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Friday, 23 November 2007 10:53

William Turner & Jonn Christian, The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (reissue)

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On the occasion of the reissue of a book which "completely changed my thinking on both the RFK case, and the relationships between the assassinations of the sixties", writes Jim DiEugenio.

Contrary to what the "coincidence crowd" says, people who believe in conspiracies are made and not born. Or to be more accurate: they are educated to believe so. Take me for example. Of the four great political assassinations of the sixties, I first believed that only the JFK case was sinister. That's because I did not know the other cases nearly as well as I did that one. I had not read enough about them, and had not talked to any experts in the other fields. In the 1990's when I asked an acquaintance if there was anything to the RFK case besides Sirhan, he said there sure was. He then added, "Just read the Turner/Christian book."

I did. And it completely changed my thinking on both the RFK case, and the relationships between the assassinations of the sixties. Luckily, The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, by William Turner and Jonn Christian, has been reissued by Carroll and Graf. Although it was originally published nearly thirty years ago, to this day it remains the best book ever written on that case. And the story behind the book and its fate is interesting in itself.

The book was commissioned by legendary book editor Jason Epstein. If you don't know, Epstein was one of the lions of the (now eclipsed) New York literary scene. A fine writer and intellect in his own right, he was probably the last of the literary tradition that goes back, in the United States at least, to Maxwell Perkins. For all intents and purposes, these types of editors do not exist today. When they commissioned a book, they helped conceptualize it, advised on its length and shape, and then went over each and every chapter of the work paragraph by paragraph. And in both phases of its editorial construction: the notation process, and the red-lining or "mark up" process. (The first is done after a rough or preliminary draft is submitted, the second is done after the first draft has been completed.) I can attest to this as fact since I have seen Epstein's back and forth correspondence on the book under review. It is both a treasure of insightful, constructive criticism and a pleasure in itself to read.

Epstein's first choice to do a book about the Bobby Kennedy case was -- are you sitting down? -- Vincent Bugliosi. Yep, him. Bugliosi had already written his book on Charles Manson, and he figured in two court proceedings on the RFK case. These both figure importantly in the Turner/Christian volume. And yes, he was arguing for conspiracy in both proceedings. When Epstein approached Bugliosi about doing a book on the case, he deferred to Turner and Christian who had been investigating it since its inception, and whose work he had used in court.

Epstein was rightfully proud of the book. Random House printed a 20, 000 copy initial hardcover run in 1978. Most of the reviews were favorable. Turner appeared on the Merv Griffin show to discuss the case. So things looked promising at the start. Very soon after, it all went downhill.

Turner -- who had actually written the book -- never got a national multi-city tour. There was no paperback sale. And then something even worse happened. Random House started pulling the book out of circulation. You couldn't get it even if you ordered it. You were told it was "out of stock". Many years later, Jonn Christian called a warehouse in Maryland to find out what had happened to the book. Why couldn't people order it? The manager told him that from the records he had, the warehouse had at one time, about 11, 000 copies of the book. But in 1985 something strange happened. That whole lot was incinerated.

When a friend of the authors called Epstein about the book's fate, he replied he did not want to speak about it. But what appears to have occurred is that when Random House was sold to Si Newhouse-Roy Cohn's family friend-Bob Loomis's star ascended, and Epstein's began to fade. As readers of Probe know, Loomis was once married to the secretary for James Angleton. He has been a mentor and shepherd for the likes of Sy Hersh, James Phelan, and Gerald Posner. In other words, he is dedicated to upholding the official story no matter how porous it may be. When asked why the Turner/Christian book was burned, Loomis replied, as Daryl Gates did about the disposal of crime scene evidence, "To make space for others. They do that with books."

Not to apologize for Loomis, but if I was him, I would want to make this book disappear too. It is devastating to the official story. Because of an attorney named George Davis, Turner and Christian were on the case almost from the beginning. Davis was the San Francisco based lawyer for a man named Rev. Jerry Owen aka The Walking Bible. In 1968, Owen was like a low-rent Jerry Falwell, a traveling evangelist preacher. Owen had voluntarily gone to the Los Angeles Police Department with information about his meeting with Sirhan Sirhan just prior to the RFK assassination. That internal inquiry within the LAPD was called Special Unit Senator (SUS). The two men running it, Manny Pena, and Hank Hernandez, had no use for Owen even though his story seemed quite interesting and relevant. He said that he had encountered Sirhan the day before the California primary of June 4, 1968. Sirhan had been hitchhiking with a friend when Owen picked him up. The conversation turned to horses, and Owen told Sirhan he actually owned some. Since he was a former jockey, Sirhan told him he would be interested in buying one. A pair of Sirhan's companions--a male and female--arranged with Owen to return the following evening to the back of the Ambassador Hotel. They gave him a hundred dollars down, and promised two hundred more upon delivery. Owen said he could not fulfill the offer since he had a preaching appointment in Oxnard on the night of June 4th. On June 5th, traveling back from Oxnard, Owen stopped at a dinette in a hotel. He looked up at the TV and saw a photo of Sirhan-who he had known as "Joe". He then reported this information to the police. Some of the story seemed to make sense, e.g. Sirhan had four hundred dollar bills on him when apprehended, witness Sandra Serrano later reported that Sirhan had entered the Ambassador that night with a male and female companion. Owen said that after making his police report he began to get threatening calls. Deciding he better get out of LA, he stayed at a friend's house in Napa Valley. That friend knew Davis. Davis heard the story, got it into the local papers, and called a news conference. Turner and Christian, both reporters at the time, arrived at his office to hear it. It never came off. SUS got wind of it and immediately flew up Pena and Hernandez to stop it. Davis complied, but he got Turner a private one-hour interview with Owen. Owen told him what happened, and Turner taped it. And like an old-fashioned adventure story, this is what sets the two protagonists out on "a tale full of sound and fury". But unlike Shakespeare, it signifies a lot.

The paradox with the Bobby Kennedy case is this: although on the surface it appears to be a simple open and shut case, once you peel away that surface, it is more clearly a conspiracy than the JFK case. And once you realize that not only did Sirhan not kill RFK, but he could not kill him, then you enter a world of threats, intimidation, shootings, and falsified evidence. One could say that it resembles the JFK case. But there are elements of it that are not like anything in the JFK case. And no matter how cheapjack writers like Dan Moldea and David Heymann try to cover them up, they will not go away. In the JFK case you have what is perhaps one of the worst autopsies ever performed in a high profile case. In the RFK case, Thomas Noguchi's painstaking, thorough work is crucial to unraveling elements of the conspiracy. In the JFK case, the actual assassins were mostly out of sight, hundreds of feet away, and never identified. In the RFK case, they were in direct proximity to Kennedy, in plain sight of witnesses. Further, they were questioned and even apprehended. With Oswald, you have basically a simple frame-up, sometimes called a "throw down"; with Sirhan, the framing circumstances are much more complex and intriguing. This is where one gets into the utterly and endlessly fascinating aspects peculiar to this case: namely the Manchurian Candidate, and the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress.

The great achievement of this book is not that it makes all of the above credible. But it makes it convincing. One of the reasons for this is that Turner is a skillful writer. In an inherently dramatic but true story, he takes time to fashion, not just a narrative, but to draw "scenes", which makes the strange tale both realistic and easier to visualize. (A form of art that is sorely lacking in the field. See the recent work of Lamar Waldron and Joan Mellen.) This approach is especially useful in understanding the difficult concept of hypnoprogramming. Which Turner did a lot of homework on. He interviewed two of the eminent experts in the field: Herbert Spiegel and Edward Simson-Kallas. He also read one of the most important texts in the discipline: the chronicle by Paul Rieter of the famous Nielsen/Hardrup case which took place in Denmark in the early fifties. That study shows, beyond any doubt, that you can hypnotize someone into doing something they would never do in a waking state. That you can install post-hypnotic suggestion. And that it is possible to then deprogram the hypnotized victim who has commited the crime-not of his own free will--but for his controller. It was all done in the Danish precedent. And in that case, the court decided that Hardrup was innocent of the crime and convicted his programmer Nielsen.

One of the great ironies of the RFK case, is that the Danish case was first mentioned in what--up until that time--was the standard book on the Bobby Kennedy case: Robert Blair Kaiser's RFK Must Die (1970). In his last chapter, Kaiser mentions the hypnosis sessions that Sirhan had with his court appointed psychiatrist Dr. Diamond. Diamond was struck by how quickly and deeply he could induce Sirhan into a trance. He became convinced that Sirhan was in a trance that night in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. But since Sirhan's incompetent, and probably compromised, legal team had agreed to the prosecutor's evidence, their defense had to be tapered in this aspect. They argued that Sirhan did it, but in a trance that was self-induced. In that famous last chapter, Kaiser mentions things like previous sightings of Sirhan with the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, of murder suspect and Sirhan look-alike Michael Wayne, and a man named Van Antwerp who disappeared the day RFK was shot, not to reappear until two weeks later. At that time he told the FBI he never knew Sirhan, even though he had roomed with him for five months. Though he mentions these tantalizing leads and angles, Kaiser's book ends up being a Sirhan-did-it tract. He asks, "Who would have wanted to use Sirhan? I didn't know." (p. 537) A page later he writes that it would have taken him another year to explore all these fascinating trails. That would have been another book and he had to get this one published.

What the Turner/Christian book does is go down some of those trails. For instance, it fits into a rough mosaic the role of the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress with the man who probably "used Sirhan" by hypnoprogramming him. That man's name is Dr. William J. Bryan. His name was first mentioned in book form here. And the way it tumbles forward, out of -- of all things -- the Boston Strangler case, is almost worth the price of the book. The book does this repeatedly. The roles and backgrounds of Pena and Hernandez are delineated. And the latter's task of beating down witnesses, especially Sandra Serrano-who first exposed the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress-is clearly defined. The book outlines in character and performance the two ballistics experts who would face off in this case: DeWayne Wolfer and William Harper. (If there is a hero in the RFK case, it is Harper. The authors dedicated the book to him.) Some of the chapter titles describe what are today, hallmarks of the RFK case: "Tinting Sirhan Red", "The Quiet Trial of Sirhan Sirhan", and "Too Many Guns-Too Many Bullets".

I should also note that because it describes the last of the four great political assassinations of the decade, the book is elegiac. To slightly alter Clausewitz: assassination is an extension of politics by other means. The assassination of Robert Kennedy, for all intents and purposes, lowered the curtain on one era and raised it on another. By the summer of '68, RFK was the last great hope of the sixties. His assassination brought to power the era's anti-Christ: Richard M. Nixon. In the actual histiography on that case, the Turner/Christian book is a milestone for what came afterwards. For the first time in book form, both the conspiracy and cover up in the Bobby Kennedy case were now out in the open: lying there naked in the glaring sunlight. That exposure inspired the subsequent fine work of people like Phil Melanson, Greg Stone, and Lisa Pease. With that kind of impact and influence, one can see why Loomis panicked. But it was too late.

That was bad for him. It was good for us. Buy this book. It's that good.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 23:08
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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