Another alternative Kennedy assassination theory?
Conspiracies surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s death may be most widely circulated. However, one theory questioning our understanding of Robert F. Kennedy’s murder in 1968 has arguably gained more recent traction, including from those closest to the assassination and even one immediate member of Kennedy’s family.
“My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently told The Washington Post. “I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”
According to the Post, Kennedy’s second oldest son now believes, after months of research, that his father was killed by a second gunman.
RFK Jr. even visited Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of shooting and killing his father, because he was “curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence.” He isn’t the only one. But others who’ve deeply investigated the case say the second-shooter explanation is a shallow theory that irresponsibly lets Sirhan off the hook.
“If you believe the LAPD reports about this case, there is no way that Sirhan did it and did it alone,” Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist and author of The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy, told Boston.com.
“But if you assume that the LAPD f—ed up — not crimes of commission, but crimes of omission,” Moldea says the theory begins to unravel.
“What Bobby Kennedy Jr. has done, he’s launched a whole new generation of conspiracy nuts who are going to believe that Sirhan didn’t do it and that somebody else did,” he said.
Here’s what we know happened
Kennedy was assassinated almost exactly 50 years ago, on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
The 42-year-old Brookline native had just finished speaking to supporters in the hotel ballroom after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary. After finishing his address, Kennedy was walking through the hotel kitchen pantry amid a crowd of people when Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, began shooting his .22-caliber revolver.
Kennedy, who was hit three times, and five others were shot. However, the ascendant candidate was the only one for whom the gunshot wounds would prove fatal. He died the following day at a nearby hospital.
Sirhan was almost immediately tackled at the scene by witnesses and arrested on several charges, including murder. Police found an article in his pocket critical of Kennedy’s support for Israel, which appeared to be his motive. A Christian Palestinian, Sirhan was forced to flee Jerusalem with his family in 1948, after their home was seized by Jewish insurgents. A notebook was also found in Sirhan’s apartment with an entry, just two weeks earlier, asserting that Kennedy “must” soon be assassinated.
Sirhan has long maintained that he has no recollection of the assassination, though he did go to a shooting range earlier in the day of the assassination. During his trial, he actually admitted to the assassination, but later recanted and now says the confession was part of his defense lawyer’s strategy to spare him from the death penalty, rather than argue his innocence.
“I went along with him because he had my life in his hands,” Sirhan told Moldea in 1993. “I was duped into believing that he had my best interests in mind. It was a futile defense. “
Sirhan was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. However, his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972 when California abolished the death penalty.
“Everyone agrees Sirhan was a gunman, with the dispute being whether he was the only one,” Larry Tye, an RFK biographer, told Boston.com in an email.
Why do people think there could have been a second gunman?
Skeptics of the accepted narrative of what happened in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen pantry center around the ballistic evidence.
First, Kennedy was shot from behind at point-blank range, according to the autopsy report. The fatal shot entered behind his right ear, the report said. But witnesses say that Sirhan approached from the front, on Kennedy’s right, and that his gun never got closer than about a foot-and-a-half away.
Second, according to the official reports, eight total shots were fired. Kennedy was hit three times and five others were also shot. After all, Sirhan’s .22-caliber revolver carried a maximum of just eight bullets. And yet, there’s evidence that suggests more than eight shots were fired.
According to the FBI’s crime scene report, there were four bullet holes in the wall and door frame in the direction Sirhan was shooting. Photos of the door frame, which were reportedly destroyed after the trial, showed each of the holes circled by Los Angeles police.
Additionally, a low-quality audiotape of the shooting revealed up to 13 shots, according to electrical engineer Philip Van Praag.
“You can’t fire 13 shots out of an eight-shot gun,” RFK Jr. told the Post.
However, there’s disagreement among the the audio analysts who have studied the tape. A group of five experts who studied the tape after Van Praag’s claim could find no more than eight shot signatures. As CNN reported in 2012, several witnesses said they heard between five and 12 shots.
And lastly, in 1975, a Los Angeles court appointed a firearms panel to re-fire Sirhan’s gun and match the bullets to the three that hit Kennedy. Even though the original investigation (which was highly criticized for its handling of the evidence) seven years earlier said the bullets found had matched Sirhan’s .22-caliber revolver, the reinvestigation was unable to do the same.
So what are the holes in this theory?
Moldea — who interviewed Sirhan three times, talked to more than 100 police officers involved in the investigation, and scoured countless pages of official reports for his 1995 book — also used to believe in the second-shooter theory. He even sold his book proposal on that premise.
“I was wrong,” he said in a recent interview.
According to Moldea, all the evidence for a second shooter can be explained away by shoddy police work and conspiratorial thinking.
On the first point, Moldea says everyone agrees with the autopsy report’s conclusion that Kennedy was shot at close range and from behind. But just because Sirhan approaches him from the front doesn’t mean there was a second shooter.
“As he’s attacking Kennedy, he’s lunging and going, ‘Kennedy, you son of a bitch,'” said Moldea, citing eyewitness accounts of the shooting. Moldea says Kennedy’s natural reaction would have been to turn away from Sirhan, which would explain the angle of his gunshot wounds.
“The conspiracy people will have you believe that Kennedy is standing there, putting his chest out,” he said. “If you see someone running at you, shouting ‘You son of a bitch,’ he’s got a gun in his hand, what are you going to do? You’re going to turn defensively.”
In his reconstruction, Moldea says Paul Schrade, a labor activist who was walking on Kennedy’s left, was hit with the first bullet and collapsed into the senator, incidentally pushing him back toward Sirhan, who was then able to reach him at point-blank range.
But what about the four bullet holes in the wall and door frame? Moldea says it doesn’t take a ballistics expert to know the suggestion of additional bullets was problematic.
“An eight-shot revolver can’t fire more than eight bullets,” he said. “That I know. Now you got the FBI identifying four extra bullets in the walls and door frame in Sirhan’s line of fire. That’s a problem.”
In the process of researching his book, Moldea said he was able to identify the Los Angeles officer who marked the bullet holes, Walter Tew, who was a deputy patrolman with no expertise in firearms identification.
Furthermore, Moldea found a report in the state archives from Alfred Greiner, the FBI agent who included the holes in the bureau’s report, that said a hotel clerk had given him a tour of the pantry. According to Greiner, it was the clerk who originally identified the bullet holes.
“This is a hotel clerk, who I’m sure knows how to take a great reservation, but know absolutely nothing about bullet holes,” Moldea said.
Moldea says the holes were likely the result of any number the kitchen’s carts banging into the wall and said the pantry was “full of holes” when he visited the hotel years later. DeWayne Wolfer, the original lead investigator of the shooting, has also said the holes weren’t caused by bullets and that no extra bullets were ever found.
And as for the bullets not matching Sirhan’s gun when it was re-fired in 1975, Moldea says he visited the crime lab to ask why they couldn’t replicate what they had done several years later. Moldea said employees at the lab told him that they had taken Sirhan’s gun following the 1969 trial and, figuring the case was over, shot it hundreds of times for fun.
“The problem is that when you shoot a gun, the barrel changes,” he said. “The lands and grooves change. And when you fire the gun a hundred times, you change the barrel of the gun. Therefore, a match with bullets that were fired a hundred shots earlier, you’re not going to be able to make a match.”
Who would the second gunman have been?
The man conspiracy theorists most commonly point to is Thane Eugene Cesar. Cesar was a security guard who hated the Kennedys and supported George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and segregationist presidential candidate in 1968.
Cesar was also walking with Kennedy when the shooting occurred and was carrying a .38-caliber revolver, which he says he never fired. However, he also owned a .22-caliber similar to Sirhan’s gun, which he initially told police he sold before the assassination, but had actually, it was later found, sold three months after the shooting. There’s no evidence he had the gun with him when the shooting took place.
Moldea, who at the time was pursuing the second-shooter theory, confronted Cesar about the inconsistencies in his story in 1987. Cesar categorically denied shooting his gun, no less the fatal bullet.
“I got caught in a situation I can’t get out of,” he told Moldea. “But no matter what anybody says or any report they come up with, I know I didn’t do it. The police department knows I didn’t do it. There’re just a few people out there who want to make something out of something that isn’t there—even though I know that some of the evidence makes me look bad.”
Cesar later even agreed to be polygraphed by a professional expert and “passed with flying colors.”
So why has this theory resurfaced?
Sirhan, who continues to serve his life sentence in a San Diego prison, has repeatedly been denied parole, most recently in 2016. The convicted murderer and his lawyers have embraced other assassination conspiracy theories — from the mysterious “girl in the polka-dot dress” to a supposed mind control plot — as they try to argue his case. According to the Post, Sirhan’s defense team is launching “a long-shot bid” to get a hearing with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Schrade, the labor activist who was shot during the assassination, also now believes there was a second shooter, after long having been critical of law enforcement’s handling of the case, which both sides agree was sloppy.
“Yes, [Sirhan] shot four other people and aimed at Kennedy,” the 93-year-old told the Post. “The important thing is he did not shoot Robert Kennedy. Why didn’t they go after the second gunman? They knew about him right away. They didn’t want to know who it was. They wanted a quickie.”
Moldea says the second-shooter theory persists because authoritatively making the case that Sirhan was the sole shooter isn’t a clean and easy task. The 68-year-old journalist says he talked to RFK Jr. earlier in the year after he visited Sirhan and tried to explain that Sirhan’s team was promoting the theory to increase the odds he might get released from prison.
“I would not want to take the blame for this crime as long as there is exculpatory evidence that I didn’t do the crime,” Sirhan admitted to Moldea in 1993.
Moldea said he is “livid” with how the Post treated the recent story and imagines Sirhan is “in his jail cell right now spiking the football.” Quoting from his book, he reiterated his point that nearly every murder can be made to look like a conspiracy if “occasional official mistakes and incompetence” are not taken into account.
“I think [RFK Jr.] has been misled, conned, and corrupted by the conspiracy crowd to believe this garbage that the man that murdered his father is innocent,” Moldea said.