Monday, July 6, 2009

Stalking RFK?

Robert F. Kennedy (center) visiting Eastern Kentucky in early 1968, just prior to running for the presidency.

Sirhan Sirhan's repetitive writing, his claimed failure to remember the events at the Ambassador hotel, the ease with which he could be hypnotized - for these reasons and more, many observers have speculated that Sirhan was some form of "Manchurian candidate," programmed via hypnosis to be the "patsy" in RFK's assassination.

However, there are several credible sightings of someone closely resembling Sirhan, in the company of others, apparently stalking RFK in the days leading up to June 5. Sirhan was seen in the company of a woman and at times other men, acting suspiciously and in some cases trying to get close to Kennedy or gain access to his schedule. Persons matching the same descriptions were seen in Sirhan's company on the evening of the assassination in the Ambassador hotel, and also fleeing the scene of the crime.

The LAPD eventually chose to repudiate, reject or filter all the witness observations suggesting that other individuals had any connection to Sirhan. But while even sincere eyewitnesses can and do make mistakes in details, what is noteworthy here is the consistent descriptions of physical appearance and aggressive demeanor in these independent accounts.

What is also noteworthy is the way in which the LAPD discounted these stories, in some cases justifying the rejection based on alleged retractions for which there is no record. Why weren't these witnesses afforded the standard police procedure of viewing a lineup including Sirhan, to see if they could make a positive id?

The earliest of these reports concerns an incident involving Sirhan and a young woman. at a campaign stop two weeks prior to RFK's murder. It was two days after Sirhan wrote in his notebook "my determination to eliminate RFK is become more the more [sic] of an unshakable obsession." Was this the start of the stalking of RFK?

Robbie's Restaurant, Pomona California, May 20

In Pomona, a 400-person campaign luncheon was being held for RFK in the second floor dining area of the restaurant. Bartender Albert LeBeau was called on duty to act as ticket screener on the staircase leading to the function. William Schneid, a Pomona police officer, was assigned to security duty in the restaurant.

Schneid encountered a young woman standing by the kitchen door of the restaurant, apparently trying to get inside through that door. He informed her that the door was locked and she then asked him which way Senator Kennedy would enter the luncheon. He told her that RFK “would probably go up the stairs to the second floor.”

Later, Schneid observed the same young woman, along with a young man, cross over a brick fa├žade adjacent to the stairs, and then climb over the stair railing behind people checking tickets at the foot of the stairs. There, they were intercepted by LeBeau at his position further up the stairs. LeBeau, who heard a noise as the couple had apparently jumped over the banister. Le Beau challenged the pair, and the woman responded “we are with the Senator’s party.” LeBeau told them that they still needed tickets, and she replied, “we are part of the Senator’s party; he just waved us upstairs.” Since so many people were being allowed upstairs, Le Beau let them go at that point, only to encounter them again.

LeBeaus' interview by LAPD on June 26 has a wealth of detail about his interactions with the couple. He thought it "very odd" that the young man had a coat thrown over his arm even though it was a very warm May afternoon in southern California. When LeBeau encountered them on the second occasion he was made more suspicious because the couple were clearly not with the Seantor's party, and the man appeared to be in what amounted to be a “crouch”, his coat still over his arm. LeBeau began to confront them, saying "pardon me," at which point the young man turned on him and in a "surly" tone asked “Why should I?”

LAPD records show that LeBeau was fairly certain the young man was Sirhan but would not swear it under oath. That ended the LAPD investigation.

In his June 26 LAPD interview, LeBeau described the young man as "a male Latin type, 25 to 30 years, hair, dark complected," and also successfully picked Sirhan’s photo from a sample set of 25 young dark skinned males (he also failed to pick out another photo of Sirhan taken from his Racing Commission ID). LeBeau described the girl thusly: "female Caucasian, 25-30 years, 5-4 to 5-6, trim nice figure, with shoulder length straight light brown hair," a good match for the "polka dot dress girl" seen in other circumstances.

While the final LAPD report asserts that LeBeau “initially stated the man was Sirhan, but later admitted he lied," there is nothing in the files to substantiate this alleged retraction.

Police officer Schneid apparently told the FBI that he "did not feel that the man observed by him on the stairs would have been Sirhan Sirhan," but the description he supplied fits Sirhan well - "Early 20's, 5'6" to 5'7", slender, dark curly hair, Latin or Mexican." His description of the girl also matches the "polka dot dress girl." LAPD records note the FBI interview but do not contain any LAPD interview with Schneid.

Kennedy Campaign headquarters, Azuza California, May 30

Ten days after the incident at Robbie's Restaurant, Laverne Botting, a 41 year old RFK campaign worker, observed a young woman and two young men enter the Azuza campaign office. One of the young men approached Botting at her desk and said that he was from the RFK headquarters in Pasadena (Sirhan lived in Pasadena at the time). He wanted to know if RFK would be visiting that area; Botting told the young man that the Senator would not. In an interview with the LAPD, Botting picked Sirhan out of a photo line up as closely resembling the man who spoke with her. She accurately described Sirhan’s height, black eyes and kinky black hair.

Independently of Botting, Ethel Crehan, another volunteer in the office, called police and told them that she was “fairly certain” that Sirhan had come into the office. She said she could be sure if she could see him in a line-up, as had Botting. Neither was offered the opportunity.

The police did check with the Pasadena RFK office staff and were told that no one had been sent from that office on that day. Thus, a potentially innocent explanation for this event does not appear to hold up.

No transcript exists of the Botting interview; the officer in charge closed out her file with the remark that she “had obviously made an honest mistake.” Although no one other than the police and FBI should have known of Botting’s report, she later received a threatening phone call at home – “I hear you think you saw Sirhan; you had better be sure of what you are saying!”

Crehan’s report was closed because the officer noted that her estimate of the man’s height was three to four inches above Sirhan’s actual height - although still relatively short at 5’8” - and despite her selecting his picture out. For this reason he felt “it was doubtful she observed Sirhan.” This dismissal seems premature at best, given the rest of her description and the corroborating account of Lavern Botting.

Santa Ana Mountains, South of Corona, California, June 1

Dean Pack, an insurance executive, was hiking with his son in a secluded part of the Santa Ana Mountains on June 1, two days after the Azuza visit. After the assassination, he recognized Sirhan as “strongly resembling” a young man whom they had encountered during their hike. The young man was shooting with a pistol at cans set up on a hillside. He was in the company of a girl in her early twenties with long brunet hair and another man who was around six feet tall, with sandy colored hair and a ruddy complexion.

According to a 1969 interview with author Jonn Christian, recounted in the book The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the main thing that struck Pack “was how unfriendly they were.” Pack told Christian:

"The person who looked like Sirhan didn't say a word. He just stood there and glared at me. The other fellow was the only one who would talk."

Pack added:

"Sirhan was shooting a pistol.....As I walked away from them, you know, you get the funny sensation that it would be possible for them to put a bullet in your back. I was relieved to get out of their sight."

Pack reported the incident to the FBI, offering to take them to the spot to recover bullets or shell casings and look for fingerprints on the bottles and cans being handled by the three. The FBI was uninterested: "I got the attitude that they had their man so why spin wheels about anything else."

A two-sentence LAPD report on Pack states that he “viewed a photograph of Sirhan” and said that the man he saw “strongly resembled” the man he encountered with the pistol, but that he “could not be positive of the identification.” When interviewed by Christian in 1969, however, Pack stated that he had only talked to the police on the telephone, had been shown no picture and still felt that the young man he and his son had seen shooting with a pistol was Sirhan.

At the Ambassador, June 2

Karen Ross reported to the LAPD that, while attending a Kennedy rally at the Grove room in the Ambassador the Sunday before the assassination, she had observed a young woman in a polka dot dress at the rally. Her description of the dress matches that of witnesses to the girl at the assassination scene. The woman was medium height, somewhat “husky” with dark blond hair worn with a “short flip" and "puffy.” Ross thought there was something unusual about the girl's nose, possibly it had been “fixed”, another recurring feature of polka dot dress girl descriptions.

Sirhan was also at the Ambassador that evening. According to author and defense participant Robert Kaiser, who wrote the book RFK Must Die!, Sirhan told his attorney Grant Cooper that he had been to the hotel on June 2, "to hear him talk." He said the same thing to defense psychiatrist Dr. Bernard Diamond. He denied being in the kitchen that night, calling two individuals who had seen him there liars. Ultimately he testified at his trial about being at the Ambassador on June 2, though was not asked about being there in the presence of a girl. About seeing Kennedy there: "I was really thrilled, Sir.....he looked like a saint to me. I liked him.

At the Ambassador, June 4/5

A girl in a polka dot dress, whose description matches that given by the witnesses previously noted, was seen at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of RFK's assassination by several witnesses. Some saw her in the company of Sirhan. She was even seen in the pantry where Kennedy was shot, and fleeing the scene in the company of another man.

Irene Gizzi of Students for Kennedy and a 14-year-old student named Katherine Keir noticed a group of three people who didn't seem to fit in with the exuberant crowd. The young woman in the group had on a polka dot dress and was with a young man with a dark complexion, dark hair and a gold colored shirt. Gizzi felt that the third man might well have been Sirhan. Katherine Keir even told police that later that evening, the woman had run by her saying "We shot Kennedy," but Keir revised her statement when re-interviewed in the presence of her parents (three fellow students who gave corroborating accounts were also re-interviewed in this manner).

During Kennedy’s speech, Roy Mills observed a group of five people (including a woman) in the hallway outside the Embassy room. He identified one as Sirhan, remembering him specifically for his baggy pants. Pauline Walker also saw a girl in the polka dot dress in this general area, in the company of a man (apparently not Sirhan).

Photographer Conrad Seim and other witnesses observed a girl with a "funny nose." Seim told the LAPD that the girl had asked him for his press pass and was "very persistent."

Darnell Johnson, one of the pantry shooting witnesses, described four men and a girl in the pantry as RFK was entering. One of the men was Sirhan. The girl was in a polka dot dress. The girl and the men walked out of the pantry as everyone was rushing to RFK and wrestling with Sirhan.

Several witnesses - George Green, Booker Griffin, Dr. Marcus McBroom, Jack Merritt - observed the young woman and man hurrying out of the pantry and corridor, through the Embassy room and out towards the rear stairs and parking lot.

Campaign worker Sandra Serrano, out at a staircase behind the hotel, later heard some "backfires," and then watched as a woman in a polka dot dress and a male companion burst out of the hotel shouting "we shot him, we shot him" Serrano asked who, and the woman replied "Senator Kennedy."

This incredible account was corroborated by LAPD Officer Paul Sharaga, who arrived quickly at the back lot of the hotel and set up a command post there. He was told a nearly identical story by an elderly couple named the Bernsteins, who told him that a man and a woman in a polka dot dress ran past them, gleefully shouting "We shot him! We shot him!" When queried, the girl replied, "Kennedy, we shot him! We killed him!"

An All Points Bulletin was issued by the Los Angeles police, looking for two additional suspects. A few hours later the APB was canceled by Acting Chief of LAPD Detectives John Powers. Powers is quoted on the LAPD radio logs: "don't want them to get anything started on a big conspiracy."

Coming soon: The Polka Dot Dress Girl expands on the sightings of Sirhan's accomplices at the Ambassador Hotel, and the manner by which the LAPD dealt with this stark evidence of a conspiracy involving Sirhan.

This article is adapted from an essay written by Larry Hancock, and is based on the research of Robert Kaiser, Dr. Philip Melanson, Jonn Christian, Lisa Pease, and others.