Relative Obscurity: The Brother of Robert F. Kennedy's Convicted Assassin Opens Up

17 min
Sirhan Sirhan was convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. He is serving a life sentence in prison. (Wikimedia Commons)

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O

n a serene, leafy street in north Pasadena, a 70-year-old man has lived a quiet life in a well-preserved Craftsman house since his family bought it in 1963.

He keeps the lawn mowed, he chats with the neighbors, and sometimes he smokes Parliament cigarettes with his tea on the front porch.

On a June day 50 years ago, one of his older brothers left this same house with a loaded .22 pistol. He got into his pink and white ’56 DeSoto and drove to a gun range. Later that evening, he headed to the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just won California’s Democratic primary election. He concluded his rousing victory speech with the words, “My thanks to all of you and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win this!” and stepped from the ballroom into a small, crowded kitchen pantry surrounded by excited supporters.

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He never made it to Chicago.

Shots rang out and Kennedy was down, taking two bullets in the back and one in the head. Members of the crowd jumped on the shooter and slammed him onto a steam table. A hotel employee grabbed his wrist as the gun emptied, the shots firing at random, wounding five others.

Kennedy was rushed to a hospital. Twenty-six hours later, he was dead.

The alleged assassin was identified as Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Arab Palestinian. He was not a U.S. citizen, but had been living in Pasadena for 12 years.

As the nation stood in shock at the second Kennedy killing in five years, the media became consumed with the question: Who was this person?

“He was just a fun-loving guy. He liked life, and he liked family,” says Munir Sirhan.

He's the brother of Kennedy’s convicted assassin. “If anybody was trying to do me any harm, he’d go up and confront the people and tell’em, ‘Listen, this is my little brother. I don’t want anybody hurting him.’”

Sirhan Sirhan was tried and sentenced to the gas chamber, a sentence that was commuted to life in 1972. Since then, he’s been denied parole 15 times.

“You know what? I just want to hug him,” his brother Munir says. “Hug him and tell him, 'Welcome home.' I’d just like to see him reading a book on that chair like he used to when we were kids, and just walk around the block with him. I’d be happy.”

For the last 50 years, Munir has waited for his brother to return to this house in Pasadena. And for the last 50 years, he’s lived in the wake of his brother’s actions.

Munir leads a solitary life. He never got married, never had a career. He worked odd jobs and was supported by his family, who always pooled their modest resources. He keeps the furniture in the house pretty much as it was the day Sirhan drove away.

Of the family’s parents and six children, Munir and his older brother are the only ones left.

“Unfortunately, yeah, Sirhan and I. It’d be pretty rough without him, even if it’s just letter-writing,” Munir says.

Munir Sirhan next to a photo taken during a prison visit with his brother Sirhan Sirhan.
Munir Sirhan next to a photo taken during a prison visit with his brother Sirhan Sirhan. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

In the 1950s, the Sirhan family -- who were Arab Palestinian Christians -- were living in Jerusalem, an area experiencing continued upheaval in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Munir says this was the violent backdrop for his early childhood memories.

"[There was] a lot of hecticness," he says. "A lot of air raid sirens going off every other day. I remember going to my best friend’s home, and they’re telling me he’s not coming to school today and wondering why, and then the next day you find out he got blown away from a bomb."

Thanks to a program initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the United Nations, a ship overcrowded with seasick refugees brought the family to America in 1956, leaving the Holy Land for the paradise of Pasadena where their sponsor lived.

But it wasn’t perfect.

"Ya know, we got along, we made friends, it was OK, but you couldn’t be an Arab here, you couldn’t be an Arab at all," Munir says.

His devout mother Mary got a job in the nursery at Westminster Presbyterian Church, walking distance from the house. His father returned to the old country, unable to adapt to life in the United States.

Munir Sirhan, younger brother of convicted Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan, at the family home next to his brother's lemon tree.
Munir Sirhan, younger brother of convicted Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan, at the family home next to his brother's lemon tree. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

Sirhan and Munir, their two youngest sons, attended local public schools and got paper routes for the Pasadena Star-News.

Sirhan was a reader, and spent a lot of time holed up in his bedroom at the back of the house. At John Muir High School in Pasadena -- the same school Jackie Robinson attended -- he joined the ROTC and learned to shoot a .22 rifle.

Munir had bad eyesight and quit school after 6th grade. He watched a lot of TV: "Felix the Cat," "The Three Stooges" and "Yogi Bear."

He was becoming an American. He loved music and he loved records, and he really loved song parodist Stan Freberg, the Weird Al Yankovic of the 1950s.

"I adored that guy,” says Munir. “I think that’s what I would have been, some sort of comedy songwriter."

But that didn’t happen.

He got a job at F.C. Nash department store in Pasadena as a stock clerk.

Yet this mundane position was not without dark significance. Through a co-worker, Munir got his brother a gun.

"He asked me if I could get a gun. Sirhan used to belong to the ROTC at Muir, I said, 'sure, I’ll ask,'" Munir recalls. "At work I asked a fellow employee and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a friend that has one he wants to sell.’”

According to LAPD interview transcripts from 1968, Munir tried to talk his brother out of buying the .22, finally demanding that he swear on their dead sister’s memory that he would “go to the rifle range one time and then throw it away.”

Sirhan did swear, but, as Munir told the cops, “he didn’t carry it through.”

Robert F. Kennedy's convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan, just after graduating from Eliot Junior High School in Pasadena.
Robert F. Kennedy's convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan, just after graduating from Eliot Junior High School in Pasadena. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

So one night in January, Munir’s work buddy drove over to the house in a Corvair, pulled up and honked. He had an eight-shot Iver Johnson revolver in a box. Sirhan came out on the porch and they made the deal.

As far as Munir was concerned, it was no big deal.

“I had no idea it would have this kind of an outcome, no idea at all,” he says. “You start looking inward to see if you were part of the blame for this thing happening.”

A weekday morning in June 1968: Munir got on the bus and went to work at Nash’s. He stepped into the employees lounge before clocking in. For him, at this point it was still just another workday.

“The TV was on loud and the room was full and usually it’s not that full unless it’s somebody’s birthday, and I’m thinking it’s too early to celebrate a birthday,” he recalls. “I walked over and put coins in the coffee machine and took a couple sips of my coffee and looked at the screen.”

What he saw stunned him.

“It looked like Sirhan. I said, 'Whoa!' Picture came on again and I said, ‘That’s my brother.’”

So, within a matter of seconds, Munir’s day goes from another eight hours in housewares to the shock that his brother is being held for shooting Robert F. Kennedy.

What went through his mind?

“I thought when this thing happened, they got the wrong guy,” he says.

Munir borrowed his boss’s car, picked up his brother Adel from home and they headed for the Pasadena police station.

“The officer didn’t seem too interested, so we walked away, and Adel happened to gaze at a newsstand and there it was, Sirhan’s picture on the front page,” says Munir. “So he grabbed the paper and went back to the desk sergeant, told him, 'This is my brother.' I remember the guy’s look. He said, ‘Oh!’ Then all hell broke loose.”

Police quickly camped out on Munir’s street -- and would remain for the next six months -- to protect the family, though Munir says there were never any acts of vengeance. Nevertheless, it turned the neighborhood upside down.

The following is from a televised interview in front of the family house a few days later:

Police Chief Redden said the Sirhan family has been most cooperative in the investigation. ‘We know very little. [Sirhan] has been noncommunicative and he hasn’t told the family about what he’s been up to at all. So we don’t know anything more than you do.’

“When things somewhat cooled down, after we spoke with the FBI, after we spoke with the L.A. police and Pasadena police, mother and I went down to see him,” says Munir.

The book shelf in the Sirhan family home, including Munir's Kennedy volumes and his brother Sirhan's copy of "Controlling the Human Mind." Sirhan was interested in hypnotism at the time of the assassination.
The book shelf in the Sirhan family home, including Munir's Kennedy volumes and his brother Sirhan's copy of "Controlling the Human Mind." Sirhan was interested in hypnotism at the time of the assassination. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

Did his brother say anything about shooting Kennedy or not?

“Oh, no, no, no," Munir says. "Mother asked him, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I don't remember. I don't know. All I know is my leg hurts,’ and I think it was one of his thumbs that were hurting. He specifically said, ‘I don't remember what happened.’”

This lack of memory of the actual shooting of Kennedy is something that Sirhan has continued to maintain, though in a 1989 TV interview with David Frost he said his motivation to target Kennedy was the senator’s support of Israel.

Frost asked, “Why did Robert Kennedy, the friend of the downtrodden, become the focus of this hatred?”

“Because to me he was my hero," Sirhan Sirhan responded. "He was my champion. He was the protector and the defender of the downtrodden and the disadvantaged and I felt that I was one. And to have him say that he was going to send 50 Phantom jets to Israel to deliver nothing but death and destruction on my countrymen, that seemed as though it was a betrayal."

Munir says his brother never shared those feelings with him and that he never heard him express any negative feelings toward Kennedy.

“No, no, no,” he emphasizes. “None of us were politically inclined. If you would’ve told me any of my brothers did anything like this, especially Sirhan, I’d call you the biggest liar in the world.”

And then there’s the "Manchurian Candidate" theory, that Sirhan was acting under hypnosis.

This could explain his calm demeanor that witnesses remarked upon immediately after the shooting, and the notebook police later found in his bedroom with “RFK must die” scrawled repeatedly, something hypnotism advocates say was automatic writing done during a trance state.

“I know this sounds like a cliché,” says Munir, “but he had played around with hypnotism and somewhere along the line he learned how to self-hypnotize himself, or somebody got into his head.”

In the living room of the family house, there are glass-doored shelves filled with books. Stuck between yellowing copies of “Word Power Made Easy” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is an old hardback that belongs to Sirhan.

“There’s a book here that deals with personality or something,” says Munir, leaning in to find the book. He plucks out a volume called "The Laws of Mental Domination."

“I asked him about it one day but I never got any clear answers,” Munir says.

Hypnosis and brainwashing and conspiracies aside, forensic evidence states that the shot that killed Kennedy came from no more than three inches from the back of his head, where an armed, private security guard had drawn his weapon.

Eyewitnesses place Sirhan as never closer than a few feet away and approaching Kennedy from the front. An audio tape recorded that night surfaced in 2004. Experts say it reveals up to 13 shots fired. Sirhan’s gun held eight.

This knowledge and its implications -- the possibility that a second gunman was responsible for Kennedy's murder -- are what Munir clings to.

“I wasn’t there but the people that were, they all say that they heard more shots, Sirhan wasn’t close enough,” Munir says. “These are eyewitnesses, it was not us, the family, making these things up. When we heard those things it gave us a little bit of hope that maybe Sirhan didn’t do it, like we thought all along. It wasn’t Sirhan. Not my brother.”

At moments like this, sitting in the still and quiet dining room as his cigarette burns slowly in the ashtray, you can feel the helpless frustration that’s weighed upon Munir for decades over a situation he didn’t ask for, but one he has accepted as best he can.

The Sirhan family tape recorder purchased in the '60s. Before the assassination, it was used to record family sing alongs. Later, the Sirhans recorded audio from TV news reports. It's no longer running.
The Sirhan family tape recorder purchased in the '60s. Before the assassination, it was used to record family sing alongs. Later, the Sirhans recorded audio from TV news reports. It's no longer running. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

Eileen Sloman, her husband Peter and son Ernie have lived next door to Munir for almost 30 years. To her, he’s just "Manny."

“I love Manny. He's a really nice guy,” she says. “He's a great neighbor, and when we're gone he watches the house, when he's gone we'll watch his house, and just a few years ago he gave me his phone number. He’s let me in, a little bit at a time.”

Over the decades, she’s seen the odd tour bus cruise by, and Munir once cautioned her to move her trash bins away from his on pickup day. Souvenir hunters sometimes root through the garbage.

After the assassination, Munir says his neighbors were very supportive, and even in public his last name has never brought him trouble. No altercations, no curses, no nothing.

But he does get recognized.

“Oh yeah, I had jobs that my name would be printed on my shirt,” he says. “I've never had anybody that held any animosity toward us at all. In fact, I didn’t like it, but a lot of people would say, ‘You’re famous,’ or go out of their way to help because of the notoriety and I’d tell them, ‘Please, I have my own individuality.’ That’s been going on for years.”

But his individuality is a buried and private thing. Hang around with him for a while, and he seems like a regular guy. But a regular guy is a very hard thing to be when your brother was convicted of killing a Kennedy.

“On the outside he’s friendly, he loves to talk,” offers Sloman, “I don't understand really what he's been going through, but to know that his last brother has been serving the last 50 years of his life in prison has got to be just horrible. Tearing him apart basically, I think.”

Sirhan is currently residing in his fifth California prison since 1968, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

Driving is hard for Munir these days given his failing vision, so it’s mostly phone calls and letters between him and Sirhan, and even those are random.

When they do come, he’s still talking to his big brother. The guy who used to look out for him so long ago.

“'Stop smoking, it’s bad for you,’” Munir says his brother tells him. “’It’s the number one killer in the United States. Take care of yourself ... I need you alive.”

And so Munir marks time in the house, alone. Ask him what his days are like and he shrugs.

He talks to the lawyers when they need something, and spends his dwindling eyesight reading and rereading boxes of briefs and transcripts, still trying to make sense of everything that’s consumed him for 50 years.

He seems to take it all in stride, but every now and again, just for a moment, something else comes to the surface.

“You don’t have a life of your own at all," says Munir Sirhan. "I’m lost, still am. Did he do it? Didn’t he do it? People were there that say this and people were there that say that. I wasn’t there. I have to rely on my brother, and he says ‘I don’t remember.’”

It’s been generations since that night in 1968. Who was Sirhan? Who was Robert Kennedy, even? What is unforgettable to older Americans has become vague or simply unknown to younger people.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, California state prisoner B21014, will have his next parole hearing in 2021. His brother will be waiting.

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