The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress

Historians/History
tags: RFK, Kennedys, RFK assassination

For the past 40 years the issue of conspiracy in the Robert Kennedy assassination has continued to haunt America. With the recent release of Emilio Estevez"s movie "Bobby" a new generation of Americans has been inspired to look again at claims by conspiracy advocates that the assassination may have been conspiracy-led.

There were indeed many mysteries surrounding the assassination which included problems with the ballistics and forensics evidence and the possibility that a second gunman was present in the pantry of the hotel; mysteries which I believe were solved, in the main, by investigative journalist Dan Moldea and published in his book The Killing Of Robert F. Kennedy.

However, a central mystery of the assassination remains the unidentified"girl in a polka dot dress."

Conspiracy advocates have promoted the idea that the convicted murderer of Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, had been a"hypnotised assassin" and was controlled by others when he shot the senator in the pantry of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel shortly after midnight on June 5th 1968. Some witnesses at the scene told LAPD investigators that they saw Sirhan standing with the girl some time before Kennedy was shot. They claim this girl may have" controlled" a"hypnotically-programmed" Sirhan and that Sirhan had been accompanied by a"second gunman." (See author's note below)

Sirhan said he did not remember being accompanied by anyone when he shot Kennedy. Dan Moldea interviewed Sirhan. Moldea stated, "Other than his memory of the room where the teletype was clicking away, Sirhan says that he doesn't remember talking to anyone at the hotel who claimed to have talked to him. 'I just remember the bright lights in the big room. Then somebody referred me to the kitchen for coffee.' He remembered that, as he had stood by the coffee urn, a woman in a plain white dress was also there adding, 'I don't remember any woman in a polka dot dress.' "

However, there were several witnesses who claimed they had observed Sirhan in the pantry next to a tray stacker and he was talking to a girl who had been wearing a polka dot dress. (Author's Note: Conspiracy advocate Philip Melanson said all the descriptions of the girl's dress were" characterized rather similarly in terms of color and size" – this was misleading.) Security guard Jack Merrit said he had seen a girl in a"polka dot dress" immediately prior to the shooting. Richard Houston, who was in the pantry at the time of the shooting, said he had seen a"girl in a black and white polka dot dress with ruffles around the neck." Houston said he heard the girl say"We shot him" as she ran from the pantry. I believe this girl can be identified in a clip from news film footage taken shortly after the assassination. The girl has joined a group of Kennedy supporters in an ajoining area to the Embassy Ballroom, praying for the Senator. It would appear obvious to most that such a conspirator was unlikely to remain in the vicinity of the shooting if they had indeed been a participant in a conspiracy to murder Robert Kennedy.

Other witnesses said Sirhan had been in the Embassy Ballroom next to a"girl wearing a dress with polka dots." Lonny L. Worthy said he saw Sirhan during the evening in the Ambassador standing next to a woman and he thought they were together. Kennedy volunteer Susan Locke said she had observed a"suspicious looking" polka-dot-dress woman in the Embassy Ballroom prior to RFK's speech. Locke said the woman seemed"out of place" and"expressionless" in the midst of the celebrations for RFK's California Primary victory. She said the woman wore a"white dress with blue polka dots." Nurse Gloria Farr described seeing a man who bore a resemblance to Sirhan next to a woman wearing a"polka dot scarf."

George Green stated he had seen Sirhan standing near a polka dot dress woman before he went to the Embassy Ballroom bar for drinks. Green gave two differing descriptions of the girl's dress – in one description he described it as a"white dress with black polka dots." In another description he said the girl had been wearing a"dark dress, which may have had some type of white dots."

A similar confused description of the girl's dress was provided by Booker Griffin. Griffin said he saw Sirhan standing eight to ten feet away in the Embassy Ballroom next to a woman. He said the woman had been wearing a dress"described by the media as polka dot. I can't say for sure but it had some color in it other than white." Griffin said the two"seemed out of place."

Judith Groves, an employee of a political consulting firm who was in the lobby when the shooting occurred, heard three shots, saw a woman splattered with blood run out, and a wounded man being carried through the lobby. She described going into the Embassy Ballroom through the Lautrec Room with the help of a"strange" man. She said the man spoke to two women in a foreign language, and that one of the women was wearing a polka dot dress.

There were other witnesses who reported seeing a woman in a polka dot dress, of varying descriptions, on the night RFK was killed. John Ludlow, Eve Hansen, Nina Ballantyne, and Jeannette Prudhomme reported seeing the woman with a Sirhan look-alike or was "acting in suspicious circumstances." The Los Angeles Police Department murder investigation team"Special Unit Senator" (SUS), spent some considerable time trying to track the girl down and searched the news film archives in their attempts to find photographic evidence. None was forthcoming. Although a number of women wearing polka dot dresses were in the Embassy Ballroom and the kitchen pantry that night the LAPD did not believe they had any connection to the shooting nor could they find any photographic evidence which put Sirhan together with the girl.




The story of the"polka-dot girl" was also supported by pantry shooting eyewitness Vincent DiPierro and Kennedy supporter Sandra Serrano. Furthermore, LAPD Police Sergeant Sharaga said a couple,"the Bernsteins," observed a girl shouting "We shot him." DiPierro, the son of the Ambassador's maitre d'hotel, said he saw a"pretty girl" standing next to Sirhan seconds before the shooting. She was"wearing a polka dot dress." After police officers showed Serrano and DiPierro a dozen dresses with varying polka dots, sleeves and colours the two witnesses gave widely varying descriptions of what kind of dress they had seen.

Pantry eyewitness Vincent DiPierro said he saw, “…one girl [during the night] ... that was in there [the pantry] that night with a 'pug-nose'….. and dark hair.” DiPierro said she had been standing in the area near Kennedy when the shooting occurred and that she had also been standing near the tray stacker where Sirhan crouched beforehe began shooting. “There was so much confusion that night,” DiPierro said.

At Sirhan's trial DiPierro testified as to what he observed. Defense lawyer Grant Cooper asked him what caused him to notice Sirhan. DiPierro replied, “There was a girl standing in the area [of the pantry]” and this caused him to notice Sirhan. He said the girl was pretty and when shown a photograph of Kennedy campaign worker Valerie Schulte confirmed this was the girl in question. It became obvious that in the chaos that followed the shooting - with the added distractions of camera flashes and television lighting that filled the pantry - that DiPierro had been led to mistake the color of Schulte's hair (blonde) and clothes; Schulte's dress was actually green with yellow polka dots. The same mischaracterization of the dress was probably made by Darnell Johnson who claimed to see the woman in the pantry with a man and also in the Embassy Room both before and after RFK was shot. Johnson's description of the girl is not in contradiction to the positioning of Valerie Schulte who had been standing in the pantry with a man when the shots were fired.

There were further compelling reasons to explain why purported"accomplices" ran out of the pantry uttering words to the effect that"they" had"shot Kennedy" - but the explanations do not rest on conspiratorial answers. Michael Wayne, a young man who bore a resemblance to Sirhan, had earlier asked Senator Kennedy to autograph a poster. He ran out of the pantry when the shooting started and was mistaken for an assailant. A security guard handcuffed him and turned him over to the police. A crowd of people assumed he was the assassin or the assassin's accomplice. As it turned out, Wayne was only running for a telephone.

Cathy Fulmer, who had been in the pantry at the time of the shooting, said she had a conversation with a"stranger" who she later identified as Sirhan. She became scared when the shooting started and she too ran out of the pantry. She cried out"Kennedy was shot." Fulmer wore a white dress with a polka dot scarf. This may be the explanation for Richard Houston's sighting of a girl in a polka dot dress allegedly running from the pantry shouting"We shot him." It would also account for Nurse Gloria Farr's description of Sirhan standing next to a girl"wearing a polka dot scarf." Furthermore, the reports of a girl shouting"We shot him" may also have originated with a statement made to the LAPD by another pantry witness, Los Angeles Schools employee Ralph Williams, who was outside the kitchen door at the time of the shooting. Williams described a girl who left the kitchen shouting, “We"ve got him, we"ve got him” followed by another woman who described the first woman as"her crazy daughter."

In building their conspiracy scenarios most writers fail to put the eyewitness testimony within the context of a chaotic scene when witness observations are particularly faulty and susceptible to misconstruction. This truth was first recognized by the US Army, which reported the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony in the midst of battle. Many of its reports about soldiers involved in conflicts have shown that it is extraordinarily difficult to make sense of a battle until the following day, after the soldiers have had a chance to experience a good night's sleep. Information from shell-shocked soldiers immediately after combat, the Army discovered, was notoriously poor because it had not yet been processed in such a manner that it could be retrieved. Many witnesses of the RFK murder who gave reports about the shooting immediately after the event formulated better pictures of what occurred in subsequent interviews.

Other witnesses discovered their memories of events connected with the assassination were not as reliable as they initially thought. Some came forward to give detailed information about Sirhan's activities in the weeks and months preceding the assassination and about how unidentified accomplices had accompanied Sirhan. When asked to say their stories were based on"positive identification," many balked.

Despite compelling and plausible explanations, which centered around the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, the polka-dot girl stories persisted as conspiracy advocates repeatedly made reference to Kennedy campaign worker, Sandra Serrano, and her story of a girl in a polka dot dress, accompanied by two male companions, who claimed they had shot Senator Kennedy as they ran out of the hotel. Shortly after the shooting Serrano told her story to a news team.

On June 7th 1968 Serrano was interviewed by FBI Special Agent Richard C. Burris at her home. Serrano said she left the Ambassador ballroom at 11.30pm and went outside to sit on a stairway that lead to the Embassy Room. She sat on the fifth or sixth step. Two or three minutes later she said a woman and two men started up the stairs, one of whom she later identified as Sirhan. When the woman got near her, the woman said, “Excuse us” and Serrano moved to the side so the three could pass. Approximately half an hour later she heard noises that sounded like a car backfire and one of the men and the woman ran down the stairs shouting “We shot him, we shot him!” Serrano asked “Who did you shoot?” and the woman replied “Senator Kennedy.” She immediately returned to the Embassy Ballroom and asked an unidentified guard if Kennedy had been shot. The guard told her she must have been drinking. She next phoned her parents who lived in Ohio. She said she was crying and hysterical. After purportedly telling a few close friends what she had witnessed she was asked by a television crew if she would like to tell her story.

Later FBI agent Burris took Serrano to the Embassy Ballroom and told her, “On television, with Sandy Vanocur, you didn't say anything about seeing a girl and two men going up the fire stairs. You only said you saw a girl and a man coming down. And later you told the police you saw two men and a girl going up together and one of them was Sirhan Sirhan. That was the most significant thing you had to tell the police and yet you didn't say anything about this in your first interview, your interview on television.” Serrano said “I can't explain why.”

Investigators soon discovered there were many more flaws in Serrano's story. On June 8th 1968 the FBI questioned her parents, Manuel Serrano and Amparo Serrano, who said their daughter did not say anything about a girl saying “We shot Kennedy.” Her mother recalled she said, “Why would they do anything like this?” When asked why she did not mention the polka dot girl story to her mother Sandra Serrano gave the weak excuse that she had always had trouble talking to her mother.

Serrano had been given a polygraph test by Sergeant Hernandez on June 20th 1968. She soon dissembled. Asked if she sat down on the stairway at the time of the shooting she replied, “Yeah, I think I did…people messed me up…stupid people…just in all the commotion and everything…I was supposed to know more than I knew…I told [DA staffer John Ambrose] I heard the people say 'We shot him' or 'They shot him' or something. And I remember telling him that I had seen these people on the … on the stairway.”

Following the shooting, Serrano and DiPierro had been together at the police station waiting to be interviewed by police. When DiPierro was later interviewed by Sergeant Hernandez he admitted he probably got the idea of a girl in a polka dot dress from Serrano during the time he was with her in the police station. DiPierro said, “She stated that there was this girl that was wearing a polka dot dress came running down, I guess it was the hallway, saying that 'We shot him,' and … she … you know, we started asking each other questions about the girl, and evidently I went along with what she said as being a person that I imagine that I saw.”

Hernandez asked Serrano during her polygraph test if, sometime following the shooting, she heard"a kid" mention something about a white dress and polka dots. She replied "right." Asked if she got the idea of the polka dot girl from this report she answered"I don't know." Her responses to questions about the polka dot girl indicated deception. However, Serrano eventually admitted that her story was founded on a lot of guesswork, “[for] …. two reasons, so I didn't look like a fool, which I look like now. Another reason, because everybody figures … you know… I was sitting there [in the police station] hearing descriptions and descriptions of these people. Oh God, no, maybe that's what I'm supposed to see…more than I did. It messed me up, that's all, and I figured, well, they must know what they"re doing – I mean, they are police, after all. They have to know what they"re doing.” Serrano also told police, “…Somewhere I heard it [the girl in the polka dot dress]. I don't know why I said it, but it just fitted. Then it happened that it all fitted in, and I couldn't understand it, you know. Then, yeah, I really thought there was something behind it. I was scared.” Serrano also told police, “…You know when somebody sees something, keep them away from other people who have seen it. Because you don't know what happens….well, you see, another thing too, you know, that is that, that other newspapers came out with that somebody else had seen it, and then I – I kept thinking to myself, maybe, - you know, gee …”

Hernandez's methods of interrogation during the polygraph examination were indeed forceful and intimidating as conspiracy advocates noted. But it was not designed to cover-up the involvement of possible conspirators in the shooting of Robert Kennedy. Both officers had used similar interrogatory techniques with other witnesses, most notably with Sirhan"s brother Munir.

Police Lieutenant Emmanuel Pena, Hernandez's superior officer, said, “[The interrogation by Sergeant Hernandez] was a necessary move on my part. We tried every way in the world to find this gal in the polka dot dress to see if we could substantiate her [Serrano's] story. And we couldn't do it. I wasn't about to leave the case hanging there.” However, this credible explanation of why they submitted Serrano to an intense and intimidating interview did not prevent conspiracy advocates from claiming that both Hernandez and Pena had close connections to intelligence agencies and implicating them in a conspiracy to murder Kennedy. Pena's response to their allegations was, “I didn't come back [to the LAPD]…as a sneak to be planted. The way they [conspiracy writers] have written it, it sounds like I was brought back and put into the [Kennedy] case as a plant by the CIA, so that I could steer something around to a point where no one would discover a conspiracy. that's not so.” Furthermore, to suggest that Sergeant Hernandez and Lieutenant Pena were involved in a cover-up would also implicate the head of the LAPD"s investigation, Chief Robert Houghton, who had recommended the appointment of Hernandez to the"Special Unit Senator" team.

For nearly 40 years conspiracy advocates have used Serrano's story as proof of a conspiracy, even though Serrano had eventually admitted to police that her description of the girl's dress was adjusted to agree with DiPierro's polka-dot girl. Although the LAPD maintained she retracted her polka dot girl story under intense questioning conspiracy theorists still insist she had been"bullied" into saying her story was false. And Serrano's original story continues to be embraced by conspiracy theorists as proof that a plot existed to kill Kennedy despite the fact that there were inherent implausibilities in her story from the beginning:

*Serrano's account was contradicted by Fire Department Captain Cecil R. Lynch who had been on duty at the Ambassador checking fire escapes and exits. He had inspected the stairs Serrano claimed she had been sitting on. He said no one was on the stairs at the time she indicated. And, incredibly, she said she had sat on the stairway for 50 minutes.

*Serrano was a Kennedy campaign worker who had been thrilled at the prospect of seeing her hero acknowledge victory in the California primary election campaign. Yet she did not remain in the Embassy Ballroom at a crucial time; a time when nearly every campaign worker was awaiting the arrival of Kennedy to give his victory speech. No one could predict when Kennedy would appear in the ballroom but election officials knew it would be somewhere around 11:30 to 12:30, a time when Serrano purportedly loitered on the stairs outside the hotel.

There were other problems with the idea that conspirators had announced their success in killing Kennedy. It is inherently illogical for someone who has been part of a purportedly sophisticated conspiracy to then immediately shout out they had killed their target. How could they be sure members of the public wouldn"t take them seriously and apprehend them before they could make good their escape?

As the years passed the issue of the polka dot girl refused to die down as Serrano began to tell conspiracy writers that her original story was correct and that she had been bullied by police into changing it. And the fact that no one has been able to provide proof that Sirhan had not been standing next to a girl in a polka dot dress in the Embassy Ballroom and other areas of the hotel, the story has continued to haunt researchers.

There have been plausible explanations over the years of why a purported"girl in a polka dot dress" would cry out"We killed him." Dan Moldea believes a rational answer can be found in reports about Republican Max Rafferty's party which was held in the same hotel that night. Apparently, as Moldea suggests, there had been considerable opportunity that night for alcohol - fueled friction between the thousands of liberal supporters of RFK and Alan Cranston and that of right-wing Max Rafferty supporters. An FBI report reveals how, on the night of the shooting, a group of young people had been handing out bumper stickers in the hotel lobby. They were reddish orange in color with black lettering. According to Ambassador Hotel Security Chief William F. Gardner the leaflets made reference to JFK's death. New York reporter Jimmy Breslin believes the sticker said, “Expose The Kennedy Death Hoax.” Dan Moldea argues this report is crucial as it shows how anti-Kennedy activists were at the Ambassador that night and may have been the source of the gleeful cries that Serrano said she heard.

Serrano may also have been witness to an innocent cry of “We [i.e. the American People] shot Kennedy”; a natural response reflecting the intense concern Americans had at that time to the growing senseless violence that had become a societal phenomenon during the 1960s.

However, this did not completely answer the many questions that remained concerning witness reports of"Sirhan" and the"girl in the polka dot dress" seen together in the Embassy Ballroom on the night of the shooting – until now. During research for my bookThe Forgotten Terrorist – Sirhan Sirhan and the Murder of Senator of Robert F. Kennedy I discovered what I believe to be photographic evidence which may account for the Embassy Ballroom Sirhan/Polka Dot Girl sightings.

After examining audio and video recordings of the RFK shooting in the Ambassador Hotel, which constitute the video and audio LAPD RFK assassination archive at the California State Archives, I discovered a less-than-one-second clip from news film footage. The captured image reveals a "girl in a polka-dot dress" standing next to a man who is not Sirhan but who shows some close resemblance to him. They were in the Embassy Ballroom when RFK was giving his final speech.

The girl is definitely "pretty" as some witnesses described her. And, unlike the blonde Schulte, has dark hair which fits the description of a number of reports about a "girl in a polka dot dress who had dark hair." Some reports refer to "Sirhan and the girl" looking "out of place" and appearing rather grim at the time the crowd around them were cheering. Whilst the film clip shows the girl in the polka dot dress looking joyous the man who shows some resemblance to the young Sirhan does indeed look rather grim. Other clips I captured from the LAPD news film footage show what appears to be the same young man, looking eerily like Sirhan, in the Embassy Ballroom moments following the shooting of Kennedy.

This new evidence may hold the key to reports of the time that put Sirhan with a"girl in a polka dot dress" in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel at the time of the shooting.

This new evidence in the Robert F. Kennedy assassination highlights, more than anything else, the problems associated with the use of eyewitness testimony and reveals truths which have always been recognized by police officers who have maintained that if 8 people witness a dramatic event, especially an event involving violence, there will always be 8 different perspectives and thus 8 different stories and descriptions. This is central to an understanding of the modus operandi of RFK conspiracy advocates who carefully select eyewitness testimony outside the restrictions created by the preponderance of evidence in the case.

See also here.

Author"s Note: Some writers have posited the idea that a second gunman had been assisting Sirhan. Booker Griffin, for example, told a conspiracy writer in 1987 that he had observed a second gunman. However, in his 1968 interviews with the LAPD he only said the sounds of the shooting appeared to suggest more than one gun. Other initial sightings of a second gunman were later found to be the result of misidentification or misunderstanding. Evan Freed and Don Schulman reported seeing a second gunman but later retracted their stories. Freed was accused by conspiracy writers of having been influenced in his retraction because he was later employed as a Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney. Schulman said, initially, that he had observed security guard Thane Cesar fire his .38 pistol at RFK. Schulman later retracted this accusation citing his confusion during the chaotic moments of the shooting (Cesar had drawn his gun only after RFK fell to the floor). Furthermore, new acoustics evidence has eliminated the possibility of a .38 pistol having been fired; see here. Marcus McBroom, nearly 20 years after the assassination, said he saw a woman running out of the pantry shouting 'We shot him' and that she was followed by a man with a gun hidden under a newspaper. McBroom said the incident was witnessed by an"ABC cameraman" and a man by the name of 'Sam Strain.' However, no reports by these individuals confirming McBroom's statement have been forthcoming. There is, however, compelling evidence which suggests McBroom had been mistaken. Michael Wayne had ran from the pantry after the shots were fired. He held a poster which had been signed by Kennedy before the victory speech. Some witnesses thought the poster was a"rolled up newspaper."