the author of the investigative book “JFK vs. CIA,” who developed that book from his master’s thesis at UC Berkeley. “They found new drugs that in combination with hypnotism are able to create amnesia for events prior to and during killing. I thought that sounds like Sirhan, and I’ve been reading LAPD documents for the past year trying to draw all the connections together.”
The reason that Calder is able to pore over countless LAPD documents and recordings in search of the truth behind Bobby Kennedy’s murder is that in 1988 a judge ordered the department to release all its RFK-related materials without redactions. As a result, every piece of evidence the men in blue ever collected for the investigation is stored in two places: state archives in Sacramento and the archives of the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Every piece of evidence, that is, except for the more than 2,900 photos taken that night, which the LAPD conveniently managed to lose or destroy by 1988. But there’s still plenty left for a self-trained investigator like Calder to dig through, and he thinks he’s approaching a comprehensive answer to what actually happened on that fateful night.
“There’s trial testimony available both in transcripts and the original audiotapes of Vincent Di Piero, a part-time waiter and full-time college student whose father said to come down and meet Kennedy that night,” says Calder. “Vincent walked into the pantry with Kennedy after the speech, when he saw a guy standing about 20 feet away with a beautiful girl on his arm and they’re smiling at each other. She says something to him, and suddenly he turns and stares at Kennedy, walks toward him, takes the gun out of his pants and shoots. The girl had brown hair down to her shoulders and wore a white dress with black polka dots, and she was moving right away.”
Indeed, Calder has found testimony that shows the woman was seen by at least four people that night, mostly as she was moving quickly out of the building next to a tall man who wasn’t Sirhan as most people were running in to see the commotion, and smiling as most others that night were understandably shocked. At least one woman testified and told TV news reporters that she heard “the polka dot lady” say, “We shot Kennedy.” Yet the lady was never found, and it is believed that a valid search was never conducted for her.
“I think she was the one who said something to Sirhan that sent him into deep amnesia as Helms planned,” says Calder.
Sirhan’s claim of not remembering what happened that night has withstood numerous intensive levels of hypnosis by prosecution and defense experts intending to draw such memories out of him.
A second gun::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
That’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning the inconsistencies that riddle the official account of that night. Sirhan allegedly fired eight shots from a gun that could only hold five bullets. He didn’t have time to reload before being tackled by famed NFL player Rosie Grier. Those eight bullets supposedly managed to hit RFK three times and graze him a fourth while also managing to injure six other people that night.
The so-called “Magic Bullet” that Lee Harvey Oswald used to kill Kennedy’s older brother five years earlier had nothing on Sirhan Sirhan’s acrobatic ammo.
Add in 28 other bullet holes found in the pantry after the shooting, which were never fully investigated, and, even more importantly, the fact that RFK’s own autopsy said he was killed by a bullet to the back of the head that was fired at such close range that he had powder burns in his flesh. This would mean that the shooter would have to have been behind RFK basically jamming the gun into his head and the two places that were shot in his back before firing.
Yet every eyewitness describing Sirhan Sirhan’s actions said he shot at RFK from the front and from at least one to five feet away.
Aside from this evidence, Sirhan’s legal team later enlisted the help of America’s leading expert on hypnosis, Dr. Herbert Spiegel, in failed attempts to win him a new trial during the 1990s. Spiegel, who practices psychiatry in New York City in addition to teaching hypnosis at the Columbia University medical school, said in an exclusive phone interview that he has no doubt Sirhan Sirhan was subjected to MKULTRA or a program akin to it.
“[Sirhan’s post-conviction lawyer] Lawrence Teeter tried to get the court to allow a new trial because in his first trial, Sirhan’s defense did not mention he was hypnotizable and said he was psychotic and schizophrenic, which the jury just didn’t buy,” says Spiegel. “In the first trial, the defense also did not introduce the fact that there had to be a second gun. I read the records and found out that the court-appointed psychiatrist who examined him for the trial found that he was highly hypnotizable. About 80 percent of the population is hypnotizable to one degree or another, and Sirhan was found to be in the top 10 percent, but the judge refused to let me examine him to back this up.”
Spiegel believes in the story of the woman in the polka dot dress, saying that witness Di Piero’s description of a smiling Sirhan turning blank-faced and homicidal with the slip of a word seems like a perfect example of a programmed person.
“He was supposed to follow her command to kill Kennedy, but his arm was pushed and none of his bullets hit Kennedy, just witnesses. The judge did not allow the autopsy findings in the trial, which had shown RFK had been hit by four bullets directly from behind and to the right, while Sirhan was at least three feet away and from the front,” says Spiegel.
“The police said he killed Kennedy, and like a hypnotizable person, Sirhan confessed by simply telling them back what they wanted him to say.”
‘He acted alone’:::::::::::::::::::::::::
On the other hand, investigative reporter Dan Moldea, author of the 1995 book “The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy,” believes that any connection between Sirhan Sirhan and MKULTRA “was complete bullshit” and that Sirhan acted on his own accord out of a desire for fame and anger over Kennedy’s support for Israel against Palestine.
He says that until Teeter came aboard to represent Sirhan, years after his initial trial, Sirhan never mentioned MKULTRA and “just claimed he was drunk and couldn’t remember that night.”
“Now he’s saying he didn’t do it, but he was heavily influenced by Teeter, who believed that the CIA was responsible for anything that went wrong in society and was a real conspiracy buff,” claims Moldea. “Sirhan was a kid, an average guy who was 24 and the same age as Lee Harvey Oswald. He was checking out girls that day at PCC, and before that was even practicing firing his weapon at a firing range. He went to the Ambassador because there were three different election-night parties there, had several Tom Collinses when he got there, and it was hot and he got drunk.”
But perhaps his most closely held view is that no witnesses were focusing on Sirhan Sirhan’s actions once shots were fired because they instinctively dove for safety, leaving him free to pin Bobby down and force the close-range shots that others claimed no one witnessed.
“Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy and he acted alone. When a civilian investigator is looking for a conspiracy in a highly publicized case like this, he’s probably gonna find it, but you have to run through the gauntlet of re-examining the evidence and in this case, all of the large questions that would indicate a second gunman at the crime scene go by the wayside,” says Moldea.
“Sirhan and I are the same religion, Eastern Orthodox, and he’s a very nice guy now. He’s not the same person he was then, when he was young and full of anger. He claims he can’t remember but he has a very good recollection of that night except when it goes to motive, means or opportunity. But I don’t think Sirhan ever said anything he didn’t want to say, under hypnosis or not.”
Even amid these clouds of controversy, however, there remains one perhaps even stranger chapter in the tale of Sirhan Sirhan, one which has been unfolding since the week after Sept. 11.
Incredible as the following sounds, Munir Sirhan and his current legal representative Summer Reese, who is helping the Sirhans find a new attorney in the wake of Lawrence Teeter’s death last fall, provided the legal briefs that support their claims.
“I haven’t seen my brother in five years, since Sept. 11,” says Munir Sirhan with sadness in his voice. “Since the last time I saw him, since then his mother’s passed away and our other two brothers have passed. He’s gotten bigger over the years, but he’s still hopeful that something will come through to vindicate him. He’s not a Muslim; [he’s] always been a Christian, a devout Christian. But I’ve heard the California authorities have listed him as second on their list of terrorists, next to Osama bin Laden, even though he’s not a Muslim.”
What Munir Sirhan is referring to is a shockingly odd series of misunderstandings that occurred shortly after the World Trade Center disaster. Sirhan Sirhan had never been a TV buff and had never bothered to keep a television in his cell over the years. But a couple of days before Sept. 11, an inmate friend of his was being released and offered Sirhan his TV, telling him he could pass it along if he still lacked interest in watching it.
So Sirhan had a TV set in his cell for what appeared to be the first time ever, and one day that week, he also found himself colder than usual after taking a shower in the California State Prison-Corcoran, where he is confined. He decided to wrap a towel around his head to keep it warm, and was watching the round-the-clock post-disaster coverage when a passing guard noticed the towel and the TV and made the incredible assumption that not only was Sirhan Sirhan suddenly a Muslim, but that his interest in the news coverage meant he must have had a hand in plotting the Sept. 11 attacks — even though he’d been sitting in prison since the early ’70s.
“He was thrown into solitary confinement for the next year until we were finally able to prove he was innocent of their claims and get him out. But now the guards have poisoned the thoughts of other prisoners against him, and they still think he is a Muslim and he’s afraid they’ll try to kill him,” says Munir Sirhan. “He’s afraid to leave for anything except a shower twice a week because he believes the guards either won’t protect him or will be out for him themselves for filing complaints about this situation. He wants to transfer to another prison but they won’t let him.”
Munir Sirhan also claims that during that year in isolation, all of his brother’s attorney-client conversations, which are legally supposed to be private, were thoroughly monitored. According to Sabrina Johnson, public information officer for the Corcoran prison, Munir’s claims about Sirhan’s solitary confinement are accurate to a point.
“We took the Sept. 11 issue seriously based on documentation we received and based on his safety and that of the institution. He was eventually not deemed a threat, but he was disciplined for some things,” says Johnson. “He’s housed around other infamous inmates so we had him in solitary at the time for his safety too. But he’s allowed to be out of his cell six hours a day, and if he chooses to lock himself inside instead we are not obligated to force him out.”
So the Sirhan brothers wait, hoping that Sirhan Sirhan will get another miraculous chance at a trial that will this time enable his defense to provide all its evidence. They are prospecting for good attorneys who want to give them a fair shake, but for now, they simply wait and pray, living with the realization that under a governor who’s married to a Kennedy relation, that chance may be another four years away.
“As you look at these things, as I get older, you look at all of these so-called theories and you give credence to them. There was no one to defend Sirhan Sirhan well the first time, and with his last parole hearing, Teeter had just died,” says Munir Sirhan. “He had three days notice only, when you’re supposed to get a week, and he had no attorney to help him. So he let it go. But I’m very optimistic that something will come through. And he’s optimistic and he prays for it.”