B.C.-based actress Nina Rhodes-Hughes speaks of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (with video)Pictured is a newspaper featuring a photo of Nina Rhodes-Hughes (left) with Rafer Johnson (centre) and actress Shirley MacLaine at the Democratic national convention in Chicago in 1968. Rhodes-Hughes was standing nearby when US Senator Robert. F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968. Rhodes-Hughes claims more than one gunman was responsible for the killing, although only one man, Sirhan Sirhan, was ever charged and given a life sentence, which he is still serving today.By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun May 5, 2012
Her sobs were heavy, layered, alarming.
She sat on the sofa, her pale, cream dress crumpled like wet Kleenex. Her face was streaked with tears and dirty black mascara, hair dishevelled, stockings violently torn.
By her side, her husband was crying, too. In the early hours of the morning they were huddled around the television, waiting for news. Would he live?
She’d left the Ambassador Hotel just hours ago, amid the cacophony of sounds, the screaming and chaos. More than a dozen shots had been fired. Two came from in front of her, in front and to the left of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, where she saw a dark-skinned man with curly hair; the rest of the shots popped like firecrackers all around them.
“They shot Bobby Kennedy,” she said over and over.
“They shot Bobby Kennedy.”
A second gunman?
William Francis Pepper, a famed New York-based human rights lawyer, is brusque on the phone. To the point.
“I knew about her,” he says of Nina Rhodes-Hughes, whose eyewitness account had long been overlooked. The woman in the pale, cream dress who had been walking just a few feet behind Robert F. Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when he was attacked.
She knew how many shots had been fired. She was there.
“I couldn’t find her,” says Pepper.
The lawyer says the testimony of Rhodes-Hughes, a B.C.-based actress who has, until recently, lived in virtual anonymity on Bowen Island, may be pivotal in winning a new trial for his client, Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s convicted assassin.
On Feb. 22, 2012, Pepper filed a petition for a new trial on behalf of Sirhan in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Pepper is arguing there was a second gunman, that fraudulent evidence was presented at trial, and that key witness reports, like that of Rhodes-Hughes, had been altered or ignored.
Pepper’s court filing also is built on analysis of an enhanced audio recording of the assassination, made by Montreal Gazette reporter Stanislaw Pruszynski, that surfaced in 2007.
Pruszynski had his tape recorder running throughout the assassination, but didn’t realize it until many years later. The enhanced recording, according to forensic acoustic expert Philip Van Praag, identifies 12 to 13 distinct shots being fired.
“Sirhan’s gun only held eight bullets,” says Pepper. “The tape was one of the reasons I got involved.”
If a new trial is granted, Pepper expects to call Rhodes-Hughes to the stand.
Hope and despair
How Rhodes-Hughes came to be just a few feet from the senator on the night he won the 1968 California Democratic primary, and face to face with his confessed killer, is also the story of one of the 20th century’s most shocking junctures of hope and despair.
Rhodes-Hughes was a young mother of two children in 1967. Married to a Hollywood television producer, she had a regular role on the daytime soap, Morningstar.
Petite, with sea-green eyes and jet black hair, she was a beauty with a life that seemed brushed by stardust, but underneath the glitter the pretty actress was politically minded.
Rhodes-Hughes was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Europe, whose history was a constellation of terror: murders, pogroms and brutal discrimination had driven her mother’s family out of Russia.
The stories she grew up with, she says, gave her a steely sense of moral duty and keen idealism. It was this sense of duty and this determination to make the world a better place that drew her directly into the path of another idealist, Robert F. Kennedy.
“He walked into the room and everything stopped,” says Rhodes-Hughes, remembering the day she met the charismatic young senator.
She was sitting in hair and makeup at the NBC studios in Burbank. Kennedy had been brought in to be prepped for Meet the Press, filmed in the same studio. Rhodes-Hughes decided to tell him how much she admired his strength, his work on poverty. She walked right up to him.
“I said if ever you decide to run for president, I will work for you. I promise you.”
He laughed it off, and assured her he had no such plans. They chatted about politics and world affairs.
“He said, well, what do you do?”
She told him she was an actress, and he asked how often she appeared.
“I said every day.”
Kennedy was humble
He asked how many pages a day, and when she replied 30 pages, he was amazed.
“You memorize 30 pages a day?”
“I do,” she said.
“I could never do that,” he said, “But my brother Jack, he could memorize just looking at something very quickly. I never had that ability, and I admired that in him and I admire that in you.”
He was humble, says Rhodes-Hughes, but incredibly compelling: “He had a magnetism, and a charm that was absolutely indescribable.”
Like so many others, she admired Kennedy’s commitment to education, to housing and social justice, and that he wanted the Americans out of Vietnam.
“I became convinced that this was the man who could save our country.”
When Kennedy announced he would run for president, Rhodes-Hughes went down to the local campaign headquarters to volunteer.
She became a fundraiser. She knew entertainers and celebrities — Nancy Sinatra was a close friend — and quickly pulled together an event at a local disco, The Factory. “We called it a ‘happening’ back then,” she says.
The event was a huge success, and Kennedy sent her a personal telegram, thanking her.
She produced other fundraisers: a wine and cheese for Ethel Kennedy, a train ride called the Kennedy Cannonball that ran from L.A. to Bakersfield. Her son, Ross, worked alongside her. Momentum gathered and Kennedy’s prospects looked as bright as the California sunshine.
“It was fabulous,” she says. “Because of all that, I was invited to come to the Ambassador Hotel the night of June 4, 1968 and to meet him again. I was thrilled. We were really moving toward getting this done, getting everything I was dreaming about, that someday we would have a government that wasn’t corrupt, that had great principles, that worked for the downtrodden, that we would be a diverse country with no bigotry. That was my hope.”
Rhodes-Hughes, now 78, points to the creamy, pale beige carpet in her condo, “That was the colour of my dress.”
Her voice is clear and sure as she describes that night at the Ambassador hotel, as if it were all happening again:
The night had been euphoric, filled with laughter and joyous celebration. Balloons bobbed through the air and people were chanting: RFK! RFK!
Kennedy was onstage, his back to her. To her right was the Pierre Salinger press room, where Kennedy was slated to go after his speech. To her left, through a kitchen pantry, was another press room called the Colonial room.
Went the wrong way
Rhodes-Hughes was waiting — she had been asked to “get” Kennedy and direct him to the Salinger press room as he came offstage.
But the entourage swept him the other direction, through the kitchen toward the Colonial room. She waved and called out: “No, no, that’s the wrong way, he’s supposed to come over here.”
She ran after them as he was moved offstage, down a ramp toward the kitchen. She could see the back of the senator’s head, surrounded by his entourage, and ran down the ramp toward him.
“He turns to his left a little bit and starts to greet some of the kitchen staff,” she says.
“Suddenly, he turns to his right and went straight ahead towards the Colonial, the other press room ... then, as I’m looking at him, I heard ‘pop, pop.’ ”
For a split second, she thought they were flashbulbs. Then, to her left, ahead of the senator, she saw him, Sirhan Sirhan, standing on top of a steel kitchen table.
“He was higher, he was standing up on a steam table, not floor level.”
Kennedy didn’t have a lot of security that night, but Rafer Johnson, a decathlete, and football player Rosey Grier were there to escort him. They reacted instantaneously.
“I see Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier running toward Sirhan Sirhan to tackle him.”
Rhodes-Hughes was six to seven feet behind the senator, to his left. She saw Sirhan twist and crouch as Johnson and Grier lunged to tackle and subdue him.
Only two shots had been fired. As they brought him down, more rang out to her right, close behind senator Kennedy.
“The shots are pop, pop, pop, pop, pop ....” Rapid gunfire, 12, maybe 13 in all. “People are falling, people are sliding down the wall, people are ducking and I’m screaming. Then I look down and I see the senator has fallen. He’s lying on the floor. He has been shot.”
She remembers screaming, “Oh my God, no, oh my God, no.” Then she collapsed and fainted.
When she came to, her dress was soaking wet, her shoe and belt were missing, her stockings were torn from being trampled on in the melee.
Before her, a life was flooding away.
Senator Kennedy lay on the floor, blood spilling out around his head. His wife, Ethel, knelt beside him.
In all, six people had been shot, one fatally.
Kennedy would be pronounced dead in hospital later that day.
According to autopsy reports, Kennedy died from a gunshot wound in the back of his head, behind his right ear, shot at close range — close enough to leave powder burns on strands of his hair.
Sirhan — Rhodes-Hughes is sure — had been positioned in front of him.
Rhythm of gunfire
“It was very, very hard to see. When you experience something like that, it’s emblazoned in your mind. The emotional memory, the whole thing is just so strong that there is no way you could ever forget one detail,” she says.
Kennedy was facing Sirhan. His head was not turned.
She will never forget the rhythm of the gunfire. The first two shots, she says, came from the direction of the dusky-skinned man with the curly hair that stood on top of the steam table. Then some more shots, from her right-hand side. No law enforcement official spoke to her that night at the hotel; the FBI didn’t interview Rhodes-Hughes until about a month had passed.
Her son, Ross Rhodes, remembers the night of the shooting clearly; how his parents’ sobs woke him, how he pushed off his blankets and stumbled through the bathroom that connected his bedroom to the room with the TV.
He was 13 years old and had never seen his mother cry.
He also remembers when the FBI showed up weeks later.
“I remember very clearly two men in suits coming to the door,” says Rhodes, now an artist and gallery owner in Palm Springs.
“I was told to go to my room. I didn’t. I hid in the kitchen and listened to the interview.”
Her story was never told
It bothers him that people are asking why his mother is coming forward now to tell her story of hearing over a dozen shots coming from two distinctly different directions when Kennedy was shot.
“She has always maintained this testimony from day one,” he says.
“I told them everything,” says Nina Rhodes-Hughes.
“I told them if you need me to testify I would be most happy to testify because I really would like to see whoever the other person was, I would like the other person to be found because it was more than just Sirhan Sirhan.”
She insists she recounted the number of shots to the FBI agents. She was asked to describe Sirhan, whom she had seen clearly. Then she was asked if she had been wearing a polka-dot dress.
“They were looking for the girl in the polka-dot dress.”
That girl had apparently been seen with Sirhan earlier in the evening and in the kitchen; another witness had said a girl in a polka-dot dress had fled the hotel crying out “We shot him, we shot him!”
“I said no, my dress was a champagne colour with a high neck and a little belt. That’s what I was wearing. I was not the lady in the polka-dot dress.”
The agents took notes, but didn’t record anything. When they left, they forgot their attache case. Rhodes-Hughes and her son stared at it, circled around it. She called a neighbour in a panic, to come and sit with her until they returned for it, and be a witness that they had not touched the attache case with the Kennedy file inside.
“By this time, I’m scared. I’m nervous. I was not going to do anything that wasn’t right.”
Eventually the agents returned to retrieve the case. Rhodes-Hughes was never called to testify, and she never knew what those FBI agents wrote in the transcription of their interview. Had she opened the attache case that day, she would have seen: the report stated she had heard eight shots, the exact number of bullets that Sirhan’s gun held, and that she saw bright red flashes emanating from the gun. None of that, she says, is true.
Dropped out of politics
Rhodes-Hughes was a delegate at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, but after that she dropped out of politics. She had been forever changed by the assassination, as had the political landscape. She had a third child and turned her attention to other fundraising ventures, to her acting career and even opened a fitness studio with Richard Simmons. In 1983, she came as a tourist to Vancouver, fell in love with the city and eventually moved here. That night at the Ambassador Hotel wasn’t something she often talked about. But in the early ’90s, a Dartmouth professor, Phil Melanson, contacted her with a stunning revelation. He had obtained the FBI reports from the assassination, including her statement through an FOI request. She agreed to look it over.
“I was flabbergasted. Devastated ... I never said I saw red flashes. I never said eight shots.”
There were numerous other fabrications attributed to her in the FBI report.
“I was in shock,” she says.
Rhodes-Hughes gave Melanson the story as she remembered it, which he included in a book about the assassination, Shadowplay. Rhodes-Hughes never read the book, and heard nothing more from the professor. Nor did she seek to bring the story to public attention.
“As soon as you say ‘conspiracy’ it sounds like you’re a nut, that all of your intelligence is gone and you’re some kind of thrill-seeking crazy person who wants some notoriety,” she says.
Again, the story slipped below the surface of her life. She had no idea lawyer William Pepper — who is not afraid to use the word conspiracy, and who believes Sirhan was hypno-programmed, possibly by the woman in the polka-dot dress — wanted to find her. Or that a tape recording corroborating her version of the number of gunshots had surfaced.
She may never have come forward, but for a call a few weeks ago from CNN reporter Brad Johnson. Now, in spite of the notoriety, she believes it is her duty to Kennedy, and to history, to tell — and ask — what really happened that night. Until the call came, even her closest friends in her small Bowen Island community had no idea that she had been witness to Kennedy’s assassination, close enough, almost, to reach out and touch him as he email@example.com
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