Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Killing Of RFK

The Killing Of RFK, by Donald Freed
September, 1975  Dell Books

The JFK assassination gets all of the attention, but I’ve always been more interested in the assassination of RFK. With its “lone gunman” who to this day can’t remember pulling the trigger, allegations of MKUltra brainwashing, obvious LAPD coverup, and most compelling of all the infamous Lady in the Polka Dot Dress, the June 1968 murder of Bobby Kennedy is just downright weird.

This paperback original from Dell (my favorite publisher, by the way) is courtesy Donald Freed, a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who previously co-authored a similar work on JFK, titled Executive Action. Some day I plan to read it, as I’m sure there are elements in The Killing Of RFK that reflect back to that earlier work. This novel opens on June 7th, 1968, the day after RFK’s death (he was shot after 12AM, June 5th, but died on the 6th), and as Ted Kennedy delivers a televised eulogy we meet our two ostensible protagonists, Paul Woods and Judith Shankman.

Paul, a black ex-Secret Service agent who was part of JFK’s retinue but fired after 1963 due to his allegations that the assassination was part of a conspiracy, now works as “Public Relations” for RFK. His job, we learn as the novel unfolds, is basically to provide clandestine back-up security. He’s also in love with Judith Shankman, a white former radical (or somesuch) who previously backed Hubert Humphrey. How she met Paul and indeed what exactly she brings to this tale is something Freed doesn’t really provide much detail on.

We then flash back to April, 1968; the novel never returns to the June 7th section, thus the opening pages of the novel are also the narrative’s end. (I even re-read this section after finishing the book, to see if it provided any hints of what was in store for our protagonists, but really it doesn’t.) These early chapters are very heavy in late ‘60s politics, and some of the names dropped were from before my time. However Freed captures the feel of the era, with Paul and Judith swept up in the idealism of RFK’s candidacy. Kennedy himself rarely appears in the narrative, and when he does it’s only from a distance, or on TV or radio.

Gradually Freed breaks away from these two charactes and weaves in the darker material we’ve come for. This presents itself in the creepy character of William A. Must, Jr, another former intelligence agent who now is also a self-styled “public relations” worker. Freed never outright states who gives Must his orders, his funding, or who indeed he now works for, but we do eventually learn that he was formerly CIA and was part of the task force that killed JFK. In fact we eventually learn that the Kennedy brothers actually created the task force that caused their own deaths; agents who were selected to take part in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. After that fell through, this contingent of CIA agents went rogue and first took out JFK, now setting their sights on RFK, mostly to keep him from re-investigating his brother’s murder.

Must has already selected his patsy, a Palestinian immigrant with occult leanings. Interestingly enough, Sirhan Sirhan is never named in the novel; he’s always referred to by the codename Must gives him, “Saladin.” And yes, Freed puts quotation marks around the name every single time he writes it! Must’s never-outright-stated plan is to brainwash Saladin into wanting to kill RFK, and to do so Must blackmails a gorgeous behavioral psychologist (with a brick shithouse bod, naturally) named Helen Dukemejian.

The most interesting character by far, Helen will become the Lady in the Polka Dot Dress. She’s 30, of Armenian descent, and grew up in war-torn Europe. Now she works in UCLA’s Violence Research Center (which doesn't exist in reality, though I read somewhere that one was planned to be built in the early '70s), where she carries out some pretty twisted experiments on test subjects both animal and human. Helen has done work for the CIA in the past, though against her will; they use her, basically, and gradually Must reveals to her that this is because Helen’s decades-missing father was a member of the infamous Ustaci, a Croatian terrorist group with fascist leanings. Helen’s father has been captured in Sweden, and the only thing that could exonerate him would be for the Agency to reveal that he was a double agent…something, Must assures her, the CIA would be just thrilled to do, in exchange for Helen carrying out this little project for them.

One of the more creepy aspects of the RFK puzzle is, if Sirhan really was brainwashed into his actions, then how in the world did the CIA pick him? That to me is one of the weirdest things…if they could pick some anonymous, penniless immigrant to become their patsy, then no one is safe. (In an interesting bit early on, Freed has it that before finding Sirhan Must had a black patsy pegged, but the man went rogue and escaped.) Helen insinuates herself into Saladin’s life, posing as a co-ed who herself is into the occult and etc, and posthaste Saladin’s fallen for the “stacked” brunette.

The narrative gets a bit lopsided, as previously Paul Woods and Judith Shankman were the stars of the show, but they basically disappear for a long stretch as Freed focuses on this storyline, which, truth be told, is more compelling. After breaking down Saladin’s emotional barriers (and it takes Helen a few tries to get him to sleep with her, due to how introverted and innocent he is) Helen moves on to the actual brainwashing and political invective. Sex, drugs, hypnotism, and Clockwork Orange-style film subjection are the tools at Helen’s disposal, and within a few weeks she has almost succeeded in creating a regular Manchurian Patsy.

Must meanwhile puts together his hit team; one of them is a former ‘Nam Green Beret named James Jerrold, who unfortunately disappears soon after being introduced into the narrative. But this happens throughout and at times Freed has a tough time juggling his large cast of characters. And also to note, The Killing Of RFK is much heavier on dialog and character and scene-setting, with very little action. However Freed is good at setting up scenes, of getting us into the heads of his characters (even Must’s, who despite being the villain has his own reasons for doing what he does).

The stuff with Saladin’s programming almost could come out of The Mind Masters; even Helen’s initial meeting with Must at the Violence Research Center is like something by John Rossmann, only slightly less expository. Must pressures Helen to move faster, as he wants RFK dead within a certain timeframe. This leads to the infamous Sirhan notebook entry where Helen asks a hypnotized and drugged Saladin about RFK, and Saladin sits and scrawls “RFK must die” over and over again.

Freed also incorporates known elements from the conspiracy, like the fact that Sirhan was seen in the days before the assassination in various places, from a gun shop to various gun ranges, always in the presence of “Arabic”-looking men; Freed has it that these are agents who work for “The Arab,” another of Must’s functionaries, and one who takes over Saladin when Must deems that Helen’s brain-programming isn’t proceeding fast enough.

When we get back to Paul and Judith, they’re still part of “the Candidate’s” whirlwind tour of the states as he makes his way to Los Angeles for the primaries. Paul has made contact with an FBI agent who, after pinning down Must as the man who put a “superbug” on Kennedy’s phone, manages to stumble upon Saladin and Helen at an RFK rally. He immediately suspects something strange about them, Saladin and his glassy eyes in particular. (Also, this dude reveals the fact that Must was the guy who posed as Oswald in Mexico.)  

Finally everything converges on the night of June 4, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. Must’s team is here in various disguises, posing as hotel workers and such, while Helen, in a polka dot dress, leads around a dazed and hypnotized Saladin. Curiously Freed makes Helen’s choice of the polka dot dress arbitrary, merely mentions she’s wearing it, when by all accounts it must’ve had something to do with Sirhan’s programming. The several witnesses of the infamous polka dot dress lady all said that the dress was rather weird looking, frumpy almost, and not at all flattering to what was otherwise described as a very pretty, very “built” lady. (But then, Freed also makes no mention of the strange story of John Fahey, a man who claims he spent the day of June 4th with the polka dot dress woman – and those who toss off his story as a tall tale are stymied when they discover that a sketch artist made a drawing of the lady’s face under Fahey’s descriptions, and when this drawing was later shown to Vincent DiPierro, a man who saw the polka dot lady closeup on the night of June 4th, DiPierro said the drawing was identical to the woman he saw standing beside Sirhan.)

Freed ramps up the tension here, as Paul sends Judith upstate to get a drawing of Saladin from his FBI contact, all of this going down during the primary festivities. Meanwhile a zombiefied Saladin stumbles about the Ambassador, Helen guiding him – Freed doesn’t go into Sirhan’s hypnosis-derived memories of pouring coffee for a pretty “Armenian” woman in a polka dot dress who asked for lots of cream and sugar (likely the trigger phrase that activated Sirhan, as this is his last memory until after RFK was shot) and then lead him “into a dark place.” Instead Freed has Saladin already hypnotized fully into kill mode, even though he’s not intended to be the actual assassin – but, as Must says, if Saladin actually does manage to shoot Kennedy, so much the better.

Of course Judith gets back too late to give the drawing of Saladin to Paul, and besides the Ambassador is filled to capacity with cheering throngs. Freed closes the novel with the assassination, with Saladin firing madly while Must’s top agent closes in and fires directly into the back of Kennedy’s head. After which Helen flees from the scene, screaming “We’ve shot him!” in horror, which again goes against the grain of the many eyewitnesses, who claimed that the lady in the polka dot dress yelled out this phrase happily, like she was celebrating RFK’s death. More upsetting though is that Freed doesn’t let us know what happens to Helen – does Must reunite her with her father, per his promise? Or does Must have her taken out, a possibility he intimates to one of his cronies, given that “the woman knows too much?”

But then, Freed leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps his way of mirroring in fiction the enigma that is the RFK assassination, a puzzle that has even more layers than the more famous JFK assassination. Now, as for the book’s style and quality. Freed’s writing is very good, though at times he goes for more of a literary feel, getting in the heads of his characters and focusing more on their memories and impressions than the action. Unfortunately however Freed is a hardcore POV-hopper, so the reader’s left unsettled sometimes as the perspective switches between paragraphs (sometimes within the paragraph), jumping from one character to another. As for the trash quotient, it’s there moreso in the creepy feel of Helen’s brainwashing of Saladin, but Freed does sleaze it up a bit in the two sex scenes between them, with lots of mentions of “full breasts” and “wet thighs.”

Anyway, I really did enjoy The Killing Of RFK, mostly because I’d recently become re-interested in the RFK assassination after a period of several years, so the discovery of this book was fortuitous. Freed states in his acknowledgements that he’d spoken with police and government authorities who gave him information “off the record,” and a lot of what he writes does dovetail with what’s now known about the assassination, though he does leave some things out, likely because he was writing before they were revealed. (For example the revelation that the LAPD destroyed all evidence from the case, even photos that were taken of RFK while he was being shot!) But overall it was an entertaining novel – though there was never a film version, despite what the cover proclaims.

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