Robert A. Maheu was such a colorful character that it’s widely believed the television show “Mission: Impossible” was based on him and his private investigative agency.
As an ex-FBI agent, the CIA asked him to handle jobs it wanted to steer clear of, such as lining up prostitutes for a foreign president or hiring the mafia to kill Fidel Castro. For more than 15 years, Maheu and his Washington-based company were on monthly retainer to “The Agency,” CIA records show. And during much of that time, Maheu was the right-hand man to Howard Hughes as Hughes bought up vast swaths of Las Vegas and helped finance CIA operations.
Now, a new book alleges that Maheu may have performed another mission for the CIA: the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).
A spokeswoman for the CIA declined to comment on the book’s allegations, though she acknowledged that Hughes did finance some CIA operations.
Maheu would have had access to the CIA’s experiments in hypnosis and mind control, which were being conducted at the time in California and elsewhere. That would have enabled him to frame Sirhan Sirhan as a patsy for the slaying of Kennedy, while other gunmen actually fired the fatal shots, argues author Lisa Pease, who spent 25 years researching her book, “A Lie Too Big to Fail."
Pease is not the first person to link the CIA to the June 1968 assassination of Kennedy, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Sirhan’s lawyers in 2010 accused the CIA of hypnotizing Sirhan and making him “an involuntary participant.” The agency may have feared Kennedy because he opposed the CIA’s expansive use of power and would have pressed the agency for answers in the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, five years earlier, Pease theorizes.
With Maheu’s contacts throughout the CIA and organized crime, he is “the most credible high-level suspect for the planner of Robert Kennedy’s assassination,” Pease wrote. Maheu died in Las Vegas in 2008 at age 90, after a career that the New York Times once described as having “aspects of a novel jointly written by Ian Fleming and Harold Robbins.”
Pease’s book builds on the work of numerous prior authors who concluded that Sirhan did not kill Kennedy but was convicted by the misdeeds of the Los Angeles police and district attorney, and the ineptitude of his defense lawyers, who never challenged any of the physical evidence. Chief among that evidence is the autopsy finding that Kennedy was shot point blank in the back of the head, while Sirhan was in front of Kennedy. Witnesses at the scene of the shooting were adamant that Sirhan never got close enough to fire at close range — he was pinned down by a hotel maître d’ after two shots from in front of Kennedy, and emptied the rest of his eight-shot pistol wildly while he was held down.
The courts in California have rejected such claims, and Sirhan has repeatedly been denied parole, most recently in 2016. He is serving a life sentence in a prison outside San Diego and has maintained since his arrest that he does not remember firing any shots at Kennedy. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and police declined to comment for this story. A former Los Angeles assistant prosecutor has testified against Sirhan at parole hearings, but he, also, declined to be interviewed.
Pease believes Sirhan had been hypnotized and was firing blanks, and she quotes witnesses who told police they saw shredded paper fluttering through the air as the shots were being fired, indicative of casings containing an explosive charge but no bullets. Pease cites witnesses, such as the wife of author George Plimpton, who said they saw gunmen behind Kennedy. One of those, an armed security guard named Thane Cesar, had previously worked for Maheu in Los Angeles, Pease found.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain senator, said he thought Pease was “a great researcher.” He said he had done “a lot of research on Robert Maheu, talked to his friends,” and read Maheu’s autobiography, “Next to Hughes: Behind the Power and Tragic Downfall of Howard Hughes by His Closest Advisor.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt he had the means, opportunity and the motive,” Kennedy said of Maheu. “The question is, how much was he involved?” Kennedy said that his own investigation, which included meeting with Sirhan in prison in December 2017, showed that “Sirhan could not and did not fire the gun that shot and killed my father.”
But in an interview with The Washington Post, Maheu’s son, Robert G. Maheu, denied that his father had any role in the case.
“He had nothing to do with any assassination,” Robert G. Maheu said of his father. “He knew them [the Kennedys] all very well. I was at functions where the Kennedys always ran over to hug my dad and kiss my mom. There was no animosity toward them at all. . . . There’s all kinds of lies and stories and conspiracies that are all made up.”
He agreed that the 1960s show “Mission: Impossible” was based on his father. “That is true,” the son said. “His detective agency handled all the cases that the CIA couldn’t handle.”
Others disagree about Maheu’s role in the Kennedy case. Among the skeptics is John Meier, who worked with Maheu in the Howard Hughes organization in the late 1960s and was one of the few people actually to work with Hughes in person. (Maheu never did.)
In 2015, Meier published his decades of diary entries detailing his suspicions about Maheu and Hughes’s connections to the assassination. Meier is now in poor health, but his son, Jim Meier, spoke to him for this story.
“My father did confirm,” Jim Meier said, “that he absolutely knows that Hughes was supporting Maheu’s operation to assassinate RFK.”
John Meier wrote in his June 1968 diaries that Maheu was ecstatic upon learning of Kennedy’s death, and that Maheu was “furious” when Meier began asking about the connection between Maheu and the security guard Cesar, the former Maheu employee who escorted Kennedy into the hotel pantry. John Meier also told Pease that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “knew that Robert Maheu was behind the assassination of Robert Kennedy,” and said so to him.
Author Jim Hougan interviewed Maheu at length for his 1978 book “Spooks,” about ex-CIA agents who ran private operations after leaving the agency. “If Lyndon Johnson was correct when he complained,” Hougan told The Post, “shortly after assuming the presidency, that the government ‘had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,’ then Robert Maheu was surely that firm’s chief operating officer.” The evidence Pease presents about Maheu’s involvement in RFK’s assassination “deserves serious consideration,” he said.
‘Too many holes’
On June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California Democratic primary for president. Shortly after midnight, on the morning of June 5, he gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel. He then was shot in the adjacent pantry, as were five other people standing behind him, all of whom survived wounds inflicted from the front. But Kennedy’s shots were from the back: One shot went through his jacket without hitting him, one went into his back and stopped below his neck, one went through his armpit and one went into his brain and fragmented. The neck bullet was recovered, as were bullets from two of the wounded victims.
Kennedy survived for a day and died June 6, 1968, with his wife and children by his side. They had flown out from the family home in Virginia.
Sirhan was captured in the pantry, but seemed unusually calm in police custody and seemed to have no idea why he was arrested, authors who have listened to his taped statements have said.
In addition, his .22-caliber pistol could hold only eight bullets. But in addition to the four shots into Kennedy and five into the victims — one bullet was theorized to have hit two people — other bullets were found in the wood frames of doors in the pantry. Los Angeles police criminalist De Wayne Wolfer would later say that there were no bullets in the frames and that the holes had been made by the impact of kitchen carts. In 1969, the police destroyed the frames, even though the case was on appeal.
Pease and others argue that there were simply “too many holes” in the pantry for Sirhan to have been a lone gunman, and that witnesses were certain the holes in the frames were caused by bullets. She even found a video in an archive at the University of California at Los Angeles that appears to show bullets in the frames. Wolfer’s work as a crime scene analyst was later harshly discredited by California authorities.
But Sirhan’s defense team elected not to challenge any of the physical evidence, ignoring the autopsy report by famed coroner Thomas Noguchi showing the Kennedy shots were fired just inches from his back and head.
Pease found witness statements from people who saw men with guns behind Kennedy, and who saw other men flee the pantry, including one woman who suffered a broken front tooth from a man’s crashing into her while running out of the hotel. But Los Angeles police and the defense team did not pursue those leads.
Sirhan’s lawyers instead conceded his guilt and tried to avoid a death sentence by focusing on Sirhan’s mental health. This failed, and Sirhan was sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted when California invalidated the death penalty.
Not long after the trial, a ballistics expert examined the three bullets recovered from the scene and found that they did not match Sirhan’s gun. A subsequent retesting was done, but the bullet removed from Kennedy’s neck by Noguchi had vanished, and no ballistics match was ever made between the bullets and Sirhan’s eight-shot pistol.
Though many authors have argued that Sirhan is innocent, Pease’s book goes further and tries to answer the question: If not Sirhan, who?
Howard Hughes’s ‘alter ego’
Robert Maheu was born in Maine in 1917 and joined the FBI during World War II. After the war, Maheu set up his own company in Washington, Robert A. Maheu and Associates.
According to a memo written in 1975 for a Senate committee investigating CIA abuses, “In 1954 Maheu was recruited by the CIA for use by the CIA’s Office of Security for ‘extremely sensitive cases.’” The memo recounts projects Maheu undertook for the CIA including providing “female companionship” for a leader of another country, and also wiretapping Aristotle Onassis’s phones in New York, part of a larger harassment campaign that led to Onassis’s losing a massive oil shipping contract with Saudi Arabia. Maheu told The Post in 1978 that the Onassis job wasn’t initiated by the CIA, but “I wouldn’t take the assignment until I cleared it with” the agency.
In 1957, Maheu took on Howard Hughes as a client and “agreed to be his alter ego,” Maheu told an interviewer in 1992. But he communicated with Hughes only by phone or handwritten memos, never in person.
“As early as 1960,” authors Larry DuBois and Laurence Gonzales wrote in 1976, “Maheu had Hughes’s blessing in taking on one of the agency’s most sensitive assignments: the assassination of Fidel Castro.”
That year, according to a CIA internal memo, the agency set out to hire the mafia to kill Castro.
The CIA contacted Maheu, the memo states, who enlisted West Coast mobster Johnny Roselli. Roselli organized a meeting for Maheu and a top CIA official with Sam Giancana of Chicago and Santo Trafficante Jr., the former mob boss of Cuba, CIA records show. Giancana suggested using a friendly contact in Cuba to poison Castro, and the CIA provided “pills of high lethal content.” But Castro suddenly changed restaurants, and the pills were never tried.
The plot was revealed, along with other CIA excesses, in 1975.
By 1968, Howard Hughes had moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and Maheu was his frontman as Hughes bought the Desert Inn and numerous other casinos. Maheu moved into a mansion called “Little Caesars Palace,” where he entertained senators and celebrities, maintained a yacht in Newport, R.I., and flew around the world in Hughes’s jets, according to a 1971 profile in The Post.
At the same time, the CIA was experimenting with programs such as “Bluebird” and “Project MKUltra,” tests on unwitting people to see whether their minds could be manipulated by drugs, torture or hypnosis. Colleges, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies participated in the project, records revealed in the 1970s showed, with the CIA hoping to be able to manipulate foreign leaders and other important figures, or program others to commit acts of espionage.
During this time, Sirhan was working as a horse walker at the Santa Anita racetrack, which Robert Kennedy Jr. said was owned by Roselli, and then began riding horses at a ranch in Corona, Calif. He said Sirhan told him he had no experience riding and took several falls, including one that required minor medical treatment. But Sirhan’s family said he disappeared for more than a month, and Pease found a long list of doctor’s appointments Sirhan had that were inconsistent with a minor horse fall.
Kennedy, who has come under attack for his ties to the anti-vaccine movement, said this was the period when Sirhan may have been hypnotized. He was repeatedly introduced to a man he knew only as “Radio Man.” Some have theorized that “Radio Man” hypnotized Sirhan into repeatedly writing “RFK must die” in a journal found in his room, words Sirhan said he did not remember writing.
An expert in hypnosis from Harvard Medical School, Dan Brown, began meeting with Sirhan in 2008 and found him not only easily hypnotized, but also still easily triggered to re-create aggressive shooting moves out of nowhere. Brown submitted affidavits for Sirhan’s appeal stating that he believed Sirhan was an actual “Manchurian Candidate,” manipulated to perform bad acts against his will.
In 1994, Sirhan told journalist Dan Moldea, “It’s probably too diabolical to suggest that I was controlled by someone else — but I don’t know. I only know that I don’t remember anything about the shooting.”
In rejecting the theory, a federal judge wrote, “Whether or not the theory that a person can be hypnotized to commit murder, and then to lose his memory of committing that murder is scientifically credible … [Sirhan] has not provided any reliable evidence that this actually occurred.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. also believes the CIA was involved in the Los Angeles police investigation, to quash any hints of conspiracy.
“It’s undisputable by rational people,” Kennedy said, “there were invasive connections between the CIA and Special Unit Senator,” the investigative team assembled by the LAPD to handle the assassination. Two Los Angeles officers in particular, Sgt. Enrique Hernandez and Lt. Manny Pena, appeared to have CIA backgrounds, though both denied it, and they helped run the daily operations of Special Unit Senator.
“The guys running the SUS, they were full-blown CIA agents who had been involved in really ugly stuff,” Kennedy said. Both men have since died.
Could Maheu have arranged for both the hypnosis of Sirhan and his placement at the Ambassador Hotel that night, and for other actual gunmen to be there as well? Pease argues that Sirhan served as a distraction in front of Kennedy, firing blanks and drawing witnesses’ attention, while the actual shooters shot Kennedy from behind and escaped. Audiotapes uncovered in 2004 seem to reveal 13 shots being fired, rather than just eight.
It doesn’t appear that anyone ever asked Maheu about his role in the Kennedy assassination, though Meier, his colleague in the Hughes organization, always suspected him. Maheu, who was in Las Vegas when the shooting occurred, does not mention it in his autobiography.
Sirhan is reading Pease’s book now, said his brother, Munir Sirhan. The Sirhan family always accused the defense team, led by Grant Cooper, of not fighting hard enough to prove Sirhan’s innocence, his brother said.
“The poor guy’s been stuck in jail for almost his whole life,” Pease said of Sirhan, “for something he didn’t do. And that’s just not right.”
Pease and Kennedy both signed a recent petition calling for a “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” to reexamine the assassinations of Robert and John Kennedy, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “It all stinks,” Kennedy said. “It’s the whole country that’s getting screwed. These assassinations put us down an ugly road.”
Note: An earlier version of this story reported that author Shane O’Sullivan also alleged that CIA operatives were at the Ambassador Hotel, but O’Sullivan subsequently withdrew that claim after further investigation.
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