The stakes were high at last month’s California parole board hearing — the 16th one — for Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin.
But it wasn’t just 77-year-old Sirhan Sirhan who was on tenterhooks before learning he would finally be recommended for release after 53 years in prison.
Behind the scenes, RFK’s widow and kids were at war against each other in a feud that threatens to damage RFK’s timeless, Camelot-lite brand.
The fight over the impending release of the senator’s killer led to one side “double-crossing” the other, insider sources told The Post.
Matriarch Ethel, 93, and six of her and RFK’s children — Joe, Courtney, Kerry, Chris, Max and Rory — oppose Sirhan’s parole. Sons Robert Jr., aka Bobby, and Douglas are in favor. Daughter Kathleen has not recently made her opinion public. (Sons Michael and David are deceased.)
The family members against Sirhan’s release had promised that they would not make a statement to the parole board on Aug. 27, sources told The Post.
Knowing that, Bobby — who announced in 2018 that he believes Sirhan did not act alone — had decided not to give a statement about parole.
Then all hell broke loose, according to Sirhan’s lawyer, Angela Berry.
“Bobby got backstabbed,” a source close to the hearing told The Post.
“The night before the hearing I got a letter from the parole board via the LAPD,” Berry told The Post. “It read, ‘On behalf of the Kennedy family, we oppose the release of Sirhan.’ [Bobby] had been staying out of it specifically on the assumption that his family was going to stay out of it … I got ahold of him right away letting him know what happened.”
In response, Bobby, who’s been publicly called out by his siblings in recent years for his opposition to vaccines, stayed up late writing a letter in favor of Sirhan’s release that barely made it into the hearing, sources said.
“The parole hearing started at 8:30 a.m. and Robert’s letter streamed in at 10:30 a.m.,” Berry said. “It read in part, ‘I have to assure you that the letter you got is not on behalf of the whole Kennedy family.’ That was the very last thing the hearing officer read into the record.”
While Bobby and Douglas support Sirhan’s release, Sirhan’s team had never been contacted by Douglas until he asked, two days beforehand, to speak at the hearing, Berry said.
“[We] didn’t know at all what Douglas was going to say,” Berry said.
In fact, he said he was “moved to tears” by Sirhan’s remorse, the AP reported.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” he said. “I think I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.
“I do have some love for you,” he told Sirhan, who nodded in response.
The Parole Board staff has 90 days to review the decision, after which it’s handed over to California Gov. Gavin Newsom to block or allow parole.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend told the Washington Post in 2018 that her brother “Bobby makes a compelling case” about Sirhan not acting alone.
Reached by The Post Friday, she said she had no comment.
Last week Ethel, who was three months pregnant with daughter Rory when her husband was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in LA on June 5, 1968, made a rare public statement saying she opposes Sirhan’s release, concluding he “should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”
The family is really on a campaign if they got Ethel to weigh in,” said an insider familiar with the feud. “That never happens.”
Over the past two years, long-suffering Ethel has endured the tragic deaths of two grandchildren: Kathleen’s daughter Maeve, who died with her young son in a boating accident, and Courtney’s daughter Saoirse, who overdosed at Ethel’s home.
A longtime family friend said she understood why Ethel “weighed in.”
“It’s a disgrace,” she said. “Six kids oppose Sirhan’s release along with the 93-year-old mother who’s gone through nothing but pain and loss for years. What is wrong with those two children who want that lying son of a bitch freed from prison? Where is the family unity?”
The six siblings on the other side issued a joint statement saying they “adamantly oppose” Sirhan’s release.
Rory wrote an emotional essay for The New York Times on Sept. 1, noting Sirhan’s long, strange record of saying he does not remember what happened the night Kennedy was killed, although he accepts responsibility for his actions.
“As my father was taken forever, so too should Mr. Sirhan be,” Rory wrote, asking the board “to please reject this recommendation and keep Sirhan Sirhan in prison.” (Sirhan was originally sentenced to death by gas chamber in 1969, before California invalidated all death sentences in 1972.)
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo gave a wrenching interview to WGN America’s Ashleigh Banfield, vowing to “fight this with everything I’ve got” and dismissing brother Bobby as a conspiracy theorist so addled that “why anyone in the world would take him seriously is beyond comprehension.”
Max Kennedy also wrote an impassioned Op-ed for the LA Times against Sirhan’s release.
Family members declined comment, while Bobby and Douglas did not respond.
“They’ve gone to ground now because of Ethel,” the family friend said.
The battle also involves allegations by RFK’s former aide Paul Schrade, who insists that Sirhan Sirhan did not act alone.
Schrade was standing next to RFK in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel when he caught the first shot, in the head, from the gun Sirhan fired. He lay wounded on the floor just inches from Kennedy, who was shot from behind moments later.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life,” Schrade, now 96, told the Post. “They told me in the hospital that Bob had died.”
Schrade is one of a number of people who have quietly fought over the years to release the original case files (they were finally unsealed in 1988) and pointed out discrepancies in the official reports. He has campaigned since 1972 to bring to light what he says is evidence that another gunman ultimately killed Kennedy.
SPLIT DECISION: Fifty-three years after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, widow Ethel and nine of their children are fiercely at odds over whether his killer, Sirhan Sirhan, should be paroled. A California parole board has recommended release.
Schrade had no doubt Sirhan was the only gunman until former US Rep. Allard K. Lowenstein, of New York, told him in 1972 there was more information about the case that indicated Sirhan did not act alone.
Now, Schrade and others argue that the ballistics and audio evidence from the Los Angeles Police Department and LA District Attorney show that Sirhan fired eight shots from a gun that had only eight chambers and that Sirhan was in front of RFK.
But the four shots fired at RFK, including the one that killed him, came from behind and were fired from a different gun.
One of the most far-out theories — that Sirhan was “brainwashed” — is backed up by a number of people, including the respected Harvard Medical School professor Daniel P. Brown, an expert on forensic psychiatry and hypnosis.
At Sirhan’s 2011 parole board hearing, Brown filed a long affidavit claiming that “Mr. Sirhan did not act under his own volition and knowledge.”
He added that Sirhan was a real-life “Manchurian Candidate,” programmed by hypnosis into carrying out the shooting without knowing it.
But Schrade does not traffic in conspiracies.
“I don’t know who else was part of it or why,” he said. “I can only rely on the evidence from the LAPD and DA’s office.”
Schrade added that he has been in touch with RFK’s kids on and off for years.
“Some of them listened to what I had to say and got it,” Schrade said. “But some of them, like Joe, refused … The last time I saw [Kerry] and brought all this up she started laughing. It’s the attitude they all have, and it’s stupid. They ought to learn what really happened.”
He has remained friendly with Ethel but never spoken to her directly about a second gunman.
“There’s a lot of protection around Ethel,” Schrade said. “I don’t know if Ethel knows what we have.”
Jennifer Abreu, who runs Redemption Row, a prison reform group, helped Sirhan prepare for his parole board hearing. She’s sympathetic to Ethel and others who oppose Sirhan’s release, but disagrees with their stance.
“I would ask that they look at this man’s exemplary record,” Abreu said. “Sirhan has been a model prisoner. [RFK] had a rich history in prison reform. [As US Attorney General,] he was the one who closed Alcatraz. Releasing him is something that Sen. Kennedy would have wanted.”
Abreu organized a high-profile group of inmates to “mentor” Sirhan ahead of his hearing — including ex Aryan Nation leader Joel Baptiste, Mexican mafia leaders Arturo Guzma and Roque Martinez and former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight.
Abreu said Sirhan was better able to understand “what it was like to walk in another person’s shoes” as part of the men’s work.
Whatever happens next, Schrade is pushing forward with his fight to get police to re-investigate the case — whether the Kennedys oppose him or not. If Sirhan’s release is upheld, he said, his work may become easier.
“The truth is hard to hide,” he said. “But as for the Kennedys, I doubt they’ll be having their annual summer reunions anymore.”