June 22, 2000
Investigating the murder of Robert Kennedy (IV):
When wisdom comes late
Copyright © 2000 by Dan E. Moldea
This is the fourth of a four-part series about my investigation of the murder of Senator Robert Kennedy, which led to the 1995 publication of my fifth book, The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity (W. W. Norton). In that work, after years of believing that two guns had been fired at the crime scene, I concluded that convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan had, indeed, killed Senator Kennedy and acted alone.
However, in this series, the drama lies less in that final destination--and more during the trip to get there.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed itself and took away my momentary victory in Moldea v. New York Times on May 3, 1994, the appellate judge who wrote this unprecedented opinion quoted former U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, saying: "Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late."
Sensing the irony of my own situation, I used that same quote as the lead-in to the final chapter of my new book, The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity, in an effort to foreshadow my own reversal about the events surrounding the murder of Senator Kennedy. I submitted my completed manuscript to my publisher, W. W. Norton, on October 3, 1994, the same day that the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear my case against the Times.
My writing coach, Mrs. Nancy Nolte, who pre-edits all of my manuscripts before submission to my publishers, thought that the RFK book was my best-written work. Nevertheless, she feared that my surprising 180-degree turnaround would dampen Norton's enthusiasm while providing the critics with ample cause to tear me apart. But, because this was my first published book in six long years, I had no choice but to remain positive. To me, this was the ball game. A bad outing would probably end my career as both an author and an investigative journalist.
Even though I had "guaranteed" in my book proposal to deliver evidence that extra bullets proved that two guns had been fired at the crime scene and that Sirhan never hit Senator Kennedy at point-blank range, Star Lawrence, my editor at Norton, didn't complain about my reversal after reading the completed manuscript. In fact, he told me that I had handled the situation well and vindicated my integrity as a journalist by admitting that I had been wrong while setting the record straight. As a result, Lawrence and I believed that our book would be viewed as the definitive account of what had really happened on the night Senator Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded--even though my friends in the "conspiracy crowd" were sure to disagree.
Still, the question remained: Would America's book reviewers share our enthusiasm--especially in the wake of my five-year litigation against the New York Times for its false and misleading review of my last book in 1989? Or would these reviewers seek retribution and dance on my head?
Before we had to face any of that, Lawrence invited me to speak to the entire W. W. Norton publishing operation at its semi-annual sales conference in Manhattan on December 5. Viewing this as a huge break, as well as an opportunity to explain what had happened between my book proposal and completed manuscript, I rode the train to New York, picked up my agent at her midtown office, and took a cab to the big meeting.
Nervous at first, I told the large crowd, "I am honored to be speaking today before the real power in the publishing industry: the sales people. Authors like me would be nothing without people like you, and I am proud to be on the Norton team for my new book."
Then, after paying my respects to the sales force, as well as to Star Lawrence and Norton's editorial board, I gave them an overview of the book, explaining: "As I write in the Preface: 'This book is the story of a murder investigation. It is neither a political melodrama nor a paranoid's paradise.'
"Chapter One, which is entitled 'Intersection,' traces the lives of the four major characters of the book on the day of the primary election--Kennedy, Sirhan, shooting victim Paul Schrade, and security guard Thane Eugene Cesar, who has long been accused of being the second gunman at the crime scene and Kennedy's actual killer. This chapter ends when the lives of these four people converge in the kitchen pantry.
"The rest of Part One is the story of the police investigation of this murder, which is told almost entirely by the officers and investigators themselves--most of whom had never before been interviewed. At the end of Part One, the reader should be convinced that Sirhan committed the crime and acted alone.
"Part Two chronicles the controversies in the case--questions about extra bullets at the scene, firearms evidence, discrepancies between eyewitness accounts and the official version the case, and the evidence that Gene Cesar might have fired the fatal shots at Senator Kennedy. At the end of Part Two, the reader should have serious concerns that two guns were fired at the crime scene.
"In Part Three, I enter the case, skeptical of the official version, believing that two guns had been fired and that Cesar might have fired the second gun. I receive an FBI report, stating that four bullets--not accounted for by the LAPD's crime lab--had been photographed and logged. These were four more bullets than Sirhan's eight-shot revolver could hold. When I interview the individual LAPD officers and officials involved in the case, nearly twenty of them confirm the existence of these bullet holes identified in the FBI photos. These are not conspiracy nuts saying this; these are experienced, trained, and qualified law-enforcement officials.
"Also in Part Three, I chronicle my collection of all this evidence, including my exclusive interviews with Cesar, who admits that he was working for George Wallace at the time, that he hated Robert Kennedy, and that he had a business connection to a Mafia associate in 1968.
"By the end of Chapter Twenty-Seven of this thirty chapter book, even the most skeptical reader will believe that it is more than likely that two guns were fired, and that Cesar may, indeed, have fired the shots that killed Senator Kennedy--whether intentionally or accidentally in the midst of clumsiness or retaliation against Sirhan.
"But, then, in Chapters Twenty-Eight and Twenty-Nine, there is The Twist--the essential element of nearly every great story. In Chapter Twenty-Eight, Cesar takes and conclusively passes a polygraph test. Then, in the final conflict in Chapter Twenty-Nine, Sirhan and I face off in a very dramatic confrontation in a prison-visitation room at Corcoran State Penitentiary in central California over what Sirhan does and does not remember about the night of the murder.
"In the final chapter, Chapter Thirty, I authoritatively answer the six principal questions that have lingered for years in this case:
* Who was hit with the first shot?
* What was the order of shots hitting Kennedy?
* How was Kennedy hit at point-blank range when not a single eyewitness saw the barrel of Sirhan's revolver get closer than a foot-and-a-half away from Kennedy's body?
* Were there really extra bullets in the walls and the door frames of the kitchen pantry--as the FBI report and key LAPD officials have alleged?
* Why did the court-authorized firearms panel in 1975 fail to match Sirhan's gun with the three intact victim bullets?
* What was Sirhan's motive?
"In the end, while Sirhan's guilt is reaffirmed, two men wrongly accused for twenty-seven years--one a police criminalist and security guard Cesar--are finally vindicated.
"Indeed, the LAPD did solve this murder in 1968. But, nearly twenty-seven years later, I have solved this case by finally explaining why the evidence of a possible second gunman appears as it does.
"Lessons learned? Placing into a new context what I had known all along about this case, I now realize that even law-enforcement officials--who possess the training, qualifications, and experience to determine the significance of crime-scene evidence--do make mistakes if their abilities are not put to the test under the proper circumstances and conditions.
"In other words, if one does not account for occasional official mistakes and incompetence, then nearly every such murder could appear to be a conspiracy, particularly if a civilian investigator--like me, with limited access and resources--is looking for one.
"I am very excited about this true crime book, which I hope you will find is both honest and intelligent."
After my speech, Norton held a luncheon for me where Star Lawrence gave me a note that the head of Norton's sales division had handed him. It simply read: "Knockout presentation!"
In early-April 1995, I received four finished copies of my Kennedy book, sending the first, as always, to my mom. I had dedicated the book to two people, one of whom was Mrs. Nolte, who received the second book. The other person on my dedication page was Walter Sheridan, Robert Kennedy's long-time friend and aide, who had died just three months earlier. I sent the third copy to his widow. (Shortly before his death, Sheridan, whom I thought the world of, called and asked me for my conclusions. He was relieved when I told him that I had reversed course and concluded that Sirhan had acted alone.) I kept the fourth copy for my own collection.
Soon after, the Washington Post accepted my lengthy article about my 180 on the RFK case. Because the Post's editors had published my article about the case in May 1990--in which I made the case that extra bullets, identified by the FBI and LAPD officers, might have been fired at the crime scene--I owed them this consideration. (Regardie's magazine, in which I had published my first story about the RFK case in 1987, had folded in 1992.)
Suddenly, in the wake of Moldea v. New York Times and just prior to the release of my do-or-die book, I believed that, after all I had been through during the past six years, everything would turn out all right. In effect, I had become one of those pain-in-the-neck people who are always looking for the bright side of things.
Nevertheless, I still had to get past the critics.
In mid-April, Kirkus published the first review for the Kennedy book. The anonymous Kirkus reviewer stated: "Moldea has reexamined every piece of available evidence and, in an example of indefatigable journalism, tracked down virtually every policeman and FBI agent who worked on the case, is still alive, and would agree to talk to him. He also interviewed Sirhan and Thane Eugene Cesar, a security guard the night of the shooting often named as the second assassin. . . . Moldea has left no stones unturned in his examination of the Robert Kennedy assassination, uncovering many worms and perhaps, finally, the true smoking gun."
However, Kirkus took a shot at me in the midst of the review but quickly turned it into a compliment, saying: "Moldea can be criticized for the deceptive way he presents evidence as credible and then, Sherlock Holmes-like, explains only at the end why it is tainted. But this infuriating device works, holding the reader riveted as he reconstructs the crime scene and reviews the investigation."
Publishers Weekly printed the second early trade-publication review of the Kennedy book, following suit with Kirkus with an almost identical critique.
Gilbert Taylor of Booklist, the third of the early trade reviews, wrote in the May 15 edition: "Moldea revisits [the murder case] comprehensively but unprejudicedly, so readers swayed by his forensic skill at examining ambiguous evidence will be surprised by his ultimate conclusion. . . . Moldea adopts no theory until he has analyzed all the evidence, culminating in interviews with [Sirhan] and the guard, Thane Cesar. Detailed and definitive, Moldea's persistent investigation might close the book on the tragedy."
So far so good, I held my breath while awaiting the reviews from mainstream publications.
In mid-May, a photographer from the New York Times called and asked for an appointment to take my picture. I reluctantly scheduled the meeting, assuming this assignment was part of some follow-up report about my defeat to the Times.
Then, on late Wednesday afternoon, May 24, I received a call from a reporter-friend of mine who works at the New York Times.
"Hey, Dan!" He said, excitedly. "Did you hear the news?"
"About what?" I asked.
"We're reviewing your new book in the Times tomorrow!"
"You've got to be kidding me! Who's doing it?"
"Jesus! Lehmann-Haupt? What's he going to say? Do you know?"
"No one knows yet, but people around here are buzzing about it."
Believing that my entire career rested on this one review by Lehmann-Haupt, who had a reputation as one of the toughest, if not the toughest, book critic in the business, all I could think was, "God, I'm going to get my ass kicked."
For the next twelve hours, I couldn't work. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't sit still. I felt like a condemned man the night before execution, waiting for a call from the governor.
Finally, at 6:00 in the morning, I couldn't take it anymore. Instead of waiting for the Times to arrive on my doorstep, I went to a 24-hour convenience store to get a copy.
When I walked into the 7-11, a large stack of the New York Times rested on the wire stand. I picked one up and opened it to the book-review page which, indeed, ran only one featured review: The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy.
The first thing I saw was my photograph, which I nearly didn't recognize. My face appeared so large and contorted that I looked like a wrestling promoter.
But, within seconds, it didn't matter how I looked in the picture, because Lehmann-Haupt had made my book look great in the review, writing: "Carefully reasoned . . . ultimately persuasive . . . dramatic. . . . The author meticulously dissects how the various disputes arose and how critics were drawn into the orbit of the case. . . . The cleverness of [Moldea's] strategy in the book lies in his playing so effectively the part of devil's advocate. . . . His book should be read, not so much for the irrefutability of its conclusions as for the way the author has brought order out of a chaotic tale and turned an appalling tatter of history into an emblem of our misshapen times."
Absolutely joyful, I bought three copies of the Times. While driving home, I had to pull over once: I couldn't see the road because my eyes had welled up.
When I arrived back at my apartment about twenty minutes later, I already had two messages on my answering machine from friends in New York who were thrilled about the review. Also, both of them teased me about the photograph.
Throughout the day, the response from scores of friends and colleagues to the Times review was overwhelming--even though everyone, without exception, poked fun at me about the picture.
That afternoon, I wrote a letter to Lehmann-Haupt, simply saying: "Thank you for your consideration and thoughtful review. You and the Times have demonstrated nothing less than pure class, and everyone is saying so."
Soon after, Alex Kuczynski of the New York Observer published an article, saying: "A rave review by the New York Times' venerated book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt is every author's dream. But are your chances even better if you've brought a lawsuit against the Times for their last review of one of your books?
"On Thursday, May 25, the New York Times published a highly favorable review, by Mr. Lehmann-Haupt, of Dan E. Moldea's The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy. . . .
"'Mr. Moldea told the Observer, 'Sometimes when you're reviewed, you get a real pro and other times you get a shill for the institution you're writing about. The last time I got a shill, this time I got a pro.'
"Said Mr. Lehmann-Haupt: 'I just sort of put my head in the sand and tried to judge the book on its own merits. That to me is the job of a good reviewer.'"
Reporter John Diamond of the Associated Press followed with a wire story, saying: "'Sirhan Bishara Sirhan consciously and knowingly murdered Senator Robert Kennedy, and he acted alone,' Moldea concludes. . . . What makes the book notable is that Moldea, an investigative reporter who has been working on the RFK case since the mid-1980s, rejects his own earlier suspicion that the assassination was a conspiracy by more than one gunman."
On my June 5 publication date, the day after the Washington Post published my excerpt, Newsweek released its June 12 issue, featuring a full-page article about the Kennedy book. Reporter Steve Waldman wrote: "If there had been a conspiracy to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy, as many people believe, Dan Moldea probably would have found it. . . . [I]n 1987 Moldea had written an influential article in Regardie's magazine demanding that the RFK case be reopened because of mounting evidence that a second gunman was involved. But after doing extra research for a book, Moldea concluded that he was wrong the first time--and that the sole killer of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968, was a deranged Sirhan Sirhan. . . .
"If this reporting doesn't seal the case, Moldea's chilling prison interviews with Sirhan do."
On June 8, two close friends, Barbara Raskin and Herb White, who had hosted a party for my third book, Dark Victory, in 1986, threw another one for my Kennedy book at White's restaurant, Herb's, in downtown Washington. The crowd consisted of a couple of hundred long-time friends from Akron to Detroit and New York to Los Angeles, as well as numerous authors and journalists, attorneys, cops, spooks, and even a couple of ex-mob guys who had lived in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Ethelbert Miller, a leader in Washington's community of writers, introduced me, saying: "The last few years have been difficult ones for Dan Moldea. He has fought to uphold his good name and continued writing. . . . Moldea loves the writers' battlefield."
After Miller's generous introduction, I pretended to get very serious and said to the crowd: "Today, my attorneys and I announce that we have filed another defamation suit against the New York Times--this time for the publication of that goddamn picture two weeks ago that made me look like Luca Brasi in The Godfather. We are seeking millions in damages."
The day after the book party, another rumor circulated that a second review of my book would soon be published in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. But, frankly, I didn't want it. I was still overjoyed with the Lehmann-Haupt review, and I didn't want another in the New York Times Book Review to cancel it out. But, obviously, I had no control over the situation.
On Wednesday, June 14, Star Lawrence faxed me the review that would appear in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, June 18. To my complete surprise, it was even better than the first, declaring, "In The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy, a persuasive reexamination of the assassination, Mr. Moldea does what many journalists would lack the courage for--admit that his earlier work was wrong. . . . But because of the honesty and logic with which he approaches his study, Mr. Moldea's journalistic instincts have never looked sharper."
Written by Gerald Posner--the author of Case Closed, the best-selling anti-conspiracy book about John Kennedy's murder--the review also finally gave credit where credit had long been due: "Mr. Moldea dedicates the book to his writing coach, Nancy Nolte, and properly so, because this is the best written of his books, finished in a clear and easy style."
1. Six weeks before publication of my book, I decided to break the news of my conclusions to other critics of the RFK case, sending them a letter, saying: "I am writing out of respect to notify you that in my upcoming book about the murder of Senator Robert Kennedy, I will be concluding that Sirhan Sirhan knowingly committed the crime and acted alone.
"Obviously, I have a lot of explaining to do, and I am prepared to do just that. . . .
"I look forward to our continued friendship without this case getting in the way."
For some, that was wishful thinking on my part. Phil Melanson, whom I had once considered a good friend, launched an immediate all-out personal attack on me for my reversal. At the same time, he was completing his third book about the RFK case, continuing to do what he had done in the previous two: tout extra bullets, eyewitness accounts of muzzle distance, and all of the other pieces of evidence I had now discredited.
2. Regarding the question of muzzle distance: All twelve of the eyewitnesses to the shooting claimed that they didn't see Sirhan fire a point-blank shot at Senator Kennedy--who was hit three times at point-blank range. (A fourth shot, also fired at point-blank range, passed through his clothing without touching his body.)
The fact is that none of these twelve eyewitnesses--nor anyone else, with the possible exception of Sirhan--ever saw Kennedy get shot. All twelve of the eyewitnesses' statements about muzzle distance were based on--and only on--their view of Sirhan's first shot. After the first shot, their eyes were diverted as panic swept through the densely-populated kitchen pantry. The seventy-seven people in the crowd began to run, duck for cover, and crash into each other.
Simply speaking, I believe that the kinetic movement of the crowd trapped Kennedy against a steam table, which was bolted to the floor, as Sirhan, just inches away on the side of that same steam table, fired his weapon at him. Consistent with this, the last person to shake Kennedy's hand remembered seeing the senator lose his balance--while another eyewitness remembered seeing him "jerk a little bit, like backwards and then forwards."
Kennedy had recoiled from the sound of Sirhan's first shot, which didn't strike him, but then was accidentally pushed forward by the panic-stricken crowd into the steam table and Sirhan's weapon--where he was struck three times at point-blank range.
And who was hit with the first shot? Paul Schrade--standing a few feet behind Kennedy and one of the five others wounded--told me that he was looking at Kennedy when he lost consciousness. Before Schrade was shot in the head, the last thing he saw was the senator smiling and just beginning to turn towards the steam table. Consistent with this, another eyewitness testified, "I saw the fellow behind the Senator fall, then the Senator fell."
Contrary to the LAPD's official report, Sirhan's first shot missed Kennedy and hit Paul Schrade--and that was the only shot from Sirhan's gun that the twelve eyewitnesses saw.
No one knows for sure what Senator Kennedy saw before he was gunned down. However, his last known words, while lying on the floor of the kitchen pantry, were: "Is Paul all right?"
I believe that Kennedy saw his close friend get hit with the first shot--just before Sirhan shot him, too.
3. When I received my contract from Norton in 1993, I decided to reexamine everything in the RFK case like a government bureaucrat approaches "zero-based budgeting." I took nothing for granted; everything was open for review. So, in the wake of my third and final interview with Sirhan, I returned to a basic question: Why did police officials and FBI agents believe they had seen bullet holes in the walls and door frames in Sirhan's line of fire?
The key pieces of evidence about these extra bullets were contained in a previously little-known FBI report in which a special agent had identified four bullet holes, which appeared in photographs attached to this report. Each of the four pictured bullet holes was circled. In each circle, someone had scribbled the number "723" and two sets of letters, one of which was "LASO." At first, I was unable to decipher the other set of scribbled letters.
While researching my story for the Washington Post in 1990, I had speculated that the person who circled these holes was someone from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office--and that "723" was his badge number. After telephoning one of my sources at the LASO, he identified the holder of badge 723 as deputy/patrolman Walter Tew, who had died eighteen months earlier.
After identifying Tew, I took another look at the photographs and easily deciphered "W Tew" as the second set of scribbled letters in each circle. Then, I re-interviewed the commander of the LASO contingent, which was the first group of law-enforcement personnel to arrive in the kitchen pantry after the shooting. He clearly remembered Tew among his team of men that night, even though Tew's name didn't appear in any of the police records at the California State Archives.
At the time of my discovery in 1990 that Tew had circled the alleged bullet holes, I was jubilant and portrayed Tew as an example of a conscientious police officer who had innocently marked evidence of bullet holes at a crime scene--even though Tew wasn't a firearms-identification expert.
However, during my re-review of this material in 1994, I was suddenly struck by the fact that, regardless of his good intentions, Tew wasn't a firearms-identification expert! He simply wasn't qualified to make such an identification.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the shooting, his evidence remained as he had marked it--as scores of police officers and FBI agents walked through the crime scene and saw the holes in the walls and the door frames that Tew had circled.
No wonder so many law-enforcement officials had told me that they had seen bullet holes in the kitchen pantry! They had simply seen what Tew had marked as evidence and assumed that they were bullet holes, identified by a competent firearms expert.
Even the special agent, who had written the controversial FBI report with the four attached photographs of identified bullet holes had been fooled. Like Tew, this agent, Alfred Greiner, was not a firearms identification expert. He was from the bureau's photography lab and had been assigned to the kitchen pantry to obtain orientation shots of the crime scene.
Soon after, I learned that the person who had given Greiner and his photographer their tour of the crime scene also wasn't a firearms expert; rather, he was a desk clerk from the Ambassador Hotel. During this tour, Greiner saw the holes that Tew had circled, had them photographed, and then, without any supporting evidence, identified them as "bullet holes" in his report.
In short, what Tew had identified as bullet holes weren't bullet holes at all. There were no extra bullets at the crime scene.
For further details about this matter, please see: "The History Channel on the RFK murder".
4. I continue to believe--as I wrote in my 1978 book, The Hoffa Wars--that Mafia bosses Carlos Marcello of New Orleans and Santo Trafficante of Tampa, along with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, arranged and executed the murder of President Kennedy in 1963. A year after the publication of that book, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Marcello, Trafficante, and Hoffa had the "means, opportunity, and motive" to kill the president. Then, in the wake of the report's release, Robert Blakey, the committee's chief counsel, stated, "The mob did it. It's a historical fact."