Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Doorway to Doubt

"When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity."

— John F. Kennedy

Within weeks after the trial, the Los Angeles Free Press ran a story by reporters Lillian Castellano and Floyd Nelson that resurrected the possibility of another gunman at the crime scene. They had photographic "proof" of two extra bullet holes in the wooden divider between the sets of swinging doors at the west end of the Ambassador Hotel pantry. A freelance photographer taking generic crime scene pictures had taken the photos innocently, they said.

With all of Sirhan's alleged eight bullets already accounted for by the LAPD, wouldn't this mean, they asked, that another gun had shot that night? Dan Moldea agrees that such a find would have been the revelation of the ages: "The discovery of even one extra bullet could prove that more than one gun had been fired."

There was a catch. The police had removed the door jamb in question from the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on June 28, 1968, ten months before the Free Press saw the photos and published the article. The door jamb had been destroyed. When the Los Angeles City Council, under pressure, demanded an answer why the piece had been done away with, Assistant Police Chief Daryl Gates responded. True, he said, there had been holes on that particular section of the doorframe and, yes, the police thought they might have been bullet holes. They brought the section back to headquarters for x-ray examination, but after the tests proved (quote Gates) "absolutely nothing," there was no reason to hold onto dead lumber.

When the council asked to see the x-rays, Gates shrugged. They, too, had been done away with, he replied.

In 1974, former New York Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein began taking an interest in the case after talking to several social and political friends about the mysteries of the Robert Kennedy assassination. One celebrity was TV star Robert Vaughn, who had become somewhat of a cause celebrite for those wanting answers. Lowenstein, along with Paul Schrade, Kennedy's aide who had been wounded in the shooting spree and who had since filed a civil lawsuit for personal injuries, hosted a press conference demanding the case be reopened. They submitted a list of questions to the LAPD — among them, asking for more information about the missing doorframe.

Paul Schrade and Congressman Lowenstein (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann)
Paul Schrade and Congressman
Lowenstein (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann)

They never received an answer, but as a result of Schrade and Lowenstein's media-reawakening efforts, photos surfaced from LAPD files that had been snapped during the initial crime area investigation. Two of the pictures are close-ups of the door jamb showing two holes, circled in chalk. Another shows Coroner Thomas Noguchi pointing to the holes. And in a fourth photo he is measuring the distance between them.

Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who skyrocketed to fame with his intense prosecution of cult killer Charles Manson, enlisted his services in 1975. He sought affidavits from several people whom, he learned, had stated they remembered seeing bullet holes in the then-door divider. Noguchi, for one, said that it had been his understanding that the holes he is pointing to and measuring in the above-mentioned photos were scars made by bullets. Maitre'd Angelo DiPierro concurred that, as far as he was concerned, those were undoubtedly bullet holes, for had seen "a small caliber bullet lodged about a quarter of an inch into the wood on the center divider of the two swinging doors." Having served in the U.S. Infantry when younger, DiPierro confirmed, "There is no question in my mind that this was a bullet and not a nail or any other object."

Bugliosi also took testimony from a witness, Martin Patrusky, who witnessed the police's reconstruction of the shooting. "One of the officers pointed to the two circled holes on the center divider (and) told us that they dug two bullets out...and I would be willing to testify to this under oath and under penalty of perjury."

Even though these stories merited further attention, the district attorney's office remained disinterested. His reply read, "Selected and partial testimony regarding trajectory and bullets will only lead to public confusion...There is no justifiable basis for further expenditure of taxpayer funds to conduct a mere 'fishing expedition.'"

Confounding the issue was the incessant question as to how Kennedy was shot in the back by a man who approached him from the front. All witnesses testified that Kennedy fell facing Sirhan. The assassin's gun arm was pinned down by maitre'd Uecker after two shots; it continued to squeeze the trigger on impulse or otherwise; but, witnesses claim, even though the remaining shots went askew Kennedy at no time turned his back to the weapon.

"When confronted with this point, LAPD officials had referred instead to the panic and confusion that broke loose inside the pantry while Sirhan was emptying his .22 revolver into the crowd," Dan E. Moldea writes. "(The police said) eyewitnesses lacked the training and experience necessary to make their story credible."

As to any guesses who a "second gunman" could have been — someone close enough to inflict a near "hit" on RFK — there was only one suspect: Thane Eugene Cesar, the Ace Security guard. Holding onto the senator's right elbow and remaining virtually half-beside him, half-behind him in the procession through the pantry, Cesar was strategically positioned to pump a bullet or two into Kennedy when all hell broke loose. Moldea thinks Cesar was incapable of such a crime, but he does admit that the guard did have a "motive, means and opportunity".

When the firing began, Cesar was at point-blank range of Kennedy; and one eyewitness claims to have seen Cesar's gun smoking; although he carried a .38 caliber service revolver, he did own a .22 at the time; he had publicly denounced the Kennedys; and he was on duty when Sirhan Sirhan managed to slip into the out-of-bounds pantry.

But, in his behalf, many important facts support his innocence. He had no criminal record; volunteered to be questioned; offered to submit his gun for investigation; voluntarily told the police about the .22 he owned; easily agreed to be questioned and given a polygraph test; remained openly honest about his political sentiments; and, most important, he had not been scheduled to work that night, but was called in at the last minute.

Cesar had — you pardon the expression — come under fire many times for his fated time and place in history — what Moldea analogously calls being "caught in the crossfire of history." But, suspicion has weakened during the last decade. Tongue in cheek, Cesar once stated, "Just because I don't like the Democrats, that doesn't mean I go around shooting them."

Much of the controversy generating from the June 5, 1968, assassination has been kept alive because of the LAPD's reluctance to keep the case from the public and its case files under wrap. These "secret files," as they were called, were eventually opened to the public in the later half of the 1980s, thanks to the hard work by and pressure from Dr. Philip H. Melanson (political science professor at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of Shadow Play) and George Stone (research aide to attorney Lowenstein).

The LAPD released a heavily censored version of its records in early March 1986, but it was full of blackened-out lines and missing material. This probably did more to revive the tales of conspiracy than squelch them. On a second blast to the system, this time accompanied by Paul Schrade and leagues of others in the politics, arts and sciences, Melanson and Stone demanded the police unlock the files in entirety.

"On April 19, 1988, twenty years after the assassination, disclosure of the primary case file was finally achieved," write Melanson and his co-author, William Klaber in Shadow Play. "The archives were under the direction of state archivist John Burns, who oversaw the sorting and cataloging of the fifty-thousand pages of material."

But, the event proved to be less than expected. The files do not contain any reference to the tests done on the bullet-pocked pantry door frame nor the x-rays taken of it. Stranger, all records of the trial proceedings referring to the testimony of seven forensic experts about the crime scene have disappeared.

 

 

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