Sunday, 08 July 2007 14:18

Conspiracy Test: The RFK Assassination

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Jim DiEugenio reviews the television documentary which concludes with the acoustical analysis of the Pruszynksi tape demonstrating the presence of at least two shooters.


On June 6, 2007 the Discovery Times Channel broadcast a one-hour special on the murder of Senator Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968. It was divided into several quick and sketchy sections which tried to set the background, fill in the circumstances of the shooting, examine some of the eyewitness testimony to the crime, discuss the autopsy of Dr. Thomas Noguchi, and the investigation by the LAPD (which was aided to a small extent by the FBI and Secret Service.)

There were some new interviews done for the special. Some of the witnesses at the scene were Paul Schrade, one of the shooting victims, Roosevelt Grier, a Kennedy bodyguard, Roger Katz, a bystander, and LAPD officer Arthur Placencia, who brought alleged assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the police station. In addition to the above, several critical commentators were also interviewed. These included those both supporting and attacking the official story. In the first camp were British anti-conspiracy author Mel Ayton and former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. In the second were former FBI agent and author Bill Turner, author and investigator Ted Charach, and former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science, Dr. Robert Joling.

The first part of the show gave a decent summary of the facts of the case until 1969. It went over the official circumstances of the shooting, the apprehension of Sirhan, and the actual death of Kennedy on June 6th at Good Samaritan Hospital. It then mentioned the eight-month investigation by the LAPD, which culminated in the February-April 1969 murder trial of Sirhan. The trial ended with Sirhan's conviction and the application of the death penalty. Sirhan escaped capital punishment when the state changed its law on this issue, and he has been in prison ever since.

At this point in the show, doubts about the verdict began to be aired. Katz mentioned that the shots seemed to be too rapid for one man to be firing. Joling said that if four shots hit RFK, and five bystanders were also hit, then this is one too many shots for Sirhan's alleged eight shot revolver. From here the focus shifted to Noguchi's autopsy. The doctor said that all the shots which hit Kennedy (one went through his jacket) came from behind. In a taped interview, the man who was escorting Kennedy through the pantry, Karl Uecker, said that this was impossible: Sirhan was always in front of him and he was always between the two. Another important point dealt with was the distance issue. Schrade said that the witnesses that LAPD thought were most credible all said the gun was between 1.5 to 3 feet away from Kennedy. Yet, Noguchi's careful experiments determined that the amount of gunpowder in Kennedy's scalp necessitated a much closer range, from 1-3 inches. No one put Sirhan that close, which would be a point blank shot. And the gun would literally have had to be at his head since the fatal shot came from behind his right ear. No one recalled seeing that rather unforgettable sight.

A previously taped interview followed as the show tried to focus on a chief suspect in the killing, Thane Eugene Cesar. Don Shulman, a runner for a press organization, said that he saw the security guard behind Kennedy pull his gun and fire three shots during the fusillade. In an interview done for the show, Charach said that Cesar changed his story on this point, but he has him admitting to pulling his gun on tape. Joling chimed in here by saying that no other gun was tested by the LAPD and that Cesar was allowed to leave the pantry for ten minutes before returning to collect his tie, which had fallen on the floor. The implicit point here being that although Cesar says he was carrying a .38 that night, he also owned a .22, an issue which he also lied about. And it is this smaller caliber weapon which LAPD says was used in the crime.

From here, the show began to criticize the LAPD investigation even more strongly. The role of firearms expert DeWayne Wolfer was mentioned and how it appears that the revolver he used to match the victim bullets to the weapon was not actually Sirhan's, but a testing weapon. The documentary showed, with close-up shots, that the serial number on Wolfer's evidence envelope did not match up with the serial number on Sirhan's alleged revolver. The special also showed evidence of extra shots in the walls, swinging door divider, and ceiling tiles. This included photos of Noguchi pointing at circles, which were supposed to represent bullet holes. But of course, if these were actual shots, the sum would number too many for an eight shot revolver. Even more suspiciously, the divider and tiles were later destroyed even though Sirhan's case had not exhausted its appeals process. Gates replied to this point with, "The guy was convicted. You can't keep junk around forever. It takes up a lot of room."

The above set up the departure point for the documentary's longest and concluding section. In fact, its actual reason for being. In 1968, a young reporter of Polish descent named Stanislav Pruszynski had taken a leave of absence from his job on a Canadian newspaper. He wanted to cover the American presidential race in order to write a book about the contemporary political scene in the USA. Therefore he found himself at the Ambassador that night covering Kennedy's California primary victory. In fact he was near RFK when the senator left the ballroom podium to begin his fateful walk down the corridor and through the swinging doors of the pantry. The young man had in his hands a new invention: an audiocassette recorder, and he was recording as he followed RFK. One of the highlights of this show is that Pruszynski is still alive and the producers show him film of himself and he certifies his placement as RFK begins to leave the podium. The LAPD did not ask him for his tape that night. But in 1969, the Canadian authorities did at the request of the FBI. The FBI tested the tape and decided there was nothing of crucial evidentiary value on it. So the test cassette was sent to the California Archives in Sacramento.

This is how matters stayed until about three years ago. At that time, an employee working for one of the cable news networks stumbled upon Pruszynksi and his tape. He took the tape to an audio technician named Phil Van Praag. Van Praag had worked in the field for 35 years and had accumulated state of the art sound testing devices along with the latest computer programming in the field. Much better than what the FBI had in 1969. He made both digital and analog copies of the tape and then tested them for sounds of a gun firing. He came to the conclusion that 13 shots were on the tape. Further, he located a couple of instances in which the shots were spaced too closely for one person to be firing them.

The filmmakers decided to take the tape to a second authority. This was a Pasadena company called Audio Engineering Associates, headed by a man named Wes Dooley. He came to a similar conclusion: there were too many shots on the tape for just Sirhan as the assailant. And the spacing sounded too close for one man to be firing. (Although his number was smaller: he located ten shots.) A firearms expert named Phil Spongenberger then tested the alleged weapon, an Iver Johnson Cadet and determined that the technicians were correct. The gun cannot be fired as quickly as the spacing indicated on the tape. This forensic discovery echoes the earlier testing done by Dr. Michael Hecker of Stanford in 1982. By analyzing other tapes, he was sure there were at lest ten shots fired that night and probably more. But he was certain of ten. Now we have the same verdict but with a different tape, and more modern analysis.

I should add a sad postscript here. Many are familiar with the famous acoustical testing done by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which caused them to reverse the Warren Commission and change the official verdict on the JFK case to a conspiracy. With the film and tape of Pruszynski available, plus the fact that he is still alive, just about everything was in place here to do the same acoustical testing for the RFK case that was done for the JFK case. Why go the extra yard? Because in addition to the number of shots, and the spacing of shots, this last test would have revealed the directionality of the shots. That is, where they came from. But because of what the Los Angeles School District did with the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which they today own, this test could not be done even under the best circumstances. Only one person can be happy about that. Namely Thane Eugene Cesar who, as the show states, is happy to maintain his innocence from the distant location of the Philippines.

Last modified on Sunday, 30 October 2016 17:19
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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