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The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy:
An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity
By Dan E. Moldea
IntersectionTuesday, June 4, 1968. Primary election day in California.
For months, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, had been campaigning hard for the Democratic nomination for President. However, on this day, Kennedy relaxed at the Malibu home of family friend John Frankenheimer, the filmmaker who produced the political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, among other movies.
Kennedy spent the day swimming, sitting in the sun, talking to friends, playing with his children, and sleeping. He became so relaxed that he considered not attending his own election night party, suggesting that he and his family and friends watch the primary results on television. He wanted to invite the media to join them at Frankenheimer's home. Because the television networks refused to haul their equipment out to Malibu, Kennedy reluctantly decided to go into Los Angeles to await the election returns.
At 7:15 PM, Senator Kennedy, accompanied by Frankenheimer and other members of the campaign staff, left Malibu and sped downtown in Frankenheimer's Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III to the Ambassador Hotel for the election night party. At the hotel, Kennedy and several key staffers had reserved suites on the fifth floor. With the election still in doubt and Kennedy running behind, he went to his suite and remained there, hoping for the tide to turn.
The hotel management had deployed eighteen security guards for crowd control.1 But no known police officers were assigned to the hotel that night, even though Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate were also holding election-night celebrations there.
Two primary reasons have been used to explain this. First, presidential contenders in 1968 were not yet provided with Secret Service protection. Second, the relationship between the Kennedy campaign and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was strained at best.
LAPD Sergeant Michael Nielsen explains, "When Kennedy came into town, he went into a crowd and a motor sergeant went into the crowd after him. He thought that Kennedy was going to be mobbed and hurt. And the sergeant just got tremendous abuse from campaign followers of Kennedy. 'Get out of here,' they yelled. 'We don't want you guys involved in anything. You give us a bad image.'"2
LAPD Inspector Robert F. Rock says, "The department saw Kennedy as a guy--given the times, given the way things were happening during those days--who was a public figure at risk. We wanted to give him more attention than he wanted to get. They didn't want him to be seen in the same photograph with uniformed police officers."
LAPD Metro Officer Robert Bruce Pickard recalls, "The Kennedys did not want any uniformed guys in the hotel, so there were three or four squads, which included eight to ten men each, strategically located within a circle around the hotel."
Thus, on the night of the primary election at the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy had only a single former FBI man, William Barry, as trained security, and he was unarmed. Two well-known athletes--former New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Roosevelt Grier and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson--volunteered as "unofficial bodyguards."
Campaign aides milled around the Kennedy suite waiting for the election returns. Meantime, Kennedy paced in the bedroom, working on notes for a speech to his eager followers who were jam-packed in the Embassy Room downstairs. Finally, at about 11 P.M., the results started to favor Kennedy.
When his victory became clear, he took the freight elevator down to the kitchen, walked through the pantry and anteroom, and entered the Embassy Room to wild applause. About twenty people, including his pregnant wife, Ethel, were on the platform with him.
Speaking to an ecstatic crowd of eighteen hundred, Kennedy concluded, "I would hope now that the California primary is finished, now that the primary is over, that we can now concentrate on having a dialogue . . . on what direction we want to go in the United States: what we're going to do in the rural areas of this country; what we're going to do for those who still suffer in the United States from hunger; what we're going to do around the rest of the globe; and whether we're going to continue the policies which have been so unsuccessful in Vietnam . . . I think we should move in a different direction . . . So my thanks to all of you. And now it's on to Chicago and let's win there!"3
When he finished to a loud ovation from the huge crowd, he headed for a news conference in the nearby Colonial Room. To get there quickly, he was told to go back through the kitchen pantry.
* * *
Twenty-four-year-old Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, an unemployed former "hot walker" at Santa Anita racetrack and apprentice jockey, spent nearly the entire day of Tuesday, June 4, 1968, rapid-firing his .22 caliber Iver Johnson revolver at the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club in Duarte, California, where he had signed the nonmember roster at 11:00 A.M. He was dark-haired and dark-complected and dressed in a long-sleeve, blue, permanent-press shirt, a blue velour pullover sweater, blue denim pants, and a pair of grey loafers.
Although alone most of the time at the west end of the pistol range, the friendly and polite young man talked to several other club patrons. Everett Buckner, the range master, complimented Sirhan for being an "expert" shot. Late that afternoon, Sirhan also offered shooting tips to a petite, twenty-five year old, green-eyed blonde club member whom he had just met. She had been firing a newly-purchased, nine-shot .22 revolver. Her husband crouched on the nearby rifle range shooting at a target with his 30-30 caliber Marlin rifle. Sirhan told the woman that her gun appeared to be firing left and offered to let her shoot a few rounds with his Iver Johnson to prove the point; he also fired her gun. However, before she could confirm Sirhan's theory, the range supervisor advised everyone that it was 5:00, closing time.
By then, Sirhan, who had fired 300 to 400 rounds of ammunition, had been shooting for nearly six hours and worn out the center of his target.
Five feet two and 115 pounds, the bushy-haired Sirhan climbed into his beat-up, white and pink, two-door, 1956 DeSoto, placed his revolver in his car, and returned to Pasadena where he lived with his Jordanian mother, Mary, and two brothers, Adel and Munir. All in his family were Christians--not Muslims--and members of the Eastern Orthodox faith. They had immigrated to the United States from East Jerusalem in January 1957 when Sirhan was twelve.
Instead of going directly home from the gun range, he stopped at a Bob's Big Boy restaurant on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena at about 6:10 and met with Gaymoard Mistri, an old college friend. The two men sat at the counter, drinking coffee and discussing horse racing. Sirhan also mentioned a headline he had seen in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner about continuing gun battles in the Middle East. Sirhan told his friend, "This is bad. This is terrible." He then returned to the subject of horse racing.
After Sirhan picked up the check for the coffees at 6:40, they decided to go to the nearby student union at Pasadena City College where both had been enrolled in 1963. At the union, they met three other friends--Marof Mohammad Badran, Abdo Jabre Malke, and Anwar John Sayegh. After talking and checking out the co-eds, Sirhan and Mistri returned to Bob's Big Boy. By that time, the two men were discussing rabbit hunting. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, Sirhan pulled a spent bullet from his pocket and showed it to Mistri.
Sirhan wanted to go shoot pool, but Mistri had another appointment. At about 7:15, Sirhan returned to his car, still parked at the restaurant.
Sirhan's own account of this time is as follows: "After I left the Student Union, I went back to my car at Bob's Big Boy. That's when I picked up the newspaper, mostly to see the next day's horse entries. I noticed that a local Jewish group was going to have a parade near the Miracle Mile to celebrate Israel's one-year anniversary of the Six-Day War. I went downtown, not realizing that the parade was supposed to be the following night. I wasn't going downtown to cause any trouble. I just wanted to see what was happening . . .
"After I parked my car and realized that there wasn't a parade, I started walking around. I noticed lights in a storefront window, which was the campaign headquarters for Thomas Kuchel, a Republican who was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate.4 I crashed that party, but there wasn't very much going on. I struck up a conversation with someone there who suggested that a better party was going on for Max Rafferty, another Republican, at the Ambassador Hotel across the street.
"So I left the Kuchel party without even having a drink. I walked across the street to the Ambassador. I saw the Rafferty banner, and the name 'Rafferty' rang a bell. I went to school with his daughter at John Muir High in Pasadena. I thought she might be there. But she wasn't.
"It was a hot night. There was a big party, and I wanted to fit in. I arrived there at about 8:00.5 I drank four Tom Collins. It was like drinking lemonade. I was guzzling them. My body is small. It was hot in there, and I wasn't used to it. I was feeling it, and I got sleepy. So I wanted to go home. It was late."
During his brief stay at the Rafferty party, Sirhan tried to make conversation with a hostess, but she blew him off, complaining about the manner in which he was dressed.
"I went to my car. I was surprised that I made it to my car. I remember that it was parked uphill, and I was too drowsy to drive. I then made up my mind to go back to the Ambassador to get some coffee."
Before returning to the Ambassador, Sirhan said, he had a brief memory lapse. However, during the alleged blackout, he took his .22 Iver Johnson revolver and placed it in his pocket.
He does not remember walking back to the hotel.
Hans Bidstrup, a hotel electrician, remembered that Sirhan, holding some sort of drink, approached him near the hotel's Venetian Room at about 8:45 and asked him if he was a Democrat. When the electrician said that he was, Sirhan stuck his hand out and replied, "Shake hands with another Democrat." The electrician believed that Sirhan was "half-drunk."
At about 9:30, auto mechanic Enrique Rabago, standing by the door to the Palm Court Room, saw Sirhan and asked him, "Are we going to win?" Sirhan replied, "I think we're going to win." When Rabago told him that Senator McCarthy held a slight lead in the ballot count, Sirhan, according to Rabago, replied, "Don't worry about [Kennedy] if he doesn't win, that son of a bitch. He's a millionaire, and he doesn't need to win. He just wants to go to the White House. But even if he wins, he's not going to do anything for you or any of the poor people."
Rabago recalled that Sirhan wanted him and a companion, Humphrey Cordero, to return to the party. However, the two other men were concerned about their appearance: dressed for work, not for a party. Sirhan, according to Cordero, simply said, "Why shouldn't we go in there. We are voters. We're putting them in office." Bewildered by this strange man they had just met, Rabago and Cordero walked out of the hotel just after 10:00, leaving Sirhan behind.
At about the same time, Sirhan asked hotel waiter Gonzalo Cetina-Carillo to hold his drink while he took a folding chair. After Sirhan sat down, the waiter returned his drink and walked away.
Claiming to have lapses in and out of consciousness, Sirhan next remembers standing in front of a teletype machine cranking away in the Colonial Room. He just stared at it. "I was mesmerized," he says. "I had never seen anything like that before." Mary Grohs, a Western Union Telex operator, spotted Sirhan and described him as "glassy-eyed." Sirhan's own words: "I was shit-faced drunk."
Further disoriented by the bright lights in the hotel, Sirhan walked into the Embassy Room, mingling with the large crowd. "My only goal was to get some coffee," he insists.
Finally, someone in the crowd pointed Sirhan to an anteroom--between the backstage area and the west pantry double swinging doors of the kitchen pantry. Sirhan remembers, "The coffee was in a shiny urn. I remember standing there and saying, 'I like my coffee with cream and lots of sugar.' An attractive brunette was standing next to me, and she said that she liked her coffee the same way. I remember that she was wearing a plain white dress. We had a brief conversation, and I don't remember anything more than that."6
Just before midnight, Jesus Perez, a hotel busboy, saw Sirhan nervously holding and twisting some papers, standing in the kitchen pantry as were several other people. According to Perez, Sirhan asked him, "Is Mr. Kennedy coming this way?" Perez said that he didn't know.
A few minutes later, as the throng of Kennedy supporters packed into the kitchen pantry and moved east toward the Colonial Room, Sirhan stood and crouched by a tray stacker to the far side of the ice machine near the east end of the pantry. He then moved west toward Kennedy, picking his way through the crowd until he reached the steam table. The senator had just released a handshake with a kitchen worker.
Karl Uecker, a hotel maitre d', thought that Sirhan was just another busboy who wanted to shake hands with Kennedy. Uecker pinned Sirhan against the steam table, stopping his forward motion.
Sirhan then pulled his revolver from his pants and opened fire, drawing the attention of nearly everyone in the pantry.
* * *
Twenty-six year old Thane Eugene Cesar, returning from his plumber's job at Lockheed Aircraft, arrived at his Simi Valley home at 4:30 P.M. on Tuesday, June 4, 1968. He and his wife, Joyce, were having problems with their five-year marriage, and they barely spoke to each other when he walked into the house. Cesar reached into the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of orange juice. Then he went into the living room and turned on the television. In for the night, he expected to fall asleep in his favorite chair before the 11:00 local news aired.
A few minutes later, just as he became comfortable, he received a telephone call from Tom Spangler, the manager of Ace Guard Service, where Cesar moonlighted as a part-time security guard. "Gene, I need you to work tonight," Spangler told Cesar. "There are three big parties at the Ambassador Hotel. I need six guards, and I only have four. And I need you for an eight-hour shift, starting at 6:00."
"I can't do it, Tom," Cesar replied. "I just got home from work, and I'm really tired."
"I'm in a jam here, Gene!"
"Tom, I just can't!"
"I'll tell you what. If you report to the Ambassador at 6:00, you can slip out between 11:30 and midnight, and I'll pay you for the entire eight-hour shift."
Needing the extra money, Cesar thought for a minute then sighed, "Okay, I'll be there."
Cesar chugged his orange juice, walked into the kitchen, and told his wife that he had to go to work for Ace and was expected to be in downtown Los Angeles by 6:00. She shrugged him off, keeping her back to him, saying nothing. He walked up behind her and grabbed her playfully by the shoulders. He kissed her on the back of the neck and pressed his six foot, 210 pound frame against her. A smile started to break through her anger. He whispered, "Baby, you still got it."
"Get out of here," she finally laughed, stroking his chestnut brown hair and his pudgy face. "Get cleaned up, and I'll make you dinner."
Dressed in his gray uniform and wearing his Sam Brown and attached holster that cradled his .38 Rohm revolver, Cesar kissed his wife and left at 5:00 for the hour drive through rush hour traffic to the eight-story, 512-room Ambassador Hotel at 3400 Wilshire Avenue.
Cesar arrived in the parking lot of the hotel at 6:05. He reported to Fred Murphy, the Ace commander and a former LAPD lieutenant, and William Gardner, the hotel's chief of security, who was dressed in a plain suit and tie. Under Gardner's command were eleven guards who worked full-time for the hotel. They wore brown uniforms and were unarmed.
The hotel was packed. In addition to the political parties, employees from General Electric, Bulova Watch, and Pacific Telephone were at the hotel for their own company conclaves--as well as 144 members of the press, who were there primarily to cover Kennedy.
Murphy instructed Cesar to work crowd control at Kennedy's campaign party. He was assigned to patrol the large Embassy Ballroom on the lobby level of the hotel where everyone expected Kennedy to deliver either his victory or concession speech.
At 9:30, because of massive overcrowding in the Embassy Room, Los Angeles fire marshals closed the main entrance to the ballroom and admitted people only on a "one-in, one-out basis." At the same time, Murphy reassigned Cesar to the Embassy Room's kitchen pantry area.
Murphy told Cesar to position himself at the east door, next to the Colonial Room, the designated press room where Kennedy planned to hold a news conference after his speech. Instructed to check the credentials of the people walking in and out of the kitchen, Cesar mostly sat, paced, and occasionally checked the bona fides of those people.
Cesar recalls, "At about 11:15, Murphy came to me and said that Kennedy would be going through the kitchen pantry on his way to the Colonial Room after his speech on the stage in the Embassy Room. Murphy then moved me from the east pantry door to the west double swinging doors, which were next to the back stage area.
"A few minutes later, Bill Gardner told me that he wanted me to accompany Kennedy from the west pantry double doors to the Colonial Room. He just told me, 'Keep the aisle clear. Make sure that everybody's out of the way, so that Kennedy's group can walk freely.'"
While waiting for Kennedy, Cesar talked to several people in the kitchen, including comedian Milton Berle, Roosevelt Grier, and Rafer Johnson. Cesar recalls, "I had the time of my life, because Berle just kept everyone in stitches."
A little before midnight, Kennedy and his entourage, assured of victory in the California primary, stepped off the freight elevator in the kitchen. Kennedy briskly walked past Cesar, through the west pantry double swinging doors, out an anteroom between the pantry and a back stage area, and into the Embassy Room, where his cheering supporters greeted him as he climbed onto the stage.
Thunderous applause and chants of "We want Bobby! We want Bobby!" echoed in the kitchen pantry during and following his speech. "I heard them say he was on his way," Cesar remembers. "Someone said, 'This way Senator,' as he was walking off the back of the stage. So I moved out of the way of the swinging doors and moved up, letting him come by me."
According to Cesar, Karl Uecker led the way for Kennedy. Standing to the senator's left, the maitre d', dressed in a tuxedo, held Kennedy's right wrist, trying to get him through the surging crowd in the kitchen pantry. "I'm on the right side of him," Cesar explains. "And what I'm doing is taking my hand and pushing people back, because Kennedy was having a hard time walking forward.
"About halfway through the pantry, there was an ice machine to the south and some steam tables just a few feet up ahead to the north. Right about then, I went directly behind Kennedy and took his right arm at the elbow with my left hand. The maitre d' was now up ahead.
"I let go of Kennedy just as he shook hands with a busboy."
Cesar looked at his watch. The time was exactly 12:15 A.M., June 5. Suddenly, while pressed up against Kennedy's back, Cesar saw flashes coming from the steam table, just in front of him and Kennedy.
Realizing he was under fire, Cesar immediately reached for his gun.
* * *
Forty-three year old Paul Schrade, a member of the executive board of the United Auto Workers and also the vice chairman of the Kennedy campaign for labor, was driving home from the Los Angeles airport early that Tuesday evening after returning home from a trip to San Francisco. While on the highway, he decided to go instead to the Kennedy campaign party at the Ambassador.
Schrade remembers, "I went up to the Kennedy suite on the fifth floor in the southeast wing of the hotel. We hung around and waited for results. We finally got into a session with [Kennedy aides] Frank Mankiewicz and Fred Dutton. They started talking about what we would do if we won, because the results at about 11:00 were showing that we were moving ahead in the vote."
As the returns began looking good, the men started to make calls to friends and supporters around the country, including UAW president Walter Reuther, Schrade's boss, with whom he had spent most of the day in San Francisco.
Schrade walked into Kennedy's personal suite and found Kennedy putting his last-minute touches on his victory speech. After a cordial greeting, Kennedy asked Schrade to jot down the name of Delores Huerta, a vice president of the United Farm Workers Union and a key Kennedy supporter, so that Kennedy would remember to thank her. As Schrade looked for something to write on, Kennedy, accompanied by several aides, left the senator's fifth-floor suite and took the elevator down to the kitchen.
Schrade recalls, "Because the elevators were so crowded, we just walked downstairs from the fifth floor. And we caught up with Bob and his entourage in the kitchen area where I gave him an envelope with Delores's name."
Together, the entire group passed through the pantry, out the double swinging doors, into the Embassy Room, and onto the stage as the overflowing crowd cheered wildly.
"I was on the platform with Kennedy. Bob went through his speech, thanking everybody. The crowd was so excited, really happy. As soon as he finished, I just climbed off and went into the kitchen pantry area to wait. He came by fairly quickly after that. I was several feet inside the pantry, and Bob said to me, 'Paul, I want you and Jesse [Unruh, the speaker of the California State Assembly and a Democratic Party powerbroker] with me.' I turned and looked for Jesse, and he was standing over in the corner of the pantry. And I yelled at him, 'Jesse, Bob wants us with him.'
"At that point, I turned around. Bob had stopped and was shaking hands with some workers in the kitchen about four or five feet in front of me. And I was feeling really good at this point. I remember the thought that was going through my head: 'This is really what we've been fighting for. We're going to have a President!'
"At that point, Bob, who was smiling and walking towards what I know now was a steam table. All of a sudden, I started shaking very violently. There were television cameras all around and cables all over the floor, and I thought I was being electrocuted. I just passed out. Other than the heavy trembling, I don't remember hearing anything or feeling anything. I just fell. My next sensation was feeling people trampling on me. I felt pain. Then, there was a doctor over me as I came to. He said, 'You're going to be all right. It's not serious.' I felt the blood streaming out of my head. At that point, I realized that I had been shot. The doctor said that Bob Kennedy had also been wounded."
1. George R. Stoner, chief of the Bureau of Investigation for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, conducted an interview with Ambassador Hotel security chief William Gardner, which was recorded in a June 19, 1968, memorandum to Los Angeles District Attorney Evelle Younger. According to Stoner, "Mr. Gardner stated that he had discussed security with members of the Kennedy organization and, although they did not say they did not want any security, the implication was clear that they did not want anything to interfere with the Senator mingling with the people in the audiences."
2. An official LAPD report memorialized this May 29 incident, stating: "At one point in the motorcade, at 9th and Santee Streets, the vehicles came to a stop and Senator Kennedy was pulled from his vehicle by a large enthusiastic crowd. A Traffic Enforcement Division sergeant attempted to assist the Senator back to his vehicle when it appeared to him that Kennedy needed help. Kennedy and his aides berated the sergeant and told him that they had not asked for the assistance of the police."
3. Kennedy did not capture the Democratic nomination with his victory in California. According to UPI, Kennedy won 172 of California's 174 delegates, as well as twenty-four additional delegates in the South Dakota primary. Kennedy's total delegate count ran to 393 1/2 convention votes, still far behind Hubert Humphrey's 561 1/2 delegates but ahead of Eugene McCarthy, who had 258. The final battlefield between Kennedy and Humphrey would have been the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
4. Kuchel, a U.S. Senator since 1953, was also a partner in the Los Angeles-based law firm, Wyman, Bautzer, Rothman, Kuchel & Silbert. Kuchel, a progressive Republican, was defeated by Max Rafferty, a conservative, in the June 4, 1968, GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Alan Cranston defeated Rafferty in the November general election.
Victory parties for both Cranston and Rafferty were being held at the Ambassador Hotel at the same time as the Kennedy party on June 4.
5. Because of election day, the bars at the Ambassador Hotel were closed until 8:00 P.M.
6. Judy Royer, a Kennedy campaign worker, said that she twice asked Sirhan to leave the kitchen pantry between 10:15 and 11:00 P.M. She last saw him leaving the anteroom.
Robert Klase, having been stopped by a security guard from entering the Embassy Room, tried to get in through the kitchen. While standing in the anteroom, a television network technician asked him to guard his equipment until he returned. At about 11:00, Sirhan attempted to enter the kitchen, but Klase advised him that only ABC-TV staff were allowed in the area. Sirhan left without an argument.
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