With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Who Killed RFK? Sirhan Sirhan Did It.

Theodore Dalrymple, the author of The Knife Went In (Gibson Square, 2017) was a psychiatrist for decades working in the UK prison system.

The criminals in his account are characterized by a pathological inability to take responsibility for their actions. One prisoner on remand for murder told Dalrymple, “A fight broke out, a gun arrived, I accidentally took it and it went off.” As Dalrymple points out, “The only human action that he admitted to was the accidental discharge of the gun, by happy chance killing an enemy.”

In this spirit, another of Dalrymple’s patients, inside for throwing acid in the face of his then girlfriend, tells the young doctor that he couldn’t have done it – because he did not remember having done it. “I asked him my usual question – ‘How, then, do you know that you didn’t do it?’ He replied, ‘Because I don’t do them things.’ ” In other words, he knew he didn’t do it because it wasn’t the type of thing he did, even if he could not say exactly what he was doing at the time in question. Sometime later the doctor asked the man if he had been in prison before. “Yes”, he replied, “I threw ammonia in a girl’s face.”

Part of this must have been the as yet unconvicted killer preparing the grounds for his not guilty plea. But it is much more than that - criminals are frequently the best examples of Nietzsche’s aphorism: “Memory says ‘I did that.’ Pride replies, ‘I could not have done that.’ Eventually memory yields.”

Dalrymple’s stories about how criminals, especially those prone to violence, react when they are caught, is especially instructive when the story of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and his assassin’s denial of culpability, is examined.

For over 50 years a belief has set in amongst a large percentage of the American public, including Robert F. Kennedy’s son and namesake, that the assassination of Senator Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy placing the assassin’s claims that he was hypnotized to kill at the center of the argument.

Although the controversies about the assassination began with human error and a flawed LAPD investigation (misplaced files, destroyed files, witness confusion etc – see below) not everyone was prepared to believe that humans make mistakes. 

Additionally, RFK conspiracy advocates fail to understand hypnotists do not have control over a subject. It is, essentially, a myth. Hypnotic subjects cannot be made to do anything against their moral will.

But that fact hasn’t prevented conspiracy advocates from arguing the opposite and frequently quoting examples of how a Danish criminal and a British illusionist had accomplished that feat.

References have been made to the case of Bjorn Nielsen who purportedly hypnotized Palle Hardrup to commit murder in 1951. Conspiracy writers, however, fail to inform their readers that Hardrup confessed to making everything up in 1972 in an interview with Soren Petersen of the Danish newspaper BT. (See Brainwash– The Secret History Of Mind Control by Dominic Streatfeild, p. 177.)

Other conspiracy writers claim a show business hypnotist, Derren Brown, had successfully programmed a Manchurian Candidate-style assassin in one of his television shows. However, the entertainer himself has poured scorn on these claims. In 2018 Brown said, “The more bewildered we are, the more susceptible we become….. I’m quite open about how the whole thing I do happens in inverted commas, so not to believe everything you see or hear. It’s a form of entertainment. Some of it’s real and some of it isn’t. Hopefully, part of the fun is trying to unpick that.” 

Amongst the many confusing pieces of evidence and testimony was the story of how some witnesses allegedly saw Sirhan with a “pretty girl” in a polka dot dress who had allegedly been his “hypnotic controller.” Even though the story was debunked with a full explanation of how the story had arisen conspiracists still used it to further their aims of promoting Sirhan’s hypnotized assassin theory. 

On the night of the assassination Sirhan Sirhan, who in the months and years before the murder had told anyone who would listen that he hated Israel, hated the Jews and also hated the US, decided he wanted to join in the party-like celebrations that took place in Downtown Los Angeles. The parties were arranged after several political candidates had won their Democratic and Republican primary elections. He knew that the RFK party would be held at the Ambassador Hotel that night.

Sirhan, by his own estimate, drank four Tom Collins’ drinks at the hotel in the few hours before midnight, which may have accounted for his “glazy-eyed” look as described by some assassination witnesses. 

Emboldened by alcohol, Sirhan waited in the pantry of the hotel armed with his Iver-Johnson .22 pistol. When the Senator finished his victory speech he walked from the podium of the Embassy Room stage to the Colonial Room, a short distance away, where he was to hold a press conference. As Kennedy shook hands with kitchen staff, Sirhan shot him at point–blank range. Although some witness statements described how Sirhan was never in a position to shoot RFK in the rear of the head, others like Vincent DiPierro who was five feet behind the Senator, were certain Sirhan had placed the gun directly at RFK’s head. Two of the bullets that hit Kennedy were non-lethal. The third was mortal. A fourth bullet nicked his jacket.

When Sirhan was arrested he was taken to a police station where he refused to tell police officers his name.According to conspiracists this was a telling sign he had been hypnotized. Unfortunately, they never stopped to ask why, if Sirhan had been a hypnotized subject programmed to forget, why he didn’t ask police officers, “Why have I been arrested?”

During his 1969 trial Sirhan claimed he could not remember shooting RFK. In the years that followed he also repeated his claim and said he had no knowledge of writing ‘R.F.K. Must Die!’ in notebooks found in his room after the shooting, although there was evidence to prove it was his handwriting.

Conspiracy advocates also use Mary Grohs’s witness statement to suggest Sirhan had been in some kind of hypnotic state. Grohs, a teletype operator, remembered Sirhan standing and staring at the teletype machine in the Ambassador Hotel’s Colonial Room in the hours before the assassination. Grohs said, “I’ll never forget his eyes. . . . He just kept staring.”

By his own admission Sirhan practiced self-hypnotism using literature supplied at a meeting of a group called the Rosicrucians, an organization that dabbled in the occult.

Sirhan got the “chills” following his arrest and exhibited similar symptoms at the end of hypnosis sessions with a defense psychiatrist. The prosecution psychiatrist also attempted to hypnotize Sirhan but was unable to elicit the assassin’s cooperation. The prosecution psychiatrist said Sirhan had been feigning. 

Additionally, Sirhan was known to enter trance-like states. For the conspiracy-minded this was proof indeed he had been a hypnotic subject. 

However, there is compelling evidence that Sirhan had used his knowledge of a real-life character in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) to promote the idea that he had been in a hypnotic state when he shot RFK. Sirhan identified and felt great empathy with murderer Perry Smith, according to author Robert Blair Kaiser. Smith had bouts of “shivering,” “amnesia” and “trance-like states.” Like Smith, Sirhan engaged in “mirror-gazing” and fell into “trances.”

Sirhan, therefore had prior knowledge of hypnotism, trance-like states and amnesia. In fact, he may also have gained some of that knowledge from psychology books he acquired from the local library. Ignoring Sirhan’s numerous lies that he told his lawyers and writer Robert Blair Kaiser, conspiracists preferred instead to take Sirhan at his word. 

Yet, to those who knew Sirhan, this was not at all unusual. Sirhan frequently became fascinated by things around him which prompted him to stare at people or objects. Sirhan told his police interrogators, “Everything . . . life itself is a challenge. . . . When you watch a barber, sir, I just stand and watch that barber for hours. . . . from the time I’m watching him I want to be nothing but a barber. You know, if I’m watching a dentist, boy, he fascinates me, and I want to be him. I was talking to [LAPD officer] Frank here a while ago. The way he talked, you know . . . I was very fascinated and, you know, I was sort of superimposing myself in his position for . . . temporarily.” 

Additionally, those who promote the conspiracy line never question the ludicrous nature of this purported plot. If plotters had successfully hypnotized Sirhan then they would have been equally successful in making sure he didn’t do anything to bring attention to himself before the shooting. But that’s not what happened.

Sirhan uttered contempt for RFK to Enrique Rabago and Humphrey Cordero with whom he engaged in conversation at the hotel. Had these men reported Sirhan to the hotel’s security the alleged plot would have collapsed.

It is also preposterous for plotters to have used an illegal pistol during the commission of their crime. Had police officers and security guards on duty that night stopped and searched Sirhan he would have been arrested. Additionally, the notion of a hypnotic assassin is, by its very nature, an erratic tool. Not even true believers in the robotic assassin notion could possibly be sure Sirhan would not suddenly remember who hypnotized him then secure an immunity deal with the DA to avoid the death penalty.

Sirhan’s familiarity with Capote’s mirror-gazing killer very likely helped construct a diminished-capacity defense for himself to escape the death penalty. He wouldn’t have to confess to or at least recall for a jury his murder of Robert Kennedy if it happened during an “amnesiac episode,” perhaps induced by a “trance state” brought on by “mirror-gazing.”

However, it’s an LAPD interview on tape of a Sirhan acquaintance, Merla Stephens, who worked at a bar in Pasadena, that clinches the idea that Sirhan had full knowledge of how hypnotic subjects behave. 

In the few years before the assassination, Sirhan associated with Arab students during his short time at Pasadena College and afterwards when he flunked out. Stephens talks about how Sirhan and a friend she calls Ali frequented her establishment and acted out a scene in which Ali would pretend to hypnotize Sirhan who then began to behave as though he was a controlled automaton. It is likely Sirhan and his friends were clearly attempting to impress girls. If we are to take their efforts seriously then we must assume they were clearly exposing an alleged conspiracy which included a Manchurian Candidate-type assassin at the center of the purported plot.

Sirhan’s unsuccessful ploys in attracting young women were not unknown to those who knew him. In fact, at one point in his adult years he was so enamored with a beautiful local young woman, Peggy Osterkamp, he wrote about her in his diaries, but knew, as he confessed to author Robert Blair Kaiser, he did not have any chance in attracting her attentions. 

Sirhan’s claims that he had been suffering an amnesiac state and that he could not remember his time in the Ambassador Hotel – he said he only remembered the time he was drinking coffee to sober up to the time of his arrest – is also debunked by his own words.In 2011 Michael McCowan, who acted as a defense investigator for the Sirhan trial defense team, produced a manuscript of notes he made with Sirhan present. 

A statement Sirhan made to McCowan reveals Sirhan’s lies. In response to one of McCowan’s questions, Sirhan told how his eyes had met Kennedy’s in the moment just before he shot him, before Kennedy had fully turned to his left to shake hands with the kitchen staff.

This new evidence in the case, first publicized by author Dan Moldea, effectively destroys the amnesia defense Sirhan continually used at his parole hearings. It shows, clearly and vividly, in Sirhan’s own hand, that he did in fact remember the events of 4/5 June 1968, directly refuting his defense that he suffered from amnesia or was hypnotized and then programmed to not remember. 

It is a great assumption in a democratic society that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. The notion has been carried down the years. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are ignorant, facts will set them straight. In fact, as studies have found, facts do not necessarily have the power to change minds. As recent research has shown, when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds.

So it is with a large percentage of the US public when it comes to an understanding of the RFK assassination.

The story of the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy is a typical example of how people become set in their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that proves them wrong. 

It is my belief, after researching this case since its inception in 1968 that, as with Lee Harvey Oswald, the real mystery was not whether Sirhan fired the shots alone, but what went on in the mind of the assassin, and what motivated him. The mumbo-jumbo of “mirror-gazing,” “‘trance states” and “amnesiac episodes” has succeeded over the years in obscuring just how explicit that motive was. There is no doubt in my mind that a hatred of Jews and the state of Israel and a desire for notoriety were the central motives for his crime.