Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Challenges Appear

"Beyond his strength no man can fight, although he be eager."

— Homer

The morning after the assassination, the police still did not have the killer's name. He had no ID, was disheveled and seemed nervous, and every time the subject of his name arose, he grew panicky and refused to give it. Having been roughed up by the crowd at the hotel, he seemed to jolt at every sound and kept watching the doors of the Rampart Street police station, where he was first detained, as if he expected a vigilante crowd to enter at any moment, rope in hand.

His paranoia was not unfounded, for according to Sergeant William Jordan, who led the interrogation, a crowd did assemble on the pavements. It was Jordan's decision, in fact, to hurry the prisoner through the back door into an awaiting squad, then hustle him incognito downtown to headquarters' maximum-security hall.

There, he became "Prisoner John Doe," at least until the police could link him with fingerprints. Despite his jumpiness, the gunman was not hostile, nor impolite; he held friendly discourse with Jordan, and answered the detective courteously. But, he seemed confused as if he really didn't understand the seriousness of his crime.

While he wasn't remorseful for his crime, "he wasn't anything," Jordan observed. "The only thing I can figure out is that one of the things I found in his pocket was an article about where Bobby had come out very pro-Israeli. In my mind, my theory has always been, and to this day I think it's right, is what it would be like if I was able to parachute into Germany in the middle of the war and shoot Hitler. To the German people I'd be the worst scumbag of all time. In my own mind, I'd say, 'Hey, I'm a hero. I did the right thing for the world.' That's the way he struck me. He really believed that he had done the right thing."

Mid-morning, two brothers named Adel and Munir Sirhan appeared at the front desk of a suburban Pasadena police station with something they knew the police were looking for. They had seen a television report on the previous evening's bloody melee at the Ambassador Hotel; footage included shots of the police escorting the alleged perpetrator from the scene. Since the newscaster said that the killer was still unidentified, the Sirhan brothers knew they alone could fill in the blank. That boy they saw handcuffed, cowering, frightened, being stuffed into a squad car by two policemen was their brother, Sirhan.

Pasadena alerted Los Angeles and Los Angeles alerted the FBI, and within the hour, representatives from all involved law offices were swarming across the lawns of a small frame house at 696 East Howard, Pasadena. Adel, co-owner of the house along with his mother, allowed the police to enter and search. The officers zeroed in on Sirhan Sirhan's room. There they found an odd assortment of his own writings in a notebook on his desk; hate remarks about Senator Kennedy. One scribble read simply, "RFK must die."

Authorities packaged the notebooks and other effects and took them as evidence to headquarters central. They questioned the Sirhan family, particularly mother Mary, and learned they had come to the United States from Jerusalem in the mid 1950s. There seemed to be within the family no generative germ of lawlessness, subterfuge or disloyalty. The family seemed sincerely shocked that one of their own could have committed such an act against their adopted home.

After Kennedy died, Sirhan Sirhan was charged with murder and (after the wounds of the others) attempted murder. When the country learned that the assassin was a Palestinian-born anti-Jewish Arab, the conspiracy wheel started rolling. Rumors labeled him as part of a large and extremist terrorist organization, a spy schooled in underground "bring down America" tactics.

Melanson and Klaber's Shadow Play suggests that the nation's leaders at this point were feeling weighed under by the country's inability to handle growing unrest within its nouveau cultures. Vietnam spewed mistrust in the government and disbelief in the spirit of the American panorama. The psychedelic society of peace marches and flower power was seeing ulterior motives and conspiracies behind every marble column on every state capitol. The recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights champion, peppered the spice pot when government law enforcement branches were unable to pinpoint if killer James Earl Ray acted alone or not. Shades of the ongoing Lee Harvey Oswald/JFK conspiracy that ask, even to this day, if Oswald was the only rifleman in Dallas that fateful November 22, 1963.

And...now this. This time America needed to stay ahead of the doubting Thomases and, most of all, confirm it hadn't lost its staying power. President Lyndon Johnson quickly pointed out that Sirhan Sirhan was not an American. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan repeated this, and Los Angeles' Mayor Yorty repeated it again. This was not King nor was it JFK, they emphasized...this time around there was no American who shot another American over an American breakdown.

In trying too hard to drive this point home, Mayor Yorty tread dangerous ground. Quoting excerpts from Sirhan Sirhan's notebook during local news reports, Superior Court Judge Arthur Alacorn stepped in to remind the mayor that the books were acquired without a search warrant — and a court of law had not yet determined if Sirhan had actually authored those words. To all vocalists connected with the case he issued an order banning the display of further evidence in lieu of an upcoming verdict.

Chaos notwithstanding, the LAPD formed a more order-minded task force comprised of several law enforcement agencies to investigate the case and gather material for the trial alone. The LAPD Chief of Detectives Robert A. Houghton chaired the meetings, but the team included Assistant Attorney General William Lynch, U.S. Attorney Matt Byrne, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Brosio, members of the Los Angeles District Attorney office, FBI agent William Nolin, and others. Said Houghton, "(The case) had historical potential...Because the murder had been committed in Los Angeles, we (LAPD) had jurisdiction. However, I wanted all of the assistance and advice I could get (so) we created the SUS." The acronym stood for Special Unit Senator.

Houghton's orders to the SUS were direct: "We are not going to have another Dallas here. I want you to act as if there was a conspiracy until we can prove that there wasn't one."

Lieutenant Manny Pena, a day-watch commander with counterintelligence background, became key investigator. His first assignment was to do a biographical sketch on the assassin.

 

 

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