By Marcus Hondro
Bowen Island Undercurrent, May 17, 2012
A story focusing on an islander’s connection to an event known the world over has gone international and the woman at the centre of it, Nina Rhodes-Hughes, told the Undercurrent that Bowen is helping her deal with the attention.
Rhodes-Hughes was recently featured on CNN, in the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, in Le Figaro and the Vancouver Sun, among other media. The focus comes because on June 5, 1968, she was standing only feet from U.S. Senator Bobby Kennedy when he was shot. Kennedy died some 24 hours later but the story of that night is still alive.
In February, William Pepper, the lawyer for Kennedy’s convicted killer, Sirhan Sirhan, filed a motion for a retrial, based on the argument there was a second shooter, something Rhodes-Hughes, 78, has always believed, a belief which now makes her a potential witness of particular interest.
“I do not have any contention that Sirhan Sirhan fired shots,” she said. “But I believe, because I was there and I have the rhythm of those shots in my head, that there were other shots coming from the other side of Kennedy, from another shooter.”
While compiling a story on Pepper’s motion, CNN’s Brad Johnson came across Rhodes-Hughes’ name and found her through a sister in L.A., interviewing her in March and featuring her in a print story (her reaction to him was “finally someone who believes me”). In late April, Johnson’s colleague Soledad O’Brien talked to her live on air on Skype.
With this publicity, others began to Google her name and came across her affiliation to the Bowen theatre group, Kingbaby Productions (Rhodes-Hughes is an actor and director). That led to David Cameron and Jackie Minns of Kingbaby fielding calls and emails from all over the world asking to talk to Rhodes-Hughes.
Those two passed details along to Rhodes-Hughes in Victoria where she and husband David Hughes were visiting a relative and Rhodes-Hughes talked to between “30 to 40” news organizations. She said her Kingbaby colleagues were instrumental in enabling her to respond to all those requests.
The reason Rhodes-Hughes is giving her time and energy to the story is simple: she wants to further the truth. The version of Kennedy’s shooting that made it into the history books is not consistent with what she believes occurred. And she wants the second shooter found.
“I want to know who the other shooter was,” she said, then corrected herself. “No, I don’t want to know who the other shooter was – I want the other shooter to be brought to justice.”
She believes the “horrors” of people’s lives being taken because of what they believe “has to stop” and hopes finding the answers to Kennedy’s killing is a part of ending such acts.
In 1968 Rhodes-Hughes, then Nina Rhodes, was a mom, an actor and activist for the Democrats when she attended the speech Kennedy gave at the Ambassador Hotel after he’d won a primary over Eugene McCarthy. She’d been enlisted by Kennedy’s campaign manager Pierre Salinger to direct Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, as they came off-stage.
But the couple were ushered the wrong way, she says, toward and into the kitchen, with her behind and trying to re-direct them. Moments later Senator Kennedy was shot by Sirhan, with a horrified Rhodes-Hughes no more than seven feet from him as he fell.
After the shooting, it took the FBI about one month to interview her and she was never called to testify at Sirhan’s trial, though she told them she would. It was only in the early 90s that she saw the FBI report on her interview, a report never entered at trial and which she never signed off.
There were, she said, 14 inconsistencies between the report and what she had said, including, and most importantly, the FBI’s assertion that she’d said there were only eight shots. “I told them there were 12 to 14 shots,” she maintains. She saw her FBI files because a copy was sent to her by University of Massachusetts professor, Phil Melanson, now deceased, who wrote a book about the Kennedy assassination. He talked to Rhodes-Hughes and included her account in the book.
After speaking with Melanson, nothing further happened and she was left with her frustration. She did not share the story of witnessing history often and, when she did, it was only with family and intimate friends. But that night did not leave her nor has the pain of Bobby Kennedy’s death.
She stayed for years in L.A. During that time, she appeared in the shows Wagon Train, McHale’s Navy and Bewitched under her stage name Nina Roman. In 1987, her love of Vancouver saw her move north, where she hosted a talk show and appeared on The Commish, The X-Files and other shows.
With her husband, she moved to Bowen over five years ago and has been involved in island theatre since. The feeling of community she gets here is of great import to her, she says, especially now that she must again deal with the resonance of an experience “emblazoned” on her psyche.
For her even the location of our interview was an example of how Bowen helps. We met in Snug Cove so she could go from our talk to the ferry. When the owner of the Tuscany restaurant, Christophe Langlois, learned we sought privacy, he insisted we take a key to his restaurant, closed at the time, and talk there.
“It’s wonderful what Christophe did,” she said. “But that’s the way Bowen is.”
Rhodes-Hughes found local support in another area: CNN had warned her not to read the comments from readers on the website where Johnson’s story was published, but she did and found them hurtful. She was accused of seeking money and derided for not coming forward earlier. Had she defended herself, she would have said she seeks no reward and that she did come forward, only no one listened.
But she didn’t need to defend herself, Bowen friends did, with islanders Rob Bailey and David Cameron writing passionate online rebuttals on her behalf. She said she’s grateful to them, to Langlois, to her husband, to Minns, friend Lindsay Walker and others who’ve supported her.
“We’re like a one big family working together on Bowen,” she says. “And it’s made it an easier ride for me.”
Rhodes-Hughes soon flies to California to appear on the Inside Edition. Should Sirhan be granted a retrial, her testimony is likely to be sought. In October, she’ll return to , she'll return to what she loves. She will direct a production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, starring Cameron and Minns, Rosie Montgomery, Laurel Bailey and Tina Nielsen.
In the meantime, she stays committed to doing what she can to help find closure to a difficult chapter in American history. “For me this is all about getting the truth out there,” she said. “There’s no other thought but to get the truth out after all these years.
“It’s a long time to live with futility.”