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Was Robert Kennedy killed by a real 'Manchurian candidate'-style assassin?
It happened nearly 38 years ago, but doubts and suspicions have lingered on. Now the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy are being resurrected and re-examined in an attempt to establish the truth of what happened that night in the cramped pantry of a Los Angeles hotel.
New evidence has emerged and pressure is mounting on authorities to reopen the case of Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the assassination and who remains in the California state prison in Corcoran.
Celebrities and journalists are joining the campaign for a federal investigation, which has been sparked in part by a new book, Nemesis, by the British author Peter Evans. Evans, who spent 10 years researching the book, has unearthed evidence to support Sirhan's contention that he was hypnotised into being the "fall guy" for the murder. Evans identifies the hypnotist, who had worked on CIA mind control programmes and who was later found dead in mysterious circumstances.
In another move to reopen the case, a lawsuit has been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court to stop the pantry at the Ambassador Hotel being destroyed with the rest of the hotel because, it is claimed, bullet holes in the walls and ceiling demonstrate conclusively that more than one gunman fired shots at Senator Kennedy.
Both Evans and Sirhan's lawyer, Larry Teeter, are convinced that the Palestinian activist was chosen to be a Manchurian Candidate-style assassin. In the 1962 film, remade last year, and based on a novel by Richard Condon, a former prisoner of war from the Korean conflict is brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin.
Evans and Teeter believe that while Sirhan fired several shots, none of them hit Kennedy. The assassination, they say, was carried out by a professional hitman who fled immediately, leaving Sirhan to take the blame.
It was only because Kennedy had dismissed his Los Angeles police bodyguards that Sirhan survived and was not gunned down on the spot as his controllers had intended, reports Evans.
The actor Robert Vaughn, who starred in the long-running television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E and who was a good friend of Robert Kennedy's, has sent a copy of Evans' book to Sirhan and his lawyers. In his letter to Sirhan, Vaughn wrote: "It contains important new information about your case that I believe substantiates your claims of having been hypnotised at the time of the shooting and also produces the first credible evidence of motivation and method. I can tell you that, like me, important people in the US media are persuaded by Mr Evans' revelations; some are talking of it opening the door to a long overdue federal investigation into the assassination. I also believe that it could give you the grounds for a new appeal."
The author Dominick Dunne, in his Vanity Fair column last month, described Nemesis as presenting "a startling revision of American history".
Robert Kennedy was the senator for New York, the head of the Kennedy clan and, according to Evans, the occasional lover of his sister-in-law, Jackie Kennedy, when his snowballing presidential campaign rolled into California. He triumphed in the California primary, and around midnight on 5 June 1968 in the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel he thanked his supporters. Then, surrounded by aides, hotel employees and newsmen, with his wife, Ethel, a few yards behind and with the cheers still ringing in his ears, he left for a press conference in the Colonial Room on the other side of the hotel.
The route they took, from the stage to an anteroom and into the service corridors, led them through a narrow serving-kitchen known as the pantry. As the senator approached, a dark, slim young man stepped from behind a tray rack. He raised a .22 calibre revolver and squeezed the trigger. The gunman continued firing, wounding five other people as Kennedy aides and hotel employees wrestled him down on to a table for steaming food, where he was held until police arrived.
On 17 April 1969, after 64 sequestered days and nights, and 16 and a half hours of deliberation, the jury of seven men and five women found Sirhan "alone and not in concert with anyone else" guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to death in the gas chamber, but the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment when the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
Those facts are not in dispute. Nearly everything else is.
"There was no way Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy," says Teeter, who has filed the lawsuit to preserve the pantry for further forensic examination. "He was the fall guy. His job was to get busted while the trigger man walked out. He wasn't consciously involved in any plot. He was a patsy. He was unconscious and unaware of what was happening - he was the true Manchurian Candidate.
"He is absolutely innocent. He is not the person who did the shooting. He was out of position and out of range and he couldn't have done it."
Teeter does not know for certain who hypnotised Sirhan, but, he said: "I know it was done. It was consistent with the US government's programme developed by the CIA and Military Intelligence to enable handlers to get people to commit crimes with no knowledge of what they are doing."
Evans goes further and names the hypnotist as a Dr William Joseph Bryan Jnr. He had worked on a CIA mind-control programme called MKULTRA and claimed to have moonlighted as a technical adviser on The Manchurian Candidate. The hypnosis, says Evans, had been done over three months, a period known as the "white fog" when the Los Angeles police task force later investigating the assassination - and trying to construct a meticulous timetable of Sirhan's activities up to the shooting - lost track of him.
Sergeant Bill Jordan, the detective who was Sirhan's first interrogator, told Evans: "We took him back for more than a year with some intensity - where he'd been, what he'd been doing, who he'd been seeing. But there was this 10- or 12-week gap, like a blanket of white fog we could never penetrate, and which Sirhan himself appeared to have a complete amnesia about."
Dr Bryan was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room in 1978. He had either shot himself or was murdered. The case remains unsolved.
Evans agrees that Sirhan could not have killed Kennedy. "He got off a lot of shots and the panic in the pantry that night was extraordinary. But the angle of the bullet holes are against Sirhan having pulled the trigger," he said. "Sirhan Sirhan was very volatile, very visible and the perfect patsy.
"Unfortunately, some of the physical evidence was destroyed almost immediately because the Los Angeles police department burned the doors to the pantry, which was an extraordinary thing to do."
The recollections of a waiter at the Ambassador at the time add weight to the theories that Sirhan was not the assassin. Phil Elwell, who owns the popular King's Head pub and restaurant in Santa Monica, recalls that his friend and fellow waiter Carl Ucker was in the pantry that night and grabbed Sirhan's gun hand. "He was holding Sirhan Sirhan's wrist, and although Sirhan was firing the gun, Carl said that there was no way that any of the bullets could have hit Kennedy," said Elwell. "Carl told the police this and went on a lot of talk shows saying the same thing, but nobody seemed to take much notice."
Where Evans and Teeter differ is on the question of motive, and there they are at loggerheads.
"The assassination was staged by US intelligence for the purpose of continuing the war against Vietnam and putting the Republican Party in the White House," said Teeter. "The assassination was arranged with the CIA, the FBI and the LAPD. There was a massive cover-up. If he had lived and been allowed to run, Bobby Kennedy would have been elected president and this was a multi-agency task force to make sure that the Democrats didn't take the White House again."
In Nemesis, Evans gives a totally different motive. He has unearthed startling evidence that the assassination was carried out by a Palestinian terrorist named Mahmoud Hamshari.
Evans quotes sources as saying that Hamshari was receiving protection money from Aristotle Onassis to prevent attacks on his Olympic Airlines. Onassis, says Evans, had hated Bobby Kennedy since 1953, when Kennedy was one of the prime movers in scuppering a major deal Onassis was pushing through in Saudi Arabia. In addition, Kennedy stood in the way of his marriage to Jackie. She had promised her brother-in-law not to wed Onassis until after the 1968 election because they both knew how the American public would have reacted. She married Onassis in October 1968.
Dr Bryan was chosen to hypnotise Sirhan because he had links to both Hamshari and Onassis. Hamshari had visited him seeking a cure for migraine headaches, while Onassis had called on the doctor in an attempt to cure his sexual dysfunction, says Evans. It was Onassis's money, says Evans, that financed both the hypnotism of Sirhan and the assassination.
He says that Onassis confessed his complicity in the assassination to one of his lovers, Helen Gaillet De Neergaard, when she was his guest on his private island, Skorpios, in 1974. She confirms this in a letter to Vanity Fair, published in the February issue. "Thank God the truth has finally been told for posterity," she writes.
Teeter scoffs at Evans' research and describes the book as "a soap opera". Said Evans: "I can see Mr Teeter's nervousness about my book because I have shown that Sirhan Sirhan was there, he had a gun and he pulled the trigger. My book is about the conspiracy to murder Bobby Kennedy and it is putting a lot of pressure on authorities to reopen the case. The point of the assassination is not who fired the gun, but who paid for the bullets. Aristotle Onassis paid for the bullets."
The 84-year-old, 500-room Ambassador Hotel, which was the site of six Academy Awards ceremonies and where many celebrities, including the aviator and movie producer Howard Hughes, had permanent suites, was never the same after the assassination. Many believe it died with Robert Kennedy. It became more run down year by year, closing floor by floor until it finally shut its doors to the public on 3 January 1989. Its contents were auctioned off in the 1990s and it now stands empty and derelict behind a chain-link fence on Wilshire Boulevard.
Los Angeles officials want to tear it down and build three schools on the site, while the Los Angeles Conservancy is fighting to save the hotel because of its architectural value and historic significance.
The Kennedy family has argued forcefully against saving the hotel, saying that new schools would make the most fitting memorial to Bobby's life.
The pantry remains in the
bowels of the building, a decaying space with bullet holes in the wall and
ceiling. An ice machine still drips. Pending the outcome of Teeter's lawsuit,
a panel of historians will be appointed to consider if the room ought to
be sliced out and shipped whole to another site, preserved as it is, or
destroyed along with the hotel.