History can be a decidedly quirky concept, particularly when everyone has their own particular version of it, depending on their religion, politics, place of national origin or blood-alcohol level on any given day.
The newspaper staff learned this – again and again – when we set about compiling a history of Vacaville’s California Medical Facility for its 50th anniversary last month.
One of our editors, in a burst of characteristic exuberance, decided that we should remember to include all of the prison’s infamous past inmates.”Let’s not forget Charlie Manson and Ed Kemper and Sirhan Sirhan,” she trilled enthusiastically before flitting off to a badminton tournament in Shingle Springs.
No problem, I thought, everybody remembers those guys.
And I was right. Exactly how everybody remembers those guys, however, is another proposition entirely.
Take political assassin Sirhan B. Sirhan.
Convicted of murder for the 1968 slaying of Sen. Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Sirhan was sentenced to death. The death sentence, however, later was overturned by the Supreme Court and Sirhan began serving a life sentence for the assassination.
And, of course, he was transferred from San Quentin to the California Medical Facility.
Everybody remembers that, right?
One former staffer at the prison recalled that Sirhan may have worked as a clerk in a psychiatric unit there. Another said Sirhan was housed in a special, high-security wing of CMF after being transferred from San Quentin.
The reminiscences were duly recorded and set into type for the newspaper’s prison anniversary series. All was in readiness. At least until the prison’s public information officer called to say that Sirhan Sirhan had never actually been at the prison, although his arrival had been anxiously anticipated several times.
After two sources said they couldn’t be absolutely sure they’d seen Sirhan at the Vacaville prison, editors decided to pull the reference.
That didn’t sit too well with our police reporter, though.
“You guys are idiots. Of course Sirhan Sirhan was here. I just talked to a man who saw him walking around CMF every day!” she declared, throwing a boot at my head.
OK, we thought, now we’ve got an eyewitness. Sirhan goes back into print – except a follow-up call to the eyewitness revealed that he hadn’t actually seen Sirhan wandering about the prison. He’d just heard that Sirhan was there, or was supposed to be there, or about to be there.
Our eyewitness had, unfortunately, become an earwitness.
We pulled Sirhan again, only to have our publisher pen a colorful reminiscence about how he’d encountered the assassin at the prison during the 1970s.
The fractious felon was once again on his way into the prison anniversary story when the publisher admitted that he might actually have been thinking of Juan Corona…
Was Sirhan Sirhan ever at CMF? Probably not, but we’re not ruling anything out at this point. Check back with us for the prison’s centennial edition. We should have Sirhan’s whereabouts nailed down by then…
Originally published May 1, 2005