Did the PLO Murder Robert Kennedy?

tags: RFK, Kennedys, RFK assassination

Mr. Ayton is the author of The JFK Assassination: Dispelling the Myths (2002) and Questions Of Controversy: The Kennedy Brothers (2001). His new book, A Racial Crime - James Earl Ray and the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr., was published in the United States by ArcheBooks in January 2005.

The issue of a possible conspiracy in the murder of Senator Robert F Kennedy in 1968 has once again been resurrected with the publication of Peter Evans's book Nemesis and the recent calls from Hollywood celebrities and magazine writers to re-open the case.*

The principal discrepancy which led to charges of conspiracy turned on the number of shots fired. Conspiracy researchers alleged they were more than the number of bullets Sirhan’s gun could hold. However, in 1995 investigative reporter Dan Moldea, a former conspiracy advocate, published the results of his investigation into the murder of Robert Kennedy in The Killing Of Robert Kennedy - An Investigation into Motive, Means and Opportunity (1995). Moldea poured over the mountain of evidence in the case. He studied the forensic and ballistic reports and interviewed scores of witnesses, including many of the police officers involved who had never been interviewed previously. What he found suggested a botched investigation involving the mishandling of physical evidence in the case, the failure to correctly interview some witnesses, the premature (but non-sinister) destruction of key pieces of physical evidence and the lack of proper procedures in securing and investigating the crime scene. Moldea successfully addressed the issues of alleged bullet holes in door frames (too small to be made by bullets) and the number of shots fired (8, not 10 as conspiracy advocates allege).

Amongst conspiracy advocates, only Peter Evans supported the argument that Sirhan likely fired the gun that killed Kennedy. Yet his allegation that Aristotle Onassis ordered the assassination is flawed. Evans alleged that Sirhan had been ordered to kill RFK by PLO official Mahmoud Hamshari. He claims to have unearthed evidence that Aristotle Onassis had given Hamshari money to direct his PLO terrorists away from his Olympic Airways airlines at a time when planes were being hijacked and that some of the money was used to hire Sirhan to kill RFK. Evans claimed that Onassis was aware of the plot and, indeed, wanted RFK eliminated so the New York Senator would not stand in the way of his marrying JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.

In fact there many inconsistencies in Evans's theory. Although the author accepts the statements made by Onassis's friends and relatives that the shipping tycoon admitted he had been responsible for RFK’s murder, he contradicts himself by quoting close Onassis aides as having had trouble sorting out their bosses’ “exaggerations, half-truths and lies.”

Central to Evans's thesis are entries in Sirhan’s notebooks which purportedly connected Aristotle Onassis to the assassin. Evans alleges Sirhan’s notebooks make reference to Alexander Onassis's girlfriend Fiona, whom his father detested, and Stavros Niarchos, his shipping rival, whom he also hated. However, Evans's juxtaposition of names to prove Sirhan wrote about killing Onassis's enemies is misleading. Sirhan had placed the name FIONA in a list of racehorse names – Fiona, Jet-Spec, Kings Abbey and Prince Khaled. The Arabic script consists of one sentence “He should be killed” (not “They should be killed” as Evans alleges) and does not refer to either Niarkos or Fiona. The diary entry "Niarkos" remains unexplained, as do many other entries in Sirhan’s notebooks, but there is no indication it refers to anyone on a Sirhan Death List. The words in Sirhan’s notebooks were the result of simple stream-of-consciousness ramblings he learned from Rosicrucian literature as ways to improve his life. The notebooks are filled with names of people Sirhan knew – Bert Altfillisch, Peggy Osterkamp and Gwen Gum for example, and people he didn’t know like Garner Ted Armstrong. The entries which refer to $100,000 were simply Sirhan’s obsessions about wealth and appear a number of times in the notebooks.

Central to Evans's thesis was the implication that Sirhan had spent a three month period before the assassination being trained by terrorists or undergoing hypnotic indoctrination. Evans was wrong in stating Sirhan’s movements were unaccounted for, or "a blanket of white fog" as he put it. Sirhan’s movements in the months prior to the assassination leave no unaccountable period when the assassin could have left the country to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training or have spent a considerable amount of time being "hypnotically indoctrinated." On March 7 Sirhan left his job at a Pasadena health food store. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, he discussed the murder with Alvin Clark, a Pasadena garbage collector. Sirhan’s friend, Walter Crowe, met him in Pasadena on the night of May 2, 1968 when they discussed politics. The last time he saw Sirhan was on the Pasadena college campus on May 23, 1968. He was in Denny’s restaurant when Sirhan entered with a group of friends. This leaves only a two week period not accounted for. But Sirhan refers to local newspaper and local radio reports throughout the month of May which he could not have accessed if he had been out of the country. Besides, Sirhan was living at 696 E. Howard Street, Pasadena. Family and friends have never suggested he was missing during this period.

Conspiracy advocates, including Evans, who want to see the case re-examined allege that Sirhan’s staring at a teletype machine on the night of the murder is proof that he had been hypnotized. Yet Sirhan frequently became entranced by things around him. This was part of his make-up. In fact, this would not be the first time Sirhan had experienced "trance-like states." He experienced them as a boy growing up in Jerusalem, according to his mother.

A majority of hypnosis and mind-control experts within the scientific community dismiss the notion that subjects can be hypnotized to commit murder. They maintain that such a possibility of programming an unwitting and unwilling subject is not possible. Furthermore, there would be no guarantee of success for a "robotic assassin"; it is an erratic tool. A hypnotist can plant a suggestion in the subject’s mind and ask him to forget that suggestion but there is no foolproof way of preventing another hypnotist coming along and recovering that memory.

Additionally, there is evidence, not presented at the trial, which proves that Sirhan had been feigning amnesia. Sirhan has always proclaimed that he could not remember writing in his notebooks, “RFK must die” nor could he remember shooting Kennedy. There is, however, compelling evidence that Sirhan knew what he had done. He confessed to ACLU lawyer Abraham Lincoln Wirin that he “…did it, I shot him.” And he also told defense investigator Michael McCowan that he remembered shooting Kennedy.

Michael McCowan was a private detective who assisted Sirhan's lawyers. In the pre-trial period McCowan had been talking to Sirhan about the shooting. Sirhan had responded to a question asked by McCowan. McCowan had been startled to hear how Sirhan’s eyes had met Kennedy’s in the moment just before he shot him and before Kennedy had fully turned to his left at the time he was shaking hands with the Ambassador Hotel kitchen staff. McCowan asked Sirhan, “Then why, Sirhan, didn’t you shoot him between the eyes?” Without hesitating, Sirhan replied, “Because that son-of-a-bitch turned his head at the last second.”

If Sirhan had been lying then how was the "hypnotic defense" and Sirhan’s "amnesia defense" constructed in the first place?

Sirhan claimed his lawyers had first put forward the idea that he had been in a "hypnotic trance-like" state when he shot Kennedy. But there is evidence that Sirhan had foreknowledge of "amnesiac and disassociative states" before he committed the murder. Sirhan had read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book about the multiple murders of a Kansas farmer, his wife and two teenage children. The murders were committed by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock in 1959 and Capote’s book of the murder, manhunt, trial and executions of the murderers was published in 1965. Sirhan identified with the short and stocky Perry Smith. He felt great empathy for Smith. Smith, a small-statured man who had suffered a deprived childhood, had bouts of shivering and trance-like states and he believed in mysticism and fate. According to Capote, Perry Smith, “….had many methods of passing [time]….among them, MIRROR GAZING…EVERY TIME [HE SAW] A MIRROR [HE WOULD] GO INTO A TRANCE” (emphasis added).

At the conclusion of Capote’s book the author quotes a team of psychiatrists who found a number of similarities in their subjects; “[The murderers] were puzzled as to why they killed their victims, who were relatively unknown to them, and in each instance the murderer appears to have lapsed into a DREAMLIKE DISSASSOCIATIVE TRANCE [emphasis added] from which he awakened to suddenly discover himself assaulting the victim…..Two of the men reported severe disassociative trancelike states during which violent and bizarre behaviour was seen, while the other two reported less severe and perhaps less well-organised, AMNESIAC EPISODES [emphasis added] ….”. It is therefore likely Sirhan had used his knowledge of how murderers behave to construct a possible diminished capacity defense.

Intriguing as Evans's thesis is, there is no credible evidence that a hypnotized Sirhan had been directed to kill Kennedy by the PLO -- apart from hearsay and second-hand accounts by a number of individuals who were close to Onassis. The record indicates that Sirhan was indeed motivated by political considerations but he was an "unaffiliated terrorist" rather than someone who had plotted with a terrorist group.

Sirhan may have been mentally unstable and angry at a society that had relegated him to the bottom of the heap but there is sufficient evidence, originating years before the shooting, that Sirhan clearly saw himself, like today’s suicide bombers, as an Arab hero. The PLO and most Palestinians certainly judged him this way. And Sirhan’s lack of remorse is entirely in keeping with the terrorist way of rationalizing political murder.

Sirhan and his brothers could not, or would not, assimilate into American society. They abhorred U.S. culture, disliked the mores of the American people and, most importantly, hated the support Americans gave to the state of Israel. The family felt they were part of a minority group alienated and misunderstood within the larger community.

As most Americans were unaware of the Palestinian issue in 1968 very few journalists examined Sirhan’s background as a Palestinian Arab in an attempt to explain the tragedy. Instead, commentators wrote Sirhan off as yet another misfit with a gun who stalks and then murders a leading public official with no apparent motive except his own demons.

The Palestinian/Arab cause is the sine que non of the assassination. As a poor working class immigrant Sirhan identified with his downtrodden people living as refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The period 1967-68, the year following the Six Day War, became a crucial time in Sirhan’s life because it was the time when Israel became dominant in the region having successfully defended itself against Arab aggression. Having failed to eject the Jews from Israel/Palestine, Arabs throughout the world felt powerless and weak and Arab pride had been severely damaged. Their condition exaggerated Sirhan’s feelings of inadequacy even though he lived thousands of miles away from the conflict. Many "exiled" Palestinians, like Sirhan, sought retribution and began to formulate plans to kill innocent civilians and hijack planes. Sirhan’s answer to these problems took the form of killing a major American politician who advocated support for Israel. Sirhan said, “…this momentum just took hold of me and by June 5th 1968 [the first anniversary of the Six day War] I couldn’t control it [anger] anymore.”

To the Western mind terrorists are deranged and evil. However, their acts are not the product of insanity but possess a logic all their own. Terrorists have rational, if sometimes bizarre, motives. It is also true that many terrorists (like Al Qaeda’s Ramzi Youssef) display symptoms of a psychopathic nature – they are cold blooded and carry out their acts of terror unremorseful. But their acts are not the products of delusional or irrational minds. Nor was Sirhan’s. He did indeed crave attention and success. He was depressed that society had relegated him to the bottom of the heap.He felt an allegiance and empathy with assassins of the past. And he dreamed of infamy. But without his sense of Arabness and without his hatred towards Jews that had their roots in his childhood indoctrination, it is unlikely Sirhan would have assassinated Robert Kennedy. All the hatred that spewed forth from Sirhan’s gun can ultimately be traced back to three sources – Anti-Americanism, Palestinian nationalism and anti-Semitism. And this may have been the first act in an international political drama that culminated in 9/11.

*See John Hiscock’s "Was Robert Kennedy Killed By A Real Manchurian Candidate Style Assassin?" in the Independent (January 18, 2005) and Dominick Dunne’s article in Vanity Fair (December 2004).

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More Comments:

Leonard Robinson - 4/5/2007

What utter and complete nonsense. I am disappointed, given the fact that I usually find Mr. Ayton's analyses of and explanations for what happened that night to be right on the mark. It is clear from an objective review of the evidence that Sirhan, while undoubtedly angry regarding the outcome of the Six Day War, was not driven by some obssession with the Arab-Israeli conflict to kill RFK. I do agree that he was frustrated with his "station in life" (to use a phrase we don't throw around much anymore), and on a personal, psychological level he undoubtedly felt superior to many of the American with whom he had contact--many of whome he perceived as looking down their noses at him. In a society in which he felt he could not get a fair break, and in which his propsects were dim, this one blow would leave a mark that would make an imprint on history forever. Remember his chilling utterance that he had become as famous in one moment as it had taken RFK his whole life to become. This statement shows that Sirhan was a little man who wanted to make a big name for himself. No grand conspiracy, no machiavellian political connections (PLO ties--PLEASE!), just another punk trying to get his name in the history books.

Mel Ayton - 4/7/2005

Mr Evans does not demonstrate that my argument ‘collapses like a house of cards’.He merely states it. As he should be aware, accusation without confirmation is worthless.

Mr Evans accepts that, in a three month period in the year before the assassination, Sirhan had been wrapped in a ‘blanket of white fog’.The implication is clear – Sirhan had been manipulated by terrorists to murder Robert Kennedy.Although Evans makes no claims that Sirhan had been spirited away to the Middle East for terrorist training it is logical for his readers to assume Sirhan was somewhere during his period of ‘indoctrination’. It is also logical for his readers to assume Sirhan had to be somewhere other than his home in Pasadena – either within the United States at a terrorist ‘safe house’ or at a terrorist training camp in the Middle East. Where else could he be if he was undergoing ‘hypnotic indoctrination’ and/or terrorist training?

I did not state that Evans claimed Sirhan had been in the Middle East for terrorist training. I wrote, “Central to Evans’s thesis was the implication that Sirhan had spent a three month period before the assassination being trained by terrorists or undergoing hypnotic indoctrination.” Later in the paragraph I wrote that, “Sirhan’s movements in the months prior to the assassination leave no unaccountable period when the assassin could have left the country to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training or have spent a considerable amount of time being ‘hypnotically indoctrinated’”. These are clearly my words and conclusions - an attempt to show the reader that there was no mystery in Sirhan’s movements in the three month so-called ‘mystery’ period prior to the assassination. However, I omitted to explain there was also no mystery about Sirhan’s movements in the year prior to the assassination. Furthermore, I did not say that Evans claimed “Sirhan Sirhan left the United States in the months prior to the assassination…to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training”. This is a juxtaposition of phrases designed to mislead.

Why did Evans claim Sirhan was, effectively, missing during this period? If he has no proof of Sirhan’s whereabouts why speculate the assassin may have been undergoing hypnotic indoctrination or terrorist training? In fact this is symptomatic of Evans’s methods – raising issues with a question then directing the reader to a conclusion that suggests a sinister interpretation.

The ‘heart’ of my criticism is not the spurious allegation that I believed Evans claimed Sirhan was in the Middle East .The heart of my criticism lies in the fact that Evans has used speculation and innuendo to claim that Sirhan had been in a ‘blanket of white fog’ undergoing some kind of ‘training’. Simply stated, Evans is wrong.

The LAPD investigative team, SUS, gave no credence to the idea that Sirhan had been ‘missing’ during any period from June 1967 to June 1968 despite the comments of LAPD Officer Jordan.In the year preceding the assassination he was seen frequently in the Hi-Life bar in Pasadena by waitress Marilyn Hunt.He was also seen in Shap’s Bar during this period. In July 1967 Sirhan filed a disability complaint for workmen’s compensation. Between July and September 1967 Sirhan’s mother and brother Munir said Sirhan went often to the Pasadena library.Library records confirm he borrowed books during the so-called 'white fog' period. Sirhan’s mother said her son ‘..stayed at home for over a year (sic) with no job’(October 1966 to September 1967). Sirhan, by his mother’s account, often drove her to work during the time he was unemployed. On 9th September 1967 Sirhan began work at John Weidner’s health food store.Weidner reported no long periods of absence up to the time Sirhan left his employ in March 1968. So how did Sirhan ‘emerge(ed) from this ‘white fog’ in March 1968, (and) joined the (Rosicrucians)’ as Evans states? (Author’s note: Sirhan actually joined the Rosicrucians in June 1966.) And, as I point out in my article, Sirhan’s movements in the three month period before the assassination leave no time unaccounted for.

Evans’s speculations do not end with Sirhan’s ‘white fog’. He also goes to great lengths to imply that Sirhan was likely hypnotised to kill RFK. He gives credence to the claims of conspiracy advocates that William Bryan was Sirhan’s ‘controller’. Bryan was famous for having hypnotised the ‘Boston Strangler’, Albert DeSalvo. Bryan also claimed he had worked for the CIA and bragged to two prostitutes he had hypnotised Sirhan to kill Kennedy. Bryan’s credibility was damaged, however, when it was discovered he had a history of ‘bragging’, consorted with prostitutes and used unethical practices including having sexual relationships with some of his patients. He was described by one associate as a ‘sexual pervert’. And there is no credible evidence whatsoever to support Bryan’s claims he was Sirhan’s ‘controller’ or the claims of one of Evans’s ‘unnamed’ sources that Bryan had worked for the CIA’s hypnosis expert Sidney Gottlieb.

This is not the only occasion Evans accepts the statements of unreliable sources. He gives credence to the gossip that RFK had sexual relationships with his martyred brother’s widow, Jackie, and Marilyn Monroe.The majority of RFK biographers reject these conclusions.

Evans quotes from John Marks’s book “The Search For The Manchurian Candidate” and cites the experiments conducted by CIA scientist Morse Allen who conspiracy advocates allege was ‘successful’ in programming an assassin. Allen hypnotised his secretary, who had a fear and loathing of guns, to pick up a pistol and ‘shoot’ another secretary.The gun, of course, was unloaded. After Allen brought the secretary out of the trance she had no memory of what she had done.

However, conspiracy advocates, including Evans, who promote this episode as proof the CIA were successful in developing ‘programmed assassins’ fail to mention that Allen did not give much credibility to his own experiment. Allen believed that all that happened was that an impressionable young woman volunteer had accepted orders from a legitimate ‘authority’ figure to carry out an order she likely knew would not end in tragedy. Allen also believed there were too many variables in hypnosis for it to be a reliable ‘weapon’. And all the participants in such trials knew they were involved in a scientific experiment. There was always an ‘authority figure’ present to remind the subject or some part of the subject’s mind that it was only an experiment.

Evans’ scenario is fundamentally implausible. How could plotters, for example, be sure that Sirhan would not suddenly ‘remember’ his contacts, following his arrest, turned ‘state’s evidence’ and kept in a ‘safe house’ by the District Attorney? And if the plotters believed Sirhan would be killed by Kennedy’s security it had to have been the least thought-out plot conceivable.

Furthermore, had Sirhan suddenly ‘remembered’ he would not have thrown away the chance to save his own life by telling investigators of his ‘involvement’ with Hamshari. His lawyers could also have built a strong case around the ‘paid assassin’ theory arguing against the imposition of the death penalty which was eventually handed down.

Evans’s thesis can also be clearly shown to be flawed when he addresses the issue of why Sirhan targeted RFK. Evans wrote, “And why had he (Sirhan) turned his rage on Robert Kennedy when other candidates….had been far more outspoken in their support for Israel?” If Evans had researched the statements made by Sirhan he would have discovered why RFK became the target. Initially, Sirhan would likely have been satisfied with any opportunity to kill a leading American politician. At one point he even had UN Ambassador Goldberg in his sights. Sirhan said he first considered killing Vice President Hubert Humphrey, “It might not even have been just Kennedy”, Sirhan told Robert Kaiser, “ ….. Somebody who was big, tough, somebody who was – it wasn’t necessarily Kennedy – it could have been somebody else but someone who would still represent American policy that was pro-Israel. In fact, it – for example - might have been Humphrey. Because Humphrey was a person you didn’t particularly like either.”

However, in the years between 1963 and 1968 American political culture had been dominated by the idea of a ‘Kennedy Dynasty’ and myths surrounding JFK’s assassination. Year after year books, movies, television documentaries and political news stories gave a cult-like status to JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Sirhan, too, desired fame. Killing any of the other candidates would certainly have given him status throughout the Arab world. But his true target had an even greater symbolism attached to it. Sirhan would become the ‘Second Kennedy Assassin’. He knew that killing RFK would give him greater world exposure the other candidates could not provide. It was no accident that Sirhan set his sights on the candidate who was the brother of the martyred president. It was no accident that Sirhan chose the candidate who was most likely to become the next president.

Evans disingenuously implies that my criticism is aligned with that of conspiracy advocates who claim the CIA was behind the murder. Evans wrote, “Although I have no idea where Mr Ayton is coming from, his skewed attack on my book sounds very similar to the vociferous lobby that continues to argue that the CIA masterminded Senator Kennedy’s killing….and dismisses me as a Company Dupe.” If Evans had taken the time to carry out a simple ‘Google search’ he would have realised that my previous books expose most conspiracy advocates as nothing more than charlatans and profiteers who have falsely accused the CIA and others in the intelligence community of participating in the murders of JFK and MLK. If Evans is so dismissive of conspiracy advocates who claim the CIA was behind the murder then why does he accept, without criticism, the claims made by conspiracists Philip Melanson, Jonn Christian and William Turner which he uses in his book to construct his theory? All three conspiracy advocates have, at one point or another, alleged involvement of the US Intelligence community in the murder of RFK.
Mel Ayton

HNN - 4/4/2005

Editor's Note: HNN received this email on 4-4-05:

As the author of Nemesis, the story of Aristotle Onassis's complicity in Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968, I read Mel Ayton's article (Did the PLO Kill RFK?) with interest and surprise at his distortion of the facts so carefully set out in my book.

Since he has gone to such lengths to point out what he believes are fatal flaws in my investigation, permit me to correct just one of the more flagrant inaccuracies upon which he has constructed his criticism of my book, and the more than ten years of research that went into it.

At the heart of Mr. Ayton's criticism is his perverse and totally untrue statement that I claim that Sirhan Sirhan left the United States "in the months prior to the assassination ... to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training." This, he declares, is "central to Evans's thesis."

Yet I make no such claim. Indeed, I do not suggest even the possibility that Sirhan left California, let alone the United States, during this or any other time in the twelve years he lived in Pasadena after fleeing with his family from West Jerusalem in 1956.

But based on his extraordinary fabrication, Mr. Ayton continues to make points — e.g. Sirhan referring to "local newspaper and radio reports throughout the month of May which he could not have accessed if he had been out of the country" — that he claims demolish the credibility of my book.

Since he is plain flat-out wrong about matters so fundamental to his criticism of Nemesis, I will not waste readers' time deconstructing the rest of his arguments, which similarly collapse like a house of cards.

Of course, the truth about the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the degree of Aristotle Onassis's villainy are not neutral subjects. Although I have no idea where Mr. Ayton is coming from, his skewed attack on my book sounds very similar to the vociferous lobby that continues to argue that the CIA masterminded Senator Kennedy's killing — a conviction it finds hard to reconcile with the facts I reveal in Nemesis — and dismisses me as a Company dupe.

Peter Evans