Even as Sirhan Sirhan was being captured, seconds after the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, he behaved oddly. A group of men had tackled him, held him down and tried to wrest the gun out of his hands. But “in the middle of a hurricane of sound and feeling,” wrote one of those men, author George Plimpton, Sirhan “seemed peaceful.” Plimpton was struck by Sirhan’s “dark brown and enormously peaceful eyes.” A Los Angeles police officer who had rushed in recalled, “He had a blank, glassed-over look on his face — like he wasn’t in complete control of his mind.”
At the same time, the short, slim Sirhan — 5 feet 5 inches, about 120 pounds — exerted superhuman strength as one man held his wrist to a steam table in the Ambassador Hotel pantry, firing off five or six more shots even as he was held around the neck, body and legs by other men, witnesses said. It took a half-dozen men to wrench the .22-caliber pistol out of Sirhan’s grip.
At the police station, Sirhan was preternaturally calm, officers later said. “I was impressed by Sirhan’s composure and relaxation,” Sgt. William Jordan wrote in a report later that morning. “He appeared less upset to me than individuals arrested for a traffic violation.”
Sirhan’s behavior, combined with his consistent claim that he remembers everything about June 5, 1968, except the moment of the shooting, led some people to suspect that Sirhan was under hypnosis when he fired at Kennedy. His defense team explored that angle before his trial, finding that he was easily hypnotized and could be induced to do things without knowing why, such as climb the bars of his cell. The lawyers chose to use a diminished mental capacity defense instead.
But the hypnosis angle gained momentum in recent years after Sirhan was examined for more than 60 hours by a Harvard Medical School professor with vast expertise in forensic psychiatry and hypnosis. In a lengthy affidavit filed with Sirhan’s last appeal in 2011, 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, Brown said, a true “Manchurian Candidate,” hypno-programmed into carrying out a violent political act 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.” Brown said he has spent another 60 hours with Sirhan in the years since his 2011 affidavit, further confirming his conclusions.
Brown researched not only Sirhan’s background but also the details of the case, and wove together the CIA’s notorious “MKUltra” mind-control experiments of the 1950s and 1960s; the Mafia; the famed “girl in the polka-dot dress” seen with Sirhan before the shooting; and an unknown “Radio Man” who secretly directed Sirhan to write the incriminating “RFK must die!” statements in a notebook found in his bedroom.
To some, including Sirhan’s current lawyers, Brown’s theory explains why a mild-mannered Palestinian immigrant with no criminal history suddenly showed up at a hotel and shot one of the United States’ leading political lights. To others, it’s reflective of the United States’ thirst for conspiracies, for a belief in a larger, more complex narrative to explain a cataclysmic tragedy, when a simple plotline will suffice.
Lawyers for Sirhan are currently using the theory that he was a hypnotized distraction for the actual killer of Kennedy in a pending appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although it would have no binding power over the case, a positive finding could be used to push California authorities to reopen the case. Sirhan attorney William Pepper said he’s convinced that someone used “both drugs and hypnosis to make him a totally compliant distraction at the time Bobby Kennedy was within range of the second shooter, who was able to get down behind him.” Kennedy’s fatal wound was fired at point-blank range from behind, while witnesses said Sirhan was in front of him.
But to the U.S. court system, that claim simply didn’t fly. In rejecting Sirhan’s final federal appeal in 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich wrote that Sirhan’s “theory that he was subject to mind control may be intriguing” but that the experts’ views “fall far short of demonstrating that [Sirhan] actually was subjected to mind control.” Wistrich added that “Brown’s retrospective opinion based upon tests assessing [Sirhan’s] mental condition forty years after the fact are of negligible weight.”
Prosecutors noted that many psychological experts believe that a person cannot be hypnotized to do something against their will. But others disagree, and some believe that Sirhan may have been programmed to think he was shooting at a target range, rather than at a human target.
Alan Scheflin, an expert on mind and behavior control and a former law and philosophy professor at Georgetown University, said that “the word hypnosis, like mind control and brainwashing, has a public stigma.” People are skeptical of what can appear like a magician’s trick, he said.
But Scheflin examined the CIA’s mind experiments in detail in his book “The Mind Manipulators” and found that the agency did have a project designed to create hypnotized subjects “for purposes of assassination.” And, Scheflin said, “the CIA experiments showed that was possible. Hypnotized people were ordered to do things they otherwise would not do, such as rip up a Bible or fire a gun at somebody they otherwise wouldn’t. In every instance, they got the results.”
Sirhan had a fascination with hypnosis before the assassination but said he could not remember anyone hypnotizing him to perform devious acts. In recordings of his conversations with defense lawyers and psychiatrists in 1968, released by authors Robert Blair Kaiser and William Klaber, he expresses bafflement that he shot Kennedy but realizes he was captured at the scene with a gun. He also doesn’t recall writing in notebooks, repeatedly, that “RFK Must Die!,” though he acknowledges it appears to be his handwriting.
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Sirhan told one psychiatrist. “If I had wanted to kill a man, why would I have shot him right there where they could have choked the … out of me.” He also noted that he was a Christian and that “my own conscience doesn’t agree with what I did. It’s against my upbringing. … ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Life is the thing, you know. Where would you be if you didn’t have life? And here I go and splatter this guy’s brains. It’s just not me.”
Mel Ayton, author of “The Forgotten Terrorist,” about Sirhan, said, “The evidence presented during the 1969 trial revealed how Sirhan was fully aware of everything around him on the night he killed Robert Kennedy and that no credible evidence has ever been discovered that would indicate Sirhan’s actions were the product of a hypnotized mind.” He said Sirhan’s previous knowledge of hypnosis enabled him to construct a story that featured convenient memory loss about the shooting and his notebooks.
“Ignoring Sirhan’s numerous lies that he told his lawyers and writer Robert Blair Kaiser,” Ayton said, “conspiracists prefer instead to take Sirhan at his word.”
Brown remains adamant that Sirhan was a victim of a larger scheme, put in place as a distraction while a second gunman fired the fatal shots to Kennedy. And in his four-hour interviews with Sirhan between 2008 and 2010, Brown said Sirhan would suddenly switch into “a military-like alter personality state,” which he called “range mode,” for recalling times when he was shooting at a firing range.
But who would have programmed Sirhan Sirhan in such a way that he would be present at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was giving his victory speech after the California primary, and who would have supplied a second gunman to perform the killing? Brown developed a theory inspired by the real-life shenanigans of the CIA.
Beginning in 1949, as the Cold War was heating up, the CIA under Allen Dulles launched a project called “Bluebird,” later called “Artichoke” and then “Project MKUltra,” a series of experiments on unwitting people to see if their minds could be manipulated by drugs, torture or hypnosis. Colleges, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies participated in the project, records revealed in the 1970s showed, with the CIA hoping to be able to manipulate foreign leaders and other important figures, or program others to commit acts of espionage. In Canada, some subjects were kidnapped off the street, and in the United States, some people died of drug overdoses, the CIA later admitted. LSD was administered to some subjects, and professors at Stanford and UCLA participated in MKUltra, records show.
In 1966, Sirhan Sirhan was 22 years old and living in Pasadena, Calif., with his mother and brothers. He was not particularly political or ambitious, his family has said. He was traumatized by the death of his sister from leukemia, Brown said in an interview, and turned to hypnosis as a way to explore life after death. He worked at the Santa Anita horse track as a stable boy, walking but not riding horses, hoping to become a jockey. Sirhan also dabbled in shortwave radio and had a set in his room at home.
Brown found that Sirhan was recruited by the operator of a private ranch for thoroughbreds to ride horses there, even though Sirhan had little experience riding. Before long, Sirhan had suffered a couple of falls that required hospitalization. His family reported that after those incidents, Sirhan seemed to have changed.
But after interviewing Sirhan, Brown believes that Sirhan was drugged and taken to a secret location for mind-control experiments such as those performed under the CIA’s auspices. Sirhan and his family both reported that he was gone for two weeks after one of the falls, though Brown said hospital records showed he was released after one day. Sirhan told Brown he was held in a room with bars on the windows and recalled being disoriented and floating in and out of consciousness, sleeping frequently.
“Mr. Sirhan doesn’t describe typical post-concussive symptoms,” Brown wrote in 2011, “but rather symptoms consistent with drug intoxication. … Sirhan’s spotty memory gives the impression of someone who was drugged, treated for superficial wounds at the emergency room, and then possibly taken to a special, experimental unit where his and other patients’ responses to drug and hypnotic programming were observed.”
Brown said that the ranch operator had ties to the mafia and that the mafia in turn had links to the CIA from their work together attempting to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Then, in Pasadena, Sirhan met “Radio Man,” a man who shared Sirhan’s interest in shortwave radios. Brown believes Radio Man used “waking coercive persuasion” and “possibly hypnosis” to control Sirhan. Brown wrote that the “statements about killing RFK written in Mr. Sirhan’s spiral notebooks,” which Sirhan did not remember writing, “were written by Mr. Sirhan in a hypnotic state and while communicating with a third party over his shortwave radio, and thus were coercively and involuntarily induced.”
Over the next two years, Sirhan began visiting a firing range not far from the ranch, sometimes with guidance from Radio Man on how to shoot targets, Brown said. He spent hours at the range on the day of the killing. Brown said much of what Sirhan recalled in their conversations was independently confirmed.
On the night of the assassination, Sirhan has described going to the Ambassador to attend a different political victory party, drinking too much and returning to his car. Not feeling well enough to drive, he reportedly returned to the hotel looking for coffee, and an attractive woman in a polka-dot dress led him to a coffee urn near the pantry of the hotel, and then into the pantry. Sirhan has said he remembers gazing at the attractive woman, who was noticed by many other witnesses in the pantry, and the next thing he remembers is being pummeled by the men who captured him.
In an adaptation from their new book, “The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy,” authors Tim Tate and Brad Johnson say they believe they identified the woman in the polka-dot dress as Elayn Neal and that her husband claimed to have worked for the CIA in mind-control experiments. Neal died in 2012, the husband years earlier. Author Shane O’Sullivan reported the same details in the reissue of his book, “Who Killed Bobby?,” and noted Neal did not marry the alleged CIA man until 1973.
Johnson said he learned additional details about Neal after the deadline for his book. He said a reliable source reported that Neal and her husband actually met in 1967 and, by June 1968, appeared to be having an affair. Neal’s own first marriage ended in October 1968.
If someone was controlling Sirhan, how did they get him to the Ambassador at the right place and time? Brown said he believes Radio Man could have signaled Sirhan to return to the hotel with the gun, as the CIA mind-control project was experimenting with such commands.
In the pantry, Sirhan told Brown, he was trying to think of a way of seducing the attractive woman in the polka-dot dress. “I think she had her hand on me,” Sirhan said. “Then I was at the target range. A flashback to the shooting range. … It was like I was at the range again. I think I shot one or two shots. Then I snapped out of it and thought, ‘I’m not at the range, then what is going on?’ Then they started grabbing me … later when I saw the female judge I knew that Bobby Kennedy was shot and I was the shooter, but it doesn’t come into my memory.”
Sirhan admitted at trial in 1969 that he killed Kennedy, though he said then he didn’t remember it. His defense team didn’t learn until midway through the trial that Kennedy’s fatal shots had been from behind. He was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence. For years, Sirhan was skeptical of the hypnosis claim, and he did not respond to The Washington Post’s questions about it. In 1994, he told journalist Dan Moldea, “It’s probably too diabolical to suggest that I was controlled by someone else — but I don’t know. I only know that I don’t remember anything about the shooting.”
Brown wrote that Sirhan entering “range mode” in the pantry “suggests that his action of firing the gun was neither under his voluntary control nor done with conscious knowledge, and is likely a product of automatic post-hypnotic behavior and coercive control.”
California attorneys general argued that “Brown’s conclusions are clearly speculative and necessarily depend on the veracity of [Sirhan’s] story,” and that “Brown completely ignored the vast amount of evidence presented at trial, which contradicted [Sirhan’s] self-serving ‘recall’ of the events and proved that he intentionally killed Senator Kennedy.”
Wistrich, the judge, agreed. “Whether or not the theory that a person can be hypnotized to commit murder,” Wistrich wrote, “and then to lose his memory of committing that murder is scientifically credible … [Sirhan] has not provided any reliable evidence that this actually occurred.”
Note: This story has been updated with additional information about the “polka-dot dress girl.”
READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON POST