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Kennedy Photo Mystery Deepens

January 18, 1996|EMI ENDO and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The negatives of some photographs taken in the moments surrounding the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy are missing.

That is not a matter of debate.

But almost everything else about the pictures is.

Did they show the crucial seconds when bullets felled the presidential candidate in a pantry at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, as claimed by the photographer, Jamie Scott Enyart? Or did they show nothing of the assassination, as alleged by the city attorney's office?

Could they have been destroyed, along with other evidence, after the official assassination investigation, as suggested by Enyart? Or were they simply misplaced, only to turn up in state archives more than 25 years later, as claimed by city and state officials?

And was a manila envelope containing the recently rediscovered negatives stolen from a courier's car in Inglewood last Friday, as claimed by the courier? Even attorneys for the city, who may soon have to mount a defense in Enyart's $2-million lawsuit over the missing negatives, admit that the circumstances surrounding the alleged theft are "highly unusual."

Enyart's attorney, Alvin Greenwald, hinted darkly at a conspiracy--a suggestion, never substantiated, that has haunted every investigation of the New York senator's death.

"Somebody, for some reason, is making sure those photos do not reach public view," Greenwald said.

Louis "Skip" Miller, an attorney for the city, conceded that the incident in Inglewood was strange, but he scoffed at Greenwald's suggestion.

"What happened here is just a petty theft," Miller said. "A run of bad luck."

The Los Angeles City Council offered a $5,000 reward Wednesday for the negatives' safe return, saying they are "critical evidence" in the defense against Enyart's lawsuit.

Enyart said Wednesday that he is in "absolute shock" over the missing negatives.

"They've been playing fast and loose with the evidence since Day 1," he said, suggesting that some important material in the case had been deliberately destroyed. "All I want is my photos."

Enyart, now a 43-year-old television special effects director, was a 15-year-old amateur photographer when he attended the primary election gathering at the Ambassador in 1968. By his account, he shot three rolls of film that night.

He said most of those exposures were made during Kennedy's victory speech in the Ambassador's ballroom, but a few captured the critical moments when Kennedy was gunned down seconds later in a nearby pantry.

(Enyart's pictures should not be confused with the widely circulated photos of the dying senator by Times staff photographer Boris Yaro and Life magazine photographer Bill Eppridge.)

In the weeks that followed the slaying, investigators confiscated every photograph they could find that had been taken that night at the Ambassador. Enyart's were among them.

Later, when he asked for his film, he learned that the courts had ordered that investigative files on the case--and all evidentiary material related to it--be sealed for 20 years.

After waiting 20 years, Enyart asked for his photos back in 1988. The city said it had lost them. Enyart, who had begun work on a book about the assassination, responded with a $2-million lawsuit that he filed against the city and state on Aug. 14, 1989.

In August, Enyart was told that his negatives had been found in the state archives in Sacramento, where they had been filed mistakenly under the wrong name. The state hired a courier, George Phillip Gebhardt, who flew to Los Angeles International Airport on Friday with an envelope that was said to contain the negatives.

Gebhardt later told Inglewood police that as he headed downtown in a rented car, he got a flat tire on Century Boulevard near Freeman Avenue. He said that when he got out to inspect the tire, he may have left the right front window partially open. The courier said that when he got back into the car, his jacket, which he had left on the front seat, and the envelope, which he had left on the back seat, were missing.

Gebhardt acknowledged that he didn't see anyone near the car when he got out to check the tire. But he said that when he had stopped for a traffic light a block earlier, he had seen a man get out of a red car behind him and start pounding the fender of the red car with his fist. That man, Gebhardt suggested, might have slashed his tire.

On Wednesday, during preliminary court maneuverings for the trial of the lawsuit, which is scheduled to start Feb. 5, attorneys for the city displayed contact prints they said had been made from the negatives before they were lost. None of the prints showed Kennedy after he left the ballroom.

Enyart insisted that the contact prints were incomplete. He said he had taken pictures that showed Kennedy twisting and falling after he was shot in the pantry.

"I watched Kennedy fall to the ground," Enyart said. "Where are those photos?"

Miller, the attorney for the city, responded with skepticism.

"He's trying to say two more rolls of film are missing, but they don't exist," Miller said. "There are no pantry pictures."

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