Sirhan Sirhan was convicted of shooting Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Despite an admission of guilt in a recorded confession, admitting at trial that he shot Kennedy, and a desire to plead guilty in the case, there are many who believe Sirhan Sirhan is innocent of actually assassinating Kennedy. This includes two of Robert Kennedy’s children. Robert Kennedy Jr. believes someone else shot his father and wants a new investigation. His sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, agrees with her brother.
The assassination took place before presidential candidates were given Secret Service protection, and the Los Angeles Police Department has been roundly criticized for its investigation into the death of Robert F. Kennedy.
Recent evidence suggests two guns were fired in the assassination, and that Sirhan’s revolver was not the gun used to kill Kennedy. Moreover, audio recordings from that event show that 13 shots were fired, but Sirhan’s gun only held eight bullets.
This Sirhan Sirhan wiki takes an in-depth look at the major milestones in the life of the convicted Robert F. Kennedy assassin.
March 19, 1944: Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Was Born
Sirhan Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944 into an Arab Palestinian Christian family in Jerusalem, Palestine. They lived in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, opposite the Old City.
1948: Arab-Israeli War
In May 1948, the Arab-Israeli War broke out, fought between the State of Israel, and a coalition of Arab states, over the control of Palestine. Interestingly, Robert F. Kennedy was a correspondent for The Boston Post in Palestine during the war.
It was during this battle that Sirhan Sirhan, at age four, became, according to his mother, scarred by horrific scenes of fighting he saw in and around the Old City. While living in Old Jerusalem, Sirhan Sirhan recalled going to the well to get some water. When the bucket came up, it contained a hand. He also saw the exploded remains of a grocer he knew.
During this period of his childhood, it is alleged that Sirhan began to display “psychological problems.”
Also see: 9 Assassinations That Rocked the World
If his psychological problems began to arise during Israel’s War of Independence, it is easy to see that the young Sirhan Sirhan would, today, probably be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It might also explain why he harbored a bitter hatred for Israel.
In 1948, when Israel’s War of Independence was at its height, the city was split in two, with Sirhan’s family fleeing Musrara to the Jordanian-controlled eastern side. Jewish insurgents had seized his family’s home.
Until the war, Musrara was an affluent Palestinian neighborhood and the Sirhan’s lived a comfortable life. Afterward though, they were forced to share one house with nine families. Things became more tense when Sirhan’s father, Bishara, lost his job. It is also alleged that Bishra was a harsh man who often beat his sons.
1957: The Sirhan Family Immigrates to the U.S.
In 1956, when Sirhan was 12, his family were given a special immigration permit issued by the U.S. government to Palestinian refugees. Sponsored by an American church, the family moved to the U.S. in 1957, and settled in Pasadena, California. After settling, Sirhan Sirhan attended John Muir High School.
1964 -1968: Sirhan Expelled from School, Works Odd Jobs
After graduating, Sirhan Sirhan enrolled in Pasadena Community College. But he was expelled in 1964 for missing too many classes, and subsequently, for bad grades.
For the next several years, Sirhan drifted around, doing odd jobs, working at a horse stable and later, at a health food store.
Around this time, it is purported that the aimless Sirhan began drinking, exploring mysticism, and occult philosophies (including Theosophy and Rosicrucianism). He is also thought to have practiced self-hypnosis, and tried to move objects with his mind.
During this time, Sirhan Sirhan became vocal about his opposition to Israel; especially after the June 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel seized control of various territories, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Old City of Jerusalem.
While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy said he supported Israel, and promised to send 50 fighter jets to Israel if he was elected. Around this time, Sirhan Sirhan wrote in his notebook, “Kennedy must die by June 5th.” It was a fortuitous date for Sirhan, as it was the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.
June 5, 1968: The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
On June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California primary election. He held a victory party at the Ambassador Hotel. Shortly after midnight, after giving a victory speech, Kennedy left the podium and was led through the pantry area to take a short cut to talk to reporters in a press room.
Kennedy was warned not to walk through the pantry because no one could guarantee who was going to be there. At the time, Kennedy’s people were adamant that police not come close to the senator while he was in Los Angeles. He wanted to be seen as a man of the people, and police uniforms would ruin that perception.
Also, there was no Secret Service protection for presidential candidates at that time. That rule changed after June 5, 1968.
Walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy turned to shake hands with the kitchen staff.
Sirhan Sirhan, 24, stepped in front of him and opened fire; shooting him in the head. Witnesses and experts said the fatal shot came from behind, from a distance of just one inch. Two other shots went into his back. A fourth bullet passed through his jacket. Kennedy died the following day.
After making the fatal shots, Sirhan Sirhan was tackled by a group of individuals, including authors George Plimpton and Pete Hamill, football Hall of Famer Rosey Grier, and Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson.
The short, slim, Sirhan Sirhan, who stood at just 5’5″ and weighed about 120 pounds, is remembered to have exerted almost superhuman strength. Even though one man held his wrist to a steam table in the Ambassador Hotel pantry, Sirhan was able to fire off five or six more shots. Even as he was held around the neck, body, and legs, it took six men to wrestle the .22-caliber pistol out of Sirhan’s grip.
Five other people were also shot: Paul Schrade, an official with the United Automobile Workers union; William Weisel, an ABC TV unit manager; Ira Goldstein, a reporter with the Continental News Service; Elizabeth Evans, a friend of Pierre Salinger, one of Kennedy’s campaign aides; and Irwin Stroll, a teenage Kennedy volunteer. They all survived.
“Let me explain!” Sirhan shouted as he was subdued. “I did it for my country.”
Sirhan Sirhan’s Arrest and Motives for Assassination
Sirhan Sirhan refused to give his name after being taken into custody. It was his two brothers who identified him after seeing his picture in the news. They gave consent for police to search Sirhan’s bedroom in their Pasadena home. It was there that police found Sirhan Sirhan’s journals, and books on the occult.
There have been a number of motives floating around for the killing of Robert F. Kennedy. One of the most popular being his revenge for Kennedy backing Israel, and promising to send 50 fighter jets to assist the Israeli army in the ongoing war.
This is backed up in large part by Sirhan Sirhan’s declaration after being subdued and arrested following the shooting, “I can explain it. I did it for my country.” Again, in a May 18, 1968 journal entry, Sirhan Sirhan wrote, “My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming the more and more of an unshakable obsession.… Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before June 5, 1968.[sic]”
Moreover, immediately after his arrest, Sirhan told investigators that he made the decision to kill Kennedy just three weeks earlier. He saw a documentary on TV about Kennedy’s involvement with Israel. Shortly after that, he heard Kennedy tell an audience at a Los Angeles synagogue that he would maintain “clear and compelling” support for Israel. This included a promise to arm Israel with dozens of fighter jets.
In court, Sirhan testified that after he heard that, he ran from the room with “his hand on his ears, almost weeping.”
While being interrogated, Sirhan explained that he chose the date of the assignation because it was the first anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War (June 5, 1967 – June 10, 1967).
February 12, 1969: The Trial of Sirhan Sirhan
Sirhan Sirhan’s trial for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy began on February 12, 1969.
Prosecutors were looking to portray Sirhan Sirhan as a cold, calculated murderer. The defense, meanwhile, was pinning its hopes on diminished capacity.
In their opening statements, prosecutors said that just two days before the attack, Sirhan Sirhan was seen at the Ambassador Hotel attempting to learn the building’s layout.
On June 4, he visited a gun range to hone his already considerable shooting skills with a pistol.
The defense, meanwhile, hoped to prove that Sirhan Sirhan’s actions were a spontaneous act of a deranged mind.
To back up that claim, Bernard L. Diamond, a psychiatrist and legal scholar who introduced the concept of “diminished capacity” to courtrooms, argued that the trauma a young Sirhan suffered during the bombing of his homeland during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war impaired his mental faculties.
Diamond said that Sirhan placed himself in a trance during the 1968 Kennedy assassination, and should not be judged on the same grounds as a “normal” murderer would. This theory actually gained some legitimacy when author George Plimpton, an eyewitness for the prosecution, described Sirhan as looking “… enormously composed. He seemed—purged.” As if he was in some kind of trance.
The defense suffered a setback when presiding judge Herbert V. Walker admitted into testimony pages from Sirhan Sirhan’s three journals. They revealed a more troubled, calculating, and willful mind; i.e. “… Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before June 5, 1968.”
Sirhan Sirhan certainly didn’t help his own cause during the trial, with many calling his behavior bizarre and self-destructive. During testimony about his childhood, Sirhan seethed, “I … withdraw my original pleas of not guilty and submit the plea of guilty as charged on all counts. I also request that my counsel disassociate themselves from this case completely.”
Judge Walker asked, “What do you want to do about the penalty?”
“I will ask to be executed,” Sirhan replied coolly.
The prosecutions exuberance was short lived. Judge Walker retorted, “This court will not accept the plea. Proceed with the trial.”
When Sirhan eventually took the stand in his own defense, his defense lawyer, Grant Cooper, went all in.
“Did you shoot Robert F. Kennedy?”
“Did you bear any ill will towards Senator Kennedy?”
“Do you doubt you shot him?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
Cooper then got Sirhan Sirhan to address his reasons for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy. Sirhan went on a vicious diatribe about Arab/Jewish conflict in the Middle East. His anti-Zionist speech was so impassioned that his own lawyer, Emile Berman, who was Jewish, offered his resignation from the defense team. Cooper persuaded him to stay on.
April 17, 1969: Sirhan Sirhan Found Guilty
Sirhan Sirhan’s legal team used a “diminished capacity” defence, hoping their client would be let go, or at the very least, avoid the gas chamber.
But, the jury agreed with the prosecution and decided that Sirhan was a calculating, cold-blooded assassin.
He was found guilty of first-degree murder. They also found he worked “alone and not in concert with anyone else.”
April 23, 1969: Sirhan Sirhan Sentenced to Death
Six days later, Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber.
But his stay on death row wouldn’t last long.
Three years later, in 1972, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. The State of California’s Supreme Court had ruled that capital punishment was a violation of the California Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The case (People v. Anderson) was deemed retroactive, invalidating all previous death sentences handed down in California.
In 1971, Sirhan Sirhan was sent to the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison. He was then transferred to the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California until 1992.
From 1992 to 2009, he was in the California State Prison in Corcoran, California.
In 2009, Sirhan Sirhan was transferred to the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California.
On November 22, 2013, exactly 50 years to the day of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, was moved from Corcoran State Prison to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County’s South Bay area.
September 1980: Sirhan Sirhan Blames Liquor & Anger
In a prison interview with Dr. M.T. Mehdi, president of the New York City based Arab-American Relations Committee, Sirhan Sirhan said a combination of alcohol and anger related to the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war led him to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy.
“You must remember the circumstances of that night, June 5. That was when I was provoked,” Sirhan said. “That is when I initially went to observe the Jewish Zionist parade in celebration of the June 5, 1967 victory over the Arabs. That was the catalyst that triggered me on that night.”
“In addition, there was the consumption of liquor, and I want the public to understand that. The parole board has continually neglected to consider that as a factor in mitigating this case.”
After spending 11 years in prison, Sirhan noted that he believed his was a political prisoner because he is spending more time in prison than most murderers in California. Had his victim not been a prominent political figure, he believes he would have been released.
Medhi asked Sirhan why he chose to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy. There were plenty of other American politicians who were “ready to sacrifice 1,000 Arab lives for 1,000 Jewish votes.”
Sirhan repeated his previous claim that Robert F. Kennedy was his political hero until he said he would, if elected, sell 50 Phantom jet fighters to the Israeli Army.
Mehdi contends in his 1968 book Kennedy and Sirhan – Why? that both Sirhan and Kennedy were “victims of Zionism,” and in their prison interview, Sirhan agreed.
“We are, we are. He more than I it turned out, unfortunately,” Sirhan said.
“I have nothing but respect for all the Kennedy’s, but except for that single moment when he said he was going to send instruments of death and destruction against my people. I am not going to accept that, and never will I accept or acquiesce to it.”
June 30, 1994: Sirhan Sirhan Granted New Hearing
Sirhan’s lawyer, Lawrence Teeter, tried for years to get Sirhan a new trial, arguing that Grant Cooper had a conflict of interest, and was negligent in his defense of Sirhan. Teeter also claimed his client was set up, and cited inept police, hypnotism, blackmail, and government conspiracies.
Teeter maintained that, the night of the assassination, Sirhan was in the wrong position and was too far away to have fired the shots that killed Kennedy. And while Sirhan did fire a gun that night, he did so while hypnotized; just like the assassin in the film The Manchurian Candidate. The lawyer alleges his client did so under the direct command of either the CIA or “the military industrial complex.”
An L.A. police officer who was also there said that Sirhan “had a blank, glass-over look on his face – like he wasn’t in complete control of his mind.”
Teeter has also alleged the L.A. Police Department (and others) destroyed evidence that would have pointed to the real killer.
Against all odds, Sirhan was granted a hearing on June 30, 1994.
During the hearing, Teeter went back to testimony from the original trial transcripts where author George Plimpton said Sirhan Sirhan looked “enormously composed.”
Adding, “His reaction seemed startling to me because in the middle of my hurricane of sound and feeling, he seemed, almost, his eyes in the middle of a hurricane peaceful, I had the sense…” Here, the court cut Plumpton’s flowery response off and was asked to just provide a description.
“That is what I meant, peaceful. He seemed…purged.”
Despite Plimpton’s testimony, the motion was denied.
Teeter died July 31, 2005 of advanced lymphoma. He was just 56.
March 2011: Sirhan Sirhan Denied Parole for 14th Time
In March 2011, Sirhan Sirhan went to his 14th parole meeting.
In a lead-up to the hearing, his new lawyer suggested that his client did not remember shooting Robert Kennedy.
Sirhan also provided some new insight into that night.
During the parole hearing, Sirhan said that on June 4, just hours before he assassinated Robert Kennedy, he went to a hotel and met a woman. They looked for somewhere to have coffee.
“She was pretty. I thought I wanted to hook up with her. We were trying to find coffee. There was an urn in the back area. I made coffee there,” Sirhan said.
“Some other official comes by and says, ‘You have to leave here because we need this space’. She led. She went to the pantry area. I was focused on the girl. She was the polka dot girl and she disappeared.”
He was denied parole for the 14th time.
November 2011: Sirhan’s Defense Team Files an Appeal
In November 2011, Sirhan’s defense team filed a new appeal claiming he was the victim of a setup, and did not fire the gun that killed Robert Kennedy. The filing included a report that claims new, more sophisticated audio tests, suggest there were 13 shots fired that night. Sirhan’s gun could only hold eight bullets.
A further claim suggested that one of the bullets taken from Kennedy’s body was switched before the trial because it did not match Sirhan’s gun. His lawyers also repeated earlier claims that Sirhan Sirhan was hypnotized.
Sirhan’s behavior immediately after the shooting, together with is consistent claim that he remembers everything about June 5, 1968, except the moment of the shooting, led some credence to his story.
His 1969 trial defense team actually explored that angle in the lead-up to the trial, and found that he could be easily hypnotized and be made to do things without knowing why. As history shows, his lawyers went with the diminished mental capacity defense.
They hypnosis angle, considered far-fetched by many, gained traction after Sirhan was examined by an experienced Harvard Medical School professor for more than 60 hours.
Daniel P. Brown concluded that “Mr. Sirhan did not act under his own volition and knowledge at the time of the assassination and is not responsible for actions coerced and/or carried out by others.” He was, according to Brown, a true “Manchurian Candidate,” programmed to assassinate Robert Kennedy without knowing it.
“I have written four textbooks on hypnosis,” Brown wrote, “and have hypnotized over 6,000 individuals over a 40-year professional career. Mr. Sirhan is one of the most hypnotizable individuals I have ever met, and the magnitude of his amnesia for actions under hypnosis is extreme.”
Sirhan’s lawyers said Brown’s theory explains why mild-mannered Sirhan Sirhan, a man with no criminal history, showed up at a hotel and shot Robert F. Kennedy. Others are not so sure, though, and believe it reflects America’s love of conspiracy theories.
According to Sirhan’s attorney, William Pepper, someone used “both drugs and hypnosis” to distract Robert Kennedy long enough for a second shooter to kill him at point-blank range from behind. Pepper’s previous clients include Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray.
While U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrick found the idea of mind control “intriguing,” experts did not demonstrate that Sirhan was actually subjected to mind control. His final federal appeal was rejected in 2013.
February 2016: Sirhan Sirhan Loses 15th Bid for Parole
Sirhan Sirhan lost his 15th parole bid in February 2016.
As in previous bids, Sirhan told the parole board he could not remember shooting Robert F. Kennedy and, therefore, could not confess to the murder.
Sirhan stuck to his long-held account of that night. He remembers the events of the day before the shooting: going to a shooting range, visiting the hotel in search of a party, having had too many Tom Collins to drive, and drinking coffee in a hotel pantry with an attractive woman wearing a polka dot dress.
The next thing he remembers is being choked and unable to breathe.
“It’s all vague now,” he said. “I’m sure you all have it in your records, I can’t deny it or confirm it. I just wish this whole thing had never taken place.”
At the 2016 parole meeting was a witness wounded in the attack. Paul Schrade, 93, who was also shot that fateful night, testified that a different gunman had killed Kennedy, and that Sirhan isn’t guilty.
Schrade recalled how he was standing right behind Kennedy, and was hit in the forehead by one of the first two bullets fired by Sirhan. Schrade added that the other shot missed Kennedy. Right after, those close to Sirhan tackled him and threw him on a table. During the struggle, six more shots were fired, wounding four others.
But, Schrade insisted, someone else had to have shot Kennedy because the bullet that killed him, behind the right ear, was fired at close range; just an inch or so away. Which, Schrade contends, Sirhan couldn’t have done.
Sirhan’s handgun had eight bullets. But a 2007 analysis of an audio recording indicates a total of 13 shots fired. “He’s actually guilty of shooting me and four other people,” Schrade said. “That’s not a life sentence without parole.”
“We don’t know who the second gunman is,” Schrade noted. “All the attention was on Sirhan firing at Kennedy.”
“I should have been here long ago and that’s why I feel guilty for not being here to help you and to help me,” Schrade said during the hearing.
As Sirhan left, Schrade shouted, “Sirhan, I’m so sorry this is happening to you. It’s my fault.”
Schrade is not alone calling for a new investigation.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who met with Sirhan in prison in December 2017, told The Washington Post that “the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father.”
His sister, former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has her doubts about the guilt of Sirhan Sirhan, too.
“Bobby makes a compelling case. I think [the investigation] should be reopened.”
Until that happens, Sirhan Sirhan is eligible for parole every five years.
2018: Was the Mystery Woman in Polka Dots Identified?
Investigators studying the assassination of Robert Kennedy believe they may have found the mysterious “girl in a polka dot dress.” The woman who may have actually been the one to fire the shots that killed the younger brother of John F. Kennedy.
The Assassination of Robert Kennedy, a book co-authored by documentary filmmaker Tim Tate and Brad Johnson, provides a detailed picture of the mystery woman in polka dots.
For starters, 25 people saw a woman wearing polka dots, and 13 witnesses saw her with Sirhan Sirhan. She has never been identified.
It was well established that, as Kennedy walked through the pantry area, Sirhan appeared in front of him and began shooting. Experts contend the fatal shot hit Kennedy in the back of the head, from a distance of just one inch. Two other shots hit Kennedy in the back.
But one witness, hotel assistant maitre’d Karl Uecker, who helped subdue Sirhan, said, “I told the authorities that Sirhan never got close enough for a point-blank shot – never.”
Meanwhile, waiter Vincent DiPierro, then 19, said in a statement, “When I first saw him there was a girl behind him, too.”
He described her as being 21-24 years of age, shapely, and wearing a white dress with black or violet polka dots.
Darnell Johnson, another witness, saw a woman in a polka dot dress near Kennedy and George Green said he saw her leave the scene with another man.
Sandy Serrano, 20, spoke of a woman in a polka dot dress running past her on a stairwell with a young man; she heard the woman say, “We’ve shot him.”
Sergeant Paul Sharaga, interviewed an elderly couple who were on the balcony outside the hotel’s Embassy Room. They said, “a young couple, early 20s, came running from the direction of the Embassy Room shouting, ‘We shot him, we shot him.’”
Tate and Johnson believe they identified the mystery woman as Elayn Neal, born in Red Bluff, California in November 1948. She was divorced a number of times, and died of alcoholism in 2012 at the age of 63.
According to her third husband, on the anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Elayn would put on a polka dot dress.
According to Tate, “All the evidence – ballistic, forensic and eye-witnesses – shows Sirhan physically could not have fired the shots which hit Kennedy.”
Tate noted how the autopsy revealed shots were fired from behind at no more than three inches, but Sirhan never got closer than three feet, and was always in front of Robert F. Kennedy.
“Similarly, although his gun held a maximum of eight bullets, all of which he fired, within hours of the shooting Los Angeles police recovered – and photographed – 14 bullets or bullet holes,” Tate added. “There is simply no doubt that there had to have been a second gunman who fired the fatal shots.”
This does not prove, as the book states, that “Patricia ‘Elayn’ Neal was the girl in the polka dot dress who, as Serrano and other witnesses claimed, shouted she and her companions shot Bobby while fleeing the crime scene.
“Her life and alleged involvement in events surrounding Bobby’s death should form part of a new and honest official investigation.”
For now, Sirhan Sirhan sits in prison