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This week marks the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long, but I was there, outside the Cocoanut Grove restaurant and nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel. I’d gone there to see Kennedy and hear him speak after his win in the California Primary race.
Before I tell you my story, let me tell you what’s already part of historical record, some of which includes a number of conspiracy theories.
Originally, Kennedy’s planned route after his speech was to leave the ballroom by going downstairs to the floor below where he would deliver another speech to a crowd gathered there. But at the last minute a change was made to go to a news conference in the Colonial Room, which required passing through the pantry backstage.
Moments later, Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, jumped out toward Kennedy and fired several rounds from his gun. Did one of those bullets cause the fatal shot that killed Kennedy? It was debatable then, and it’s debatable now.
One theory is that there was another gun in the pantry. Some say Kennedy had turned to his left to shake hands as he was shot, and that could have caused Sirhan’s bullet to hit him in the back of the head. Interesting though, was the fact that Sirhan just happened to be waiting in the pantry, which was a last minute route change. Some witnesses at the scene told LAPD investigators that they saw Sirhan standing with a girl in a polka-dot dress some time before Kennedy was shot. Many pieces of evidence in the pantry were later destroyed by the Los Angeles police, including photos taken by 15-year-old Scott Enyart as the shooting unfolded. Scott’s photo film was confiscated and he was discredited by police. He later sued the LAPD. Destroyed ballistic and forensic evidence became part of a growing conspiracy theory.
The biggest conspiracy theory about Sirhan Sirhan was that of a Manchurian Candidate, that Sirhan was only a puppet, someone who had been brainwashed and hypnotized. This theory says he was a patsy, and was placed in the pantry to appear to be the assassin. Perhaps Sirhan was meant to kill Kennedy, but others were there to make sure it happened. According to the conspiracy, Sirhan did not shoot the fatal bullet.
Shortly before the shooting, Sandra Serrano, a campaign volunteer, had gone outside the ballroom for fresh air because it was hot. She stood on a staircase in the terrace. The woman could hear the cheering and thought about “how many people there were and how wonderful it was.”
Serrano said that a young Caucasian woman came running down the stairs yelling, “We shot him! We shot him!” Serrano said a Caucasian young man in his early twenties followed behind the girl who had shouted. Serrano was said to have asked, “Who did you shoot?” The young woman Serrano described as wearing a polka-dot dress answered, “We’ve shot Senator Kennedy.”
Throughout the night several people reported to LAPD that they’d seen that young woman in a polka-dot dress, and she became a central focus in the conspiracy theory. An elderly couple with the last name of Bernstein told police the same story as Sandra Serrano. They said they saw the same couple that Serrano had seen, and reported also hearing the young woman shouting while standing outside the Embassy Ballroom.
The Bernsteins said the couple they saw looked happy, even gleeful, as they shouted, “We shot him!” The Bernsteins said the young woman was wearing a polka-dot dress and they saw the couple flee the hotel by going down the staircase where Sandra Serrano was enjoying fresh air. The Bernstein’s reported their sighting to LAPD Sgt. Paul Sharaga at the scene, and Sharaga immediately put out an APB for the woman in the polka-dress, and the young man with her. Within minutes, Sharaga’s broadcast was canceled by a senior officer. Sharaga was told the suspect was in custody and they did not want to create a conspiracy theory. But Sharaga believed the Bernsteins’ story. When he wrote up his duty report on the Bernsteins’ sighting, he did not feel right about the investigation and kept a copy of his duty report at his home for safekeeping. As it turned out, Sgt. Sharaga said his report was illegally falsified by two other officers who stated the Bernstein’s heard the fleeing couple shout, “They shot him,” rather than, “We shot him.”
Sharaga’s version was discredited. He later said that the police investigation into Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was, “the most grotesque abuse of police power I’ve ever witnessed.”
One of the many curiosities about what happened that night was how Sirhan just happened to be waiting in the pantry to kill Kennedy, when that route was a last-minute change of plan. Some witnesses at the scene told Los Angeles Police Department investigators that they saw someone who looked like Sirhan standing with a girl in a polka-dot dress some time before Kennedy was shot.
What I saw and heard the night Kennedy was shot
In June of 1968 I was 18, and I was excited at the prospect of seeing Kennedy in the Ambassador’s Embassy Ballroom where he would give his victory speech for winning the California Primary. Unfortunately, I was running late, and never made it to the ballroom to hear Kennedy’s speech.
However, I would never have imagined that when I finally did see Kennedy, I would see him on a stretcher making its way to the ambulance after being shot.
I walked up the Ambassador Hotel’s driveway around 12:15 a.m. on June 5, hoping I wasn’t too late to hear Kennedy speak. I had arrived by bus at the Ambassador Hotel after getting off work at the Four Star Theater.
About the same time Kennedy was shot, I was approaching the north side of the hotel, unaware of what had just happened. It was dark outside. I walked up a long driveway to the Ambassador where the Cocoanut Grove entrance was located near the hotel’s main entrance. While moving up the driveway I passed a man and woman who were leaving the hotel. They were the only people I saw. To this day I wonder if they were the couple described by other witnesses as the girl in the polka-dot dress and the man with her.
It was quiet, and I was the only one around as I walked up that long driveway on the north side of the Ambassador Hotel off Wilshire Boulevard. The midnight warmth was soothing. A center divide separated lanes going in and out of the hotel. Palm trees and flowers lined the lengthy driveway, all illuminated by small spot lights. The landscaping was of elegant beauty. The setting felt magically tropical, and it could not have been a more calm, quiet, comfortable night. As I got closer to the hotel, I could see the entrance to the iconic Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which was near the hotel’s main entrance.
Out from the darkness in front of me, a woman and man approached and passed me on the driveway. They were walking away from the hotel. Shortly after they passed me, I heard a woman’s voice say, “There’s been a shot.” It was surprising to hear those words, because they just seemed to come out of the silent night air. Except for the couple who passed me, no one else was around. A woman did come up from behind and hastily ask, “Was Kennedy shot?”
Shocked to hear that question, I replied, “I don’t think so. Oh, God let’s hope not. Not again!” I do not remember looking at the woman who asked me if Kennedy was shot, as my focus was forward toward the hotel, looking to see if there was something to see. Now I wonder to myself, was the woman who passed me leaving the hotel, the one with the voice I heard calling out into the night air? Not thinking about that passing couple, at first I thought what I had heard was a prank, because the tone in “there’s been a shot” sounded more like a statement than one of panic. Did that voice come from the woman in the polka-dot dress? If so, her tone was not of shock or surprise – but more informational.
Even though I did not take the reports of a shooting seriously at first — because I didn’t want to believe it — my walking pace quickened with curiosity. The night still felt peaceful. That quickly changed moments later as people started streaming from the Cocoanut Grove into the parking lot. They were hysterical. Pandemonium had struck. It was beyond my comprehension as the night’s silence quickly faded into screams. I could see and hear people in the short distance as they shouted, “Was Kennedy shot?” Several frightened, piercing questions sliced through the night air. My heart sank in an instant as I began wondering the worst. The peacefulness of the midnight hour had exploded into tragedy.
I ran into the crowd that was gathering in the parking area outside the Grove and found myself surrounded by lost, emotional people. I heard, “Did someone shoot Kennedy?” asked many times as people cried out in total disbelief. “Is Kennedy okay?” others asked with tears. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” seemed to be the collective answer.
And yet, some said they did hear a shot. Fear erupted in my mind. Silently, I was asking the same questions: What? What happened? And I, like many others, ran from one person to another asking if Kennedy was shot. I became one with the crowd frenzy. We were all reacting with the same sense of horror. My arms were half reaching out to others, as if to be searching for answers as I went from one person to the next. Others rushed up to me hoping that I would tell them what had happened, and assure them that Kennedy was not hurt. Men and women were wandering, with no distinct direction, searching with disoriented confusion. I saw within the crowd police officers who looked bewildered.
I rushed over to one of the officers and asked if Kennedy had been shot. He said he did not know, and as he spoke he seemed to be scanning the crowd.
Not getting answers, I prayed Kennedy was able to dodge the bullets. However, we all had the same question: Is Kennedy dead? People were frantically yelling and looking in all directions searching for that answer. It was dark chaos. A man who was shot in the leg was carried out of the Cocoanut Grove entrance by four other men. Looking with complete shock at the young man, my mind slipped deeper into fear. People were petrified now and bumping into each other, still asking questions about Kennedy. I watched as the injured man was carried around until being put into a cab and rushed off for the hospital. It was later reported Kennedy was the first to leave, but this injured, young man was actually the first.
In the turbulence of panic, it felt like sheer terror not knowing what might have happened to Kennedy, or what might even happen to us. I began to wonder if someone with a gun might be there to shoot into our terrified crowed. I wondered if a sniper might be on the roof of the hotel. A mind rampant with fear considers dire possibilities.
I saw a squad car pull up in front of the Cocoanut Grove entrance. Police were hastily carrying Sirhan Sirhan out from the Grove and quickly put him into the squad car. There were angry people who were trying to get at Sirhan, but police protected Sirhan from the crowd. I had no idea who the young man was as I looked at the back of his head in the squad car. But it was a very strong clue something had happened.
While the crowd looked at Sirhan and we watched the squad car speed off, I glanced back to where I noticed an ambulance had pulled up a little earlier, as did a SWAT unit. There was a private gateway entry through a fence with vegetation in that location that led to the hotel. Then I saw a stretcher being carried out through the gate. Filled with a sense of knowing, I ran over to see who it was. In complete horror, I abruptly stopped. Robert Kennedy was on that stretcher and passed right in front of me.
Kennedy’s head was slightly turned to the side facing in my direction. He looked pale. Staring into his face I had no thoughts, just numb awareness. Kennedy’s eyes were closed, and he appeared calm. His arms were to his side.
I had no way of knowing if he was in a coma at that point, or dying. I did not see much blood, but I remember seeing a little blood on his right side. It all happened so fast, so I was unaware of how grave his situation really was. Even so, the question was answered: Kennedy had been shot.
Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s wife, was extremely protective of her husband, and in a panicked frenzy. Once inside the ambulance Ethel held her husband’s head with one hand and pushed people away with the other.
Standing there watching, I was horrified and dumbfounded.
At that moment, I was remembering the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I just could not comprehend it was really happening again, but that this time, I was a witness. As the ambulance sped off, a news cameraman was filming. I just happened to turn around and unknowingly faced the camera. For the next 48 hours and beyond, I kept seeing the horrified, closeup look on my face as I watched the news and hoped to hear Kennedy would survive.
After Kennedy left the hotel for the hospital, more ambulances arrived for the other victims who were shot. Police had blocked the entrance, and were not letting cars in or out, so ambulances got stuck in the out lane trying to leave. Inside those ’60s-era ambulances, you could see the injured people inside through the side windows.
Wanting to know more about Kennedy’s condition, I ran back down the Ambassador Hotel’s long driveway so I could get home and watch television to learn of updates. At the entrance to the hotel’s driveway off Wilshire Boulevard was a small crowd of people protesting against Kennedy. I remember a tall man yelling offensive remarks about Kennedy. Supporters of Kennedy started yelling back. Then I heard a woman’s voice above the others say, “Stop yelling about Kennedy and pray for him.”
Stunned by the gathering and delirious with anxiety, I ran out into the street and raced down the middle of Wilshire toward home. Even though I lived only about two miles away and one block off Wilshire, I still flagged down a cab so I could hurry home. Rapidly, I told the cab driver about Kennedy getting shot.
Once home and out of the cab, I made way to the television and grabbed my telephone. I awakened family back home in Salt Lake City and stayed up all night with friends as we monitored the news in hopes we’d hear Kennedy was alive. I stayed up all night watching the news.
Later in the morning, I went to the Good Samaritan Hospital where doctors were trying to save Kennedy’s life. Police had the parking lot entrances blocked off. They probably wanted to make sure the area was clear for reporters, and I like to think, they were protecting Kennedy’s life from someone who might want him dead. Even so, I was able to sneak into the parking lot and join the small crowd of onlookers who were already there, and kept back several feet from the hospital’s front door.
The three major news networks; NBC, ABC, and CBS were set up and reporting. I stayed close to one of the reporter as he was broadcasting so I could hear anything that might be said about Kennedy’s condition. While waiting, I observed Jacqueline Kennedy arrive with singer Andy Williams and his wife.
Not getting as much information as I wanted from the news crew outside the hospital, I finally went home to hear as much as I could from news anchors on TV. Sometime later that night I was no longer able to stay awake, and I fell asleep. When I awoke in the morning, I heard on the news Robert Kennedy had died around 2 a.m. – some 25 hours after he was shot.
Upon hearing that, all my hopes were replaced with sadness and hopelessness. Robert Kennedy as president and family man would no longer enjoy the breath of life. The dream had ended – it was over. Robert Kennedy’s funeral would be his final, softened merge into history.
The Candy Girl’s Story
The morning after Bobby Kennedy died, I returned to the Four Star Theater where I worked as its assistant manager. One of the young women who worked at the theater’s candy counter told me a startling story. She said she’d seen two men and a woman on the afternoon of June 4, but that she’d seen the same three people previously on Sunday evening, June 2. She said they resembled descriptions of the girl in the polka-dot dress, and that one of the men resembled Sirhan. She said that on that Tuesday afternoon the man — the one she thought was Sirhan — stayed back from the candy counter up against the wall. The candy girl told me there was another guy with the girl in the polka-dot dress. And when the woman in the polka-dot dress put her purse up onto the counter to get her money out, the man told her to, “be careful because the gun was still in her purse”.
I asked the candy girl why she did not report this incident, and she said she did not take it seriously. I took it seriously enough to phone the FBI, CIA, and LAPD to report what I’d been told. Attached are two documents from LAPD officers who took my reports twice on June 6, 1968. (The officer got my name wrong when I called back at 1:15 p.m. about Sunday’s sighting and recorded it as PETE DUBOIS.)
Decades Later, Conspiracy Theories Resurface
In 1992, Philip H. Melanson, Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archives at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said he believed there was a conspiracy, and he wanted the investigation reopened.
In 1992 I made several visits to the Sacramento archives searching through public records for news footage where I could be seen at the rear of the ambulance near Robert Kennedy. Philip Melanson was interested in that footage and I was successful in finding part of the footage for him. It showed the back of my head and a profile look of my face as I turned in shock fearing what had happened. Melanson was happy to see that footage as it validated a photo I sent him of me at 18 years of age. And the partial footage I did find has turned up in various documentaries over the years as shown in the photos. In another archive footage, I can be seen by the ambulance from a different camera’s angle. So I found proof for Melanson that I was there.
He believed I may have encountered the woman in the polka-dot dress at the Ambassador Hotel. He hypothesized with a Los Angeles colleague that the woman in the polka-dot dress and the man she was with left the hotel by the north entrance, exactly the same place where I entered the hotel grounds along that lengthy driveway.
When I told Melanson about what the candy-girl had told me, he believed it was possible the trio stopped in the theater to lay low for the afternoon before the midnight shooting. Melanson told me one woman told of seeing a young woman in a polka-dot dress and someone who resembled Sirhan has having been in Kennedy’s Campaign headquarters earlier that same day. The Ambassador Hotel, the Four Star Theater, Kennedy’s campaign headquarters, and the Good Samaritan Hospital where Kennedy died were all on Wilshire Boulevard. I lived just a block off Wilshire.
Melanson asked me if I would write a statement. He provided me with specific questions focusing on historical accuracy. I wrote the Archives Director a response with as much requested detail as I could remember. But I could not recall if the woman who passed me was wearing a polka-dot dress or not. It was dark, and I was focused on getting into that ballroom in time to hear Kennedy speak.
Because I wasn’t sure if I could remember details from so long ago, I asked Melanson if I could be hypnotized. He looked into it with an academic law-enforcement expert at UCLA. Melanson wrote me that hypnosis in some circumstances was alleged to taint or pollute an investigation, rather than bring the story out, and he was advised against it. He wrote to me that I did a great job on my detailed statement and said it would become part of the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archives in Dartmouth. In addition, he asked me to meet with his Los Angeles colleague and take him to the Ambassador Hotel. Mr. Melanson wanted me to describe what happened from my perspective as I showed his colleague where I saw Kennedy brought out of the hotel on the north Wilshire Boulevard side. Both Melanson and his colleague were surprised with my revelation. They thought Kennedy was taken out of the east entrance.
EDITOR’S NOTE UPDATE – 9 a.m., June 4, 2018: Portions of the original text contained in this segment have been edited, and some parts deleted, following information received this morning that call into question the validity of some statements.
Two Kennedy Brothers; Two Tragedies
When I was 13 years old, I saw Robert Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, just two months before he was assassinated. I stood at a rope line outside Hotel Utah and was about 10 feet from the President. No one blocked my view as President Kennedy passed me. I was struck by his charisma, and could feel the power of the presidency. It was thrilling for this then-13-year-old boy to experience.
Robert Kennedy inspired me, as not just a brother to John Kennedy, but he filled me with optimism for a better America, which included ending the Vietnam War.
I was excited about the possibility of seeing Robert Kennedy for the first time in person. I hoped he would become the next president of the United States. I saw him as our next best hope for the future.
The investigation into Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was never reopened, though several people tried and failed to make it happen. Unfortunately, both Philip Melanson and his Los Angeles colleague died before they were able to realize the conspiracy theory as a proven truth.
Even so, there may be hope that an investigation my be reopened, after all. Robert F. Kennedy’s son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is conducting his own research into his father’s death. The younger Kennedy has visited Sirhan in prison, and believes the man did not act alone. Several stories have reported this new development, including The Washington Post and the L.A.Times
To this day I believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate Robert F. Kennedy, and that Sirhan Sirhan did not act alone. If I’m correct, that there was a conspiracy, had I encountered the couple who actually shot Robert Kennedy as I walked toward the hotel?
I may never know.