Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Of Polka Dots and Gangsters

"...try as we may to make a silence, we cannot."

— John Cage

The evening of the murder, police interviewed Vincent DiPierro, a college kid and part-time waiter at the Ambassador Hotel, who said he had spotted Sirhan Sirhan before the shooting, standing near the tray table. What had drawn his attention to the would-be assassin was the woman to whom he was whispering. DiPierro thought she was quite attractive, despite a small pug nose. She had brown hair and blue eyes and wore a "white dress with black or purple polka dots". Moments before Sirhan leaped forward to shoot, he murmured in her ear and she smiled.

That same night at the police station a 21-year-old campaign worker named Sandra Serrano also told the investigators about a mysterious polka dot-wearing lady. Having gone out for some fresh air, Serrano found sanctuary on the steps that led down from the ballroom to the street. At about 11:30 p.m., she said, a trio comprised of a young couple and a young male who looked like Sirhan Sirhan ascended the steps from the parking lot and entered the ballroom. The woman wore a polka-dot dress. Not long after, claimed Serrano, the couple, minus the third party, came bolting down the steps, exuberantly crying, "We shot Kennedy!" When the police asked her for a more accurate description of the dress and the woman who wore it, the witness replied, "white dress with polka dots (and she had) a funny nose."

Sandra Serrano (California State Archives)
Sandra Serrano
(California State Archives)

That wasn't all. The polka-dot lady had also been seen by a police sergeant named Paul Sharaga. He had been cruising on-duty near the vicinity of the Ambassador when he heard a radio report about a shooting at the hotel. Turning his squad in that direction, he parked it in the adjacent lot and ran inside. But as he reached the sidewalk outside, already in clamor, he overheard a giggling couple pass by him, mumbling, "We shot Kennedy!" The female wore polka dots. By the time it dawned on him what was going on, they had disappeared into the darkness. Sharaga immediately radioed their description into headquarters.

The LAPD discounted the strange tales. Says Manny Pena, SUS chief investigator, "I found no credence that there was a gal in a polka-dot dress who said, 'We shot Kennedy'. What (we believe they all) heard was, 'They shot Kennedy'...If we didn't dispel that, we could still be looking for the gal."

But, why the LAPD never saw "credence" in a matching story related by three unrelated people — including a policeman — was never explained. Nor was it explained why any innocent person would laugh when they heard someone was shot.

Because Serrano was the most adamant about the existence of the phantom lady, she was turned over to a Sgt. Enrique Hernandez for in-depth questioning on the topic. The interview lasted more than an hour and, badly shaken from the almost-accusatory nature of the interview, she took and failed a polygraph (lie detector) test. Here is a segment of the actual transcript, which is taken from Dan E. Moldea's The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy:

HERNANDEZ: I think you owe it to Senator Kennedy, the late Senator Kennedy, to come forth, be a woman about this...Don't shame his death by keeping this thing up. I have compassion for you. I want to know why. I want to know why you did what you did. This is a very serious thing.

SERRANO: I seen those people!

HERNANDEZ: No, no, no, no, Sandy. Remember what I told you about that: you can't say you saw something when you really didn't see it ...

SERRANO: Well, I don't feel like I'm doing anything wrong...I remember seeing the girl!

HERNANDEZ: No, I'm talking about what you have told here about seeing a person tell you, 'We have shot Kennedy.' And that's wrong.

SERRANO: That's what she said.

HERNANDEZ: No, it isn't, Sandy...

SERRANO: No! That's what she said.

HERNANDEZ: Look it! Look it! I love this man!

SERRANO: So do I.

HERNANDEZ: And you're shaming (him)...!

SERRANO: Don't shout at me.

HERNANDEZ: Well, I'm trying not to shout. but this a very emotional thing for me, too...If you love the man, the least you owe him is the courtesy of letting him rest in peace.

When questioned by reporters about the brutal interrogation tactics practiced on the girl by Hernandez, the police defended them as normal routine.

Right or wrong, the police did seem to snuff the polka-dot controversy expediently, critics all agree. The LAPD thereafter reported that waiter Vince DiPierro admitted he had embellished his story, that there was no polka-dotted young lady standing by the tray table near Sirhan. But, one item remains fact on record: After the police questioned six women who were known to wear that design of dress that evening, one lady named Valerie Schulte voluntarily came forward to say that she had been standing in the area where DiPierro claimed to have seen her, although she did not know Sirhan. Nevertheless, she was there. Now, even though Schulte's nose is not "pug," why did DiPierro recant his original testimony of seeing polka dots when, indeed, it turned out that he probably did see them? Unless, wonder the critics, he, like Serrano, was "questioned" in a similar fashion.

Sergeant Paul Sharaga
Sergeant Paul Sharaga

Sergeant Sharaga's story, in the meantime, likewise withered."(Sharaga) believes that due to the noise and confusion at the time what was said and what was misinterpreted was 'they shot him'," reads an LAPD memo. But, when author Moldea interviewed Sharaga in research for his book, the former sergeant said that the department had simply gone ahead and recanted his testimony for him. Personally, he sticks to his statement to this day: He had seen the girl in the polka-dot dress.

One very concrete lead that was never pursued, but, according to scholars, definitely should have been, was the fact that Senator Kennedy had made many enemies among the top-ranking Underworld. One possible suspect with a motive was Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, whom Kennedy had sent to prison. As Attorney General of the United States and head of the gangster-getting McClellan Committee, Kennedy headed a "Get Hoffa" investigation that resulted in a the latter's imprisonment.

When Kennedy was still alive, the FBI questioned the union biggie for alleged comments he had made to a fellow inmate on May 30, 1967. According to the informant, Hoffa told him, "I have a contract out on Kennedy. And if he ever gets in the primary or gets elected, the contract will be fulfilled within six months." Of course, when agents asked about this, Hoffa denied ever having said that.

Another mobster who had a bone to pick with Robert Kennedy — in fact, with the Kennedy family itself — was Chicago Underworld kingpin Sam "Momo" Giancana. According to the book, Double Cross, by Giancana's brother and grandson, Momo had performed a number of services for the political clam. Among these was getting patriarch Joe Kennedy out of a mob "hit," rescuing son John from a marital scandal and swinging union votes for his election to Presidency in 1960. But, say the authors Giancana, after John became Chief Executive, he assigned younger brother Robert to lead a committee to imprison known mafioso, Momo in particular. In return, according to the book, Giancana architected both brothers' assassinations.

 

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