SGT. JORDAN: I am Sgt. Jordan. This is Rampart Detectives. What is your name sir? No comment? Alright...
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: This is an LAPD police tape from June 5, 1968. It’s the middle of the night in an interrogation room at the Ramparts division in downtown Los Angeles.
JORDAN: I have to advise you that you have the right to remain silent and if you give up the right to remain silent….
ZAC: Sgt. Jordan speaks to a young man - early 20’s, short, he’s a little beat up, and breathing heavily.
JORDAN:. Do you understand this? Now, you’re shaking your head, you do understand me. Now, would you tell me what your name is?
SIRHAN SIRHAN: I want to abide by your first admonishment, sir, to the right of keeping silent.
ZAC: “I want to abide by your first admonishment to the right of keeping silent” the man whispers.
JORDAN: In other words you not only wish to remain silent as to any part of this case but you do not wish to identify yourself?
ZAC: He won’t reveal his name.
JORDAN: Alright sir that is your privilege...
ZAC: And… what’s so strange about that is that this quiet young man has just inserted himself into American history in the most explosive and public way imaginable. He’s been arrested for something that you only do if you want everyone to know your name.
JORDAN: Now, is this all your property here? I mean… is there anything outside, I don’t want it to get lost…
ZAC: Sergeant Jordan catalogs the items found on the suspect at the time of his arrest.
JORDAN: We also have a comb, a key, and a clipping here, “You and your friends are cordially invited to come and see and hear Robert Kennedy on Sunday, June 2nd, 1968 at 8PM, Coconut Grove, the Ambassador. We have two unexpended cartridges which appear to be .22 caliber.
Alright, now would you tell me what your name is?
ZAC: Maybe what we’re hearing here is someone who just wants to relish his last moment of anonymity.
JORDAN: Going to find out anyway all they have to do is print you. Might as well tell us.
ZAC: Or maybe what we’re hearing is someone who has no idea what he’s just done.
ZAC: From Crimetown, you’re listening to The RFK Tapes. I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier. Over the next 10 episodes, we’re going to plunge into the vaults of the Robert F Kennedy assassination. It’s a murder that changed the course of American history, and a case authorities have claimed for the last 50 years was open and shut.
When Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, minutes after winning the 1968 California Democratic Primary, Dallas was on everyone’s mind. Dallas was where Bobby’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated less than 5 years earlier.
There, a sloppy investigation and the murder of the only suspect in the case, had left public doubts and swirling conspiracy theories about who had really killed JFK. And so, after RFK was shot, in the early morning hours of June 5th, 1968,
DETECTIVE 1: The date is June 4th 1968, the time is 2:35AM.
ZAC: ...they recorded everything.
DETECTIVE 2: Excuse me Jack, it’s June 5th.
DETECTIVE 1: Pardon me--June 5th, 1968. The time is 2:35AM.
ZAC: This would not be another Dallas.
MCGANN: Can we just go over what- what you saw and what happened.
ZAC: Olympic track star Rafer Johnson describes the scene at the Ambassador Hotel just before the election results came in.
RAFER JOHNSON: TV cameras set up here high and then just people, all of these were just filled with people.
ARCHIVAL: We want Kennedy. We want Kennedy…
TV: We have a call here for Senator Kennedy. That Senator Kennedy will be the victor in California.
REPORTER: Here he is now, he’s entering the ballroom and you can hear the cheers from the supporters.
ZAC: The Senator made his way to the podium and quieted down the crowd.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Thank you, thank you very much. I want to express my gratitude to my dog, Freckles, who’s been maligned. And I’m not doing this in the order of importance but I also want to thank my wife, Ethel.
ZAC: Supporters were celebrating what they hoped would be the beginning of a new era of healing for a deeply divided country...
RFK: ...what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last 3 years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society. The divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites (dip)
ZAC: Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis just 2 months earlier.
RFK: ...between age groups or in the war in Vietnam...
ZAC: ...the Vietnam War was sending thousands of young Americans home in body bags....
RFK: The country wants to move in a different direction-- we want to deal with our own problems within our own country and we want peace in Vietnam.
ZAC: For many, Robert F. Kennedy was the answer.
RFK: ...that we can start to work together we are a great country and a compassionate country and I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.
RAFER: When he finished, it was just a mass of people moving out. There was press all around him. He was surrounded.// he went through a door on this side, behind the stage into what looked like the kitchen.
ZAC: Rafer Johnson tells the cops that he followed Kennedy into the kitchen pantry..
RAFER: This is one big room like kind of a hallway through, there’s a big table here, and the chefs are running back and forth with the food and he went through this hallway.
ZAC: A young security guard named Thane Cesar had Kennedy by the arm.
THANE CESAR: I had a hold of his arm here, and I was pushing people away with my other arm. And at that moment, when we got to the edge of the steam table, he had reached out and sort of turned to shake hands with somebody.
OFFICER: People were pressing in pretty close.
CESAR: Right. Now, at that time, I and just happened to look up, and that’s when I seen.
All I could see was an arm and a gun.
REPORTER: Senator Kennedy - Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Is that possible? Oh my god. Senator Kennedy has been shot and possibly shot in the head.
ZAC: The Senator slumped to the ground as Kennedy supporters pounced on the shooter.
REPORTER: He still has the gun. The gun is pointed at me right at this moment. Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun!
GEORGE PLIMPTON: George. George Plimpton, P-l-i-m-p-t-o-n.
ZAC: George Plimpton, the famous writer, explains to the cops how he grabbed the gunman.
PLIMPTON: I grabbed the arm that had the gun in it, and bent him over this steam table here.
REPORTER: His hand is frozen. Take a hold of his thumb and break it if you have to.
OFFICER: Were there persons or other people that grabbed him also?
PLIMPTON: Yes, Rosie Grier then came and helped. Rafer Johnson then came and helped.
REPORTER: That’s it Rafer, get it. Get the gun Rafer.
PLIMPTON: We had his hand with the gun in it, it kept weaving around like this. He was very strong for a small man.
REPORTER: Hold it Rafer. We don’t want another Oswald. Hold it Rafer, keep people away from him.
ZAC: To get the gun away It takes a crowd of people, including a famous writer...an olympic athlete… and a former NFL lineman.
PLIMPTON: his arm was on the steam table and the gun finally was popped out of his hand.
REPORTER: Ladies and gentlemen, the have the gun away from the man.
PLIMPTON: It was handed to Rafer.
OFFICER: Now, I understand you have possession of the gun.
OFFICER: Now, we’ll take possession of it here.
ZAC: At the station, the officers get their first look at the murder weapon.
OFFICER 2: Must be a .22 huh?
OFFICER: It is.
OFFICER 2: Goddamn things.
OFFICER: An Iver -
OFFICER 2: Iver Johnson
OFFICER: Iver Johnson Cadet, model 55.
OFFICER 2: These goddamn guns, kill more -
OFFICER: - model number..
RAFER: I would guess that most of the shots are fired.
OFFICER: 3, 6, 8.
OFFICER: 8 shots expended.
OFFICER 2: Fired every one of them. No wonder everybody’s laying on the ground.
ZAC: Then Plimpton offers the police a description of the young man with the gun.
OFFICER: Could you describe him?
PLIMPTON: A Filipino, a Mexican-American, I would guess.
OFFICER: Do you - recall his hair?
OFFICER: Dark hair. Any other -
PLIMPTON: Small. He was a small man, slight man. Small face. And a thin, small mouth. I can tell you all about his eyes. They were dark brown, enormously peaceful eyes.
ZAC: Back in the interrogation room from the top of the show, Sgt Jordan still can't get the young man with the peaceful eyes to tell them his name
DETECTIVE 1: You are in here as a suspect, we are attempting to get information from you I mean you know that we know that we’re laying our cards on the table as we get them.
DETECTIVE 2: How many hours we’ve been trying to find out who the hell you are
SIRHAN: Who the hell am I?
DETECTIVE 2: Well you’re sort of the star of the show.
ZAC: This “star of the show” has become one of the most notorious political assassins in american history, joining the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray Men normally known by all three of their names but this man,
SAM YORTY: His name appears to be...
ZAC: only two, well actually...
ZAC: just one.
NEWS: Sirhan Sirhan charged in the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy…24 year old Sirhan Sirhan...Sirhan Sirhan the young Arab who waited in the crowd unknowingly until he fired the fatal bullet into the senator’s brain...
ZAC: And at the trial, Sirhan Sirhan told his side of the story.
ANCHOR: For the fourth straight day, Sirhan Sirhan took the witness stand today for his trial in the murder of Senator Robert Kennedy. CBS News correspondent Bill Stout reports from Los Angeles.
REPORTER: Today, for the first time, Sirhan Sirhan told his version of the murder of Robert Kennedy. He cursed the late senator, saying Kennedy had betrayed him by urging the sale of US jets to Israel. He told chief prosecutor Lynn Compton “I have a bug, a built-in bug in this brain of mine against the Jews, the Zionists, the Israelis.” At another point he told chief prosecutor Lynn Compton of an Arab proverb “Any friend of my enemy is my enemy.”
ZAC: Sirhan Sirhan admitted to killing RFK, saying he did it for political reasons...
REPORTER: But his habit of seizing on specifics, reciting dates and places, gave way to a total blank when it came to the night of the shooting. He remembers, he said, “Nothing.”
ZAC: The prosecution didn’t buy it.
LYNN COMPTON: I think he remembers the things he can safely, comfortably answer and he has to hide behind his lack of memory on things that are touchy
REPORTER: You think he’s lying then, you think he’s lying on the stand.
COMPTON: There’s no question in my mind about it.
ZAC: And for the defense team, who was fighting to save Sirhan from the gas chamber, this blind spot in his memory was a problem.
GRANT COOPER: From my experience the average juror does not like to hear that. They don’t buy that kind of a story. I would much have preferred that he remembered everything, came there to blast him.
ZAC: But Sirhan wouldn’t budge. He insisted that he couldn’t remember.
COOPER: This is his story, this is what he tells, and I’ve got to put on what he remembers and what he knows about it.
REPORTER: Are you confident with your case so far that you will save Sirhan’s life.
COOPER: I’m confident that we have done the very best we know how. That’s all I can say.
ZAC: Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to death which was later commuted to life in prison.
OFFICER 1: The first thing I said when Senator Kennedy was killed was that we’re not going to have another Dallas here.
OFFICER 2: This is obviously an open and shut case right from the beginning.
ZAC: For law enforcement, the case was a triumph. They had successfully closed a major political assassination without any lingering questions or public doubts.
OFFICER 3: We are satisfied that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is the murderer of Senator Robert Kennedy, and only he alone is the murderer.
ZAC: Photographs, physical evidence and all the tapes the police recorded -- it was all locked away.
OFFICER 4: We’ve interviewed 4,000 people and we’ve done it because someday, somebody for purposes known to themselves is going to try to prove that Sirhan didn’t do it, that this was a conspiracy. This is some big mysterious plan that in spite of all the investigation we haven’t been able to uncover. We knew it would happen.
ZAC: And it did happen. It absolutely did. That person that the district attorney predicted might come along one day to try poke holes in his perfect open and shut case - he showed up one afternoon in the tape deck of my parents’ car.
BILL KLABER: Good evening… I’m Bill Klaber, and tonight we’re going to take a closer look at the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
ZAC: It was the 90s, I was ten years old. My dad was the editor of the local paper in our small town in upstate New York and a family friend named Bill Klaber had given my dad a tape of a radio show he’d made-- thought it might make for a good print feature. My dad put it on in the car.
BILL: Was Sirhan Sirhan as we were told really a fanatically arab nationalist. Or was he as some think, a Robot Assassin. Did Sirhan Sirhan even murder Robert Kennedy or did someone else. Did the Los Angeles Police conduct an honest investigation or was there a massive cover up?
ZAC: My dad ended up passing on the story. He thought it was kind of out there. But I was taken with this tape. I didn’t know who Robert Kennedy was, I didn’t really know what a conspiracy theory was either. But this idea that it was possible to uncover hidden stories and unanswered questions just beneath the surface of history. That was big. And scary. And kind of exciting.
BILL: Historians a century from now will not have to examine these events through the filter of political expedience. They will see a conspiratorial mosaic, incomplete, but unmistakable. For WJFF in Jeffersonville, New York. This is Bill Klaber reporting.
ZAC: A couple years ago, as the 50th anniversary of RFK’s assassination approached, I thought about Bill again. I wanted to find out what would make him see such a seemingly simple case in such a different and complex way.
ZAC: So I tracked him down, went to go see him.
That’s coming up, after the break.
ZAC: Check, check.
ZAC: I’ve come back to my hometown in Upstate New York… And I’m sitting in Bill Klaber’s house.
BILL: Went to a concert last night
ZAC: Where was the concert?
ZAC: I’m here to talk to Bill about a radio documentary he made in the 90s about the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
BILL: Considering the temperatures outside a lot of people showed up. So it was good.
ZAC: Bill’s in his early 70s, he plays softball and volleyball and he looks like - well, if this was a movie, he’d be probably be played Sam Waterston, you know that guy from Law and Order.
ZAC: We sit down to talk in his home office, surrounded by books, files, and of course… tapes. All the tapes you’ve been hearing throughout this episode, they all came from Bill.
ZAC: Where are we right now?
BILL: Where are we physically? We're in Acidalia. And it sounds like it's a flower right? Like it's, you know, like a sweet little thing. No, it’s named after the acid factories that were here and you know, like around the time of the Civil War, and they were taking - stripping the bark off the hemlock trees to make the acid that they get tan the leather that they could make saddles and boots for guys to go to the war and kill each other.
ZAC: That’s cool.
BILL: Yeah. I don’t know how cool it is but, you know, we think the water is safe to drink.
ZAC: You said it’s a big thought when you start to believe a conspiracy and when you
start to think that maybe the version of a story you’ve been told isn’t true. Can you
say more about that?
BILL: I think… I went to my fiftieth college reunion this year. And a couple times I had the opportunity to speak about the R.F.K. case and could just watch people just glass over. And these are smart guys. These are really smart guys. And yet somehow, the thought is too big, that the government would actually - or elements of the government - would actually conspire to murder Robert Kennedy is a thought beyond what their head can handle.
BILL: I know how that feels because I was the same way. And I'd look at people like, “Oh grassy knoll, grassy knoll.” And I thought oh god, just get over it, you know?
BILL: They talk about conspiracy theorists. Well I’m - I'm not, I'm a researcher. I look at evidence but they term everybody conspiracy theorists as though you sort of sit around and invent conspiracies in the air. And that's not how it goes. You look at the evidence.
ZAC: Sitting here in Bill’s home, I can see that he’s spent a staggering amount of time looking at evidence from the RFK case. That radio show that I heard as a kid, it was just the beginning for Bill. Since then, he’s collected more tapes, he’s tracked down and interviewed more people who were involved. He wrote a whole book about the assassination called Shadow Play. (New edition is out now)
ZAC: So if, for you, the term “conspiracy theorist” conjures up images of someone casually retweeting poorly researched articles from the darkest corners of the internet, I get that, but that’s not Bill.
ZAC: What do you think happened?
BILL: It's a tough one. Everybody believes Sirhan when he offers a motive: supposedly Sirhan is protecting his people from the jets that Kennedy is going to send to Israel, that’s the motive. But Sirhan doesn't remember the crime, and almost everybody's reaction to that is “Well, he's just saying that because he wants to get out of it.” And that's the natural reaction. All by itself, OK, you went and shot the guy, you don't remember, I'm sorry. But it's not all by itself.
ZAC: And that’s when Bill takes a hard left.. onto Conspiracy Street.
BILL: Kennedy is shot four times in the back at a steep upward angle, Sirhan is never really in a good position to do that.
ZAC: First, Bill says the positioning is all wrong.
BILL: Turns out that there are more bullets fired in the pantry than Sirhan has in his gun
ZAC: And he says there were too many bullets.
BILL: ...and that’s to a virtual certainty.
BILL: So if there’s 2 guns firing in the pantry, there’s substantial evidence that none of the bullets from Sirhan’s gun ever struck Robert Kennedy it’s not impossible!
ZAC: There must have been someone else involved.
BILL: Quite a few people see a woman in a polka dot dress. With Sirhan.
“We shot him we shot him!” and she runs down the stairs.
ZAC: A girl in a polka dot dress…
BILL: They went around and appeared to erase all traces of co-conspirators.
I mean, it wasn’t an investigation at all.
Oh, we interviewed thousands of people.
They covered up the tracks of the people who did the murder.
That’s bullshit. Excuse me.
You can see how they cooked the books which is not what they’re supposed to be doing.
ZAC: So… larger forces must have been at work...
BILL: There are people who say, “Well, the mob had it in for Bobby Kennedy, the mob probably put him up to it.” I don’t know of any cases where the mob hypno programmed their assassins. They didn’t really do business that way.
ZAC: So if the mob didn’t ….hypno program Sirhan Sirhan then…. who...
BILL: There were several doctors in California at that time who were working with intelligence agencies on hypno programming...projects to try to figure out how to create a robot assassin. This is certainly a case where that really might’ve happened.
BILL: This is a lot of fun.
ZAC: I’m having fun too.
ZAC: So yeah, there’s a lot there.
BILL: Yeah, Big thought
ZAC: Yeah. Most people can’t wrap their head around it.
BILL: Yeah. Because in order to score any points you have to get someone to sit down and actually look at it. It’s hard to do.
BILL: And I wonder if maybe we might go back and explore this thing together?
ZAC: Hyno-programming? Robot Assassins? I was kind of feeling like one of Bill’s incredulous former classmates at his 50th college reunion. But then he played me this tape…
ZAC: A tape made in 1969 by psychiatrists who hypnotized Sirhan.
DOCTOR: I’m going to count to 5 and at the end of 5 you’re going to be sound asleep. Now 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
ZAC: Maybe hypnotizing Sirhan would unlock his memory of the murder.
DOCTOR: You’re at the Ambassador Hotel. Now remember this is June 4th, Tuesday night. You’re
ZAC: They give Sirhan a notebook and a pencil and start asking him questions.
DOCTOR: I want you to write about Kennedy. Stay awake. Sirhan, open your eyes.
ZAC: Suddenly, Sirhan’s hand comes to life and he begins scrawling RFK, RFK, RFK, over and over again.
DOCTOR: Tell us more than his name, Sirhan, write more than the name.
What’s going to happen to Kennedy? What’s going to happen to Kennedy?
ZAC: RFK must die, RFK must die, RFK must die, RFK must die.
DOCTOR: You said RFK must die but when must he die?
When is Robert Kennedy going to die?
ZAC: He writes, “Robert Kennedy is going to die. Robert is going to die. Robert is going to die. Sirhan... Sirhan. Robert is going to die.”
DOCTOR: Now Sirhan, who killed Kennedy? Who killed Kennedy?
ZAC: He writes “Who killed Kennedy?”
DOCTOR: Don’t write the question write the answer.
Go to another line, Sirhan. Is this crazy? Is this crazy writing, Sirhan?
ZAC: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…..
DOCTOR: Now that’s enough yeses. Stop writing yeses. You’re like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
YES YES YES
DOCTOR: Sirhan, stop writing that now!
Are you crazy, Sirhan? Are you crazy? Write the truth, Sirhan. Are you crazy?
ZAC: NO NO NO NO NO
DOCTOR: Alright that’s enough nos. You wrote no, that’s enough.
Sirhan, if you are not crazy, why are you writing crazy?
DOCTOR: Practice? Practice for what, Sirhan? Practice for what? Write it down, Sirhan. Practice for what?
DOCTOR: Mind control.
Sirhan has written mind control.
ZAC: Before Bill would answer any of my questions about mind control, he wanted to tell me how this whole conspiracy thing got started.
ALLARD LOWENSTEIN: If Sirhan Sirhan is firing as the result of being part of a conspiracy, I want to know it.
ZAC: Turns out, the person who first started asking questions was a friend of Bobby Kennedy’s.
LOWENSTEIN: And I want to find out who those people are and I want to get them.
ZAC: That’s next week on The RFK Tapes.
Crimetown is Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. The RFK Tapes is made in partnership with Cadence 13.
The show is produced by Jesse Rudoy, Bill Klaber, Ula Kulpa and Ryan Murdock. Our senior producer is Austin Mitchell. Editing by Marc Smerling. Fact checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Kenny Kusiak. Additional music by John Kusiak. Our title track is Maria Tambien by Khruangbin. Music supervision by Josh Kessler and Dylan Bostick at Heavy Duty Projects. Archival footage courtesy of the California State Archives. Archival research by Brennan Rees. Our intern is Kevin Shepherd.
Special thanks Jean Klaber, Emily Wiedemann, Greencard pictures, Alessandro Santoro, Judith Farrar, Brad Johnson, Paul Schrade and the team at Cadence13.
For more information on the Robert Kennedy murder, pick up a copy of Bill’s book, Shadow Play, from St Martin’s Press. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @ theRFKtapes. If you like the show leave us a rating and review on apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts, it really helps others find out about show.