Paul Schrade, after nearly dying alongside his pal Robert Kennedy 50 years ago, endures as both assassination survivor and skeptic.
The former union official was shot directly in the forehead during the June 5, 1968, slaying of Kennedy as the two men walked through the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
One day later, Kennedy was dead — the sweet smell of his California presidential primary victory gone, soon to be replaced by the scent of freshly dug dirt for his Arlington National Cemetery grave.
Sirhan Sirhan was arrested, convicted and jailed in short order for the murder. Schrade, now 93, has long maintained that authorities prosecuted the wrong man for killing RFK.
Schrade, struck by one of the eight bullets fired by Sirhan, believes there was a second gunman who fired the fatal bullets and escaped in the chaotic aftermath.
His most recent convert to the cause: Robert Kennedy Jr., who went so far as to meet with Sirhan inside a California prison last December.
“Robert Kennedy (Sr.) was a good friend, and I took a bullet aimed for him,” Schrade told the New York Daily News from his California home.
“Sirhan Sirhan shot me. I want to know who murdered Bobby Kennedy. The people of this country should know, too.”
A half-century earlier, as RFK swept to victory in the crucial Democratic primary, there were no signs of impending catastrophe or lingering conspiracy.
The jam-packed crowd was raucous and the mood upbeat as Kennedy basked in the adoration of his supporters inside the hotel ballroom.
“My thanks to all of you. And now it’s onto Chicago and let’s win there!” declared Kennedy. His wife Ethel stood by his side, and the couple exited as the crowd chanted “RFK! RFK!”
The anti-Vietnam War candidate flashed a thumbs-up and a peace sign before taking the final walk of his 42 years.
It was 12:15 a.m. as Kennedy entered the pantry area of the hotel kitchen behind the stage, flanked by the media, supporters and his entourage.
Kennedy shook hands with a Mexican immigrant named Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy.
And then Sirhan, after lying in wait during RFK’s speech, pulled his .22-caliber handgun and started blasting.
“I was in a group in front of Bob, walking backwards, taking notes and watching him,” recalled veteran New York journalist Pete Hamill. “We were three steps into the kitchen area, where he saw the young guy, Romero, and turned to shake his hand.
“And then we heard it — the shots,” Hamill continued. “Not huge-sounding ones. I thought Bob got hit somewhere else — there was blood on his right hand. But he got hit right behind the right ear.”
Schrade, who earlier celebrated RFK’s primary triumph in the candidate’s fifth-floor suite, said everything went sideways in a nanosecond.
He stood helpless as Sirhan, just a few feet away, pulled the trigger.
“So quickly,” he said. “It happened right in front of me. So horrible, on a night that had been totally joyful.”
Former New York Giants defense lineman Rosey Grier and others moved in to disarm Sirhan, and Hamill recalls taking a swing at the assassin amid the insanity.
Sirhan was in custody almost instantly. Kennedy was struck by three bullets.
“By the time I turned around, and went back to where Bob was, he was on the floor and his eyes were open,” Hamill recalled from his Brooklyn home.
“He had kind of a fatalistic looking smile on his face, you know? ‘It happened’ — that kind of look. Ethel was bending over him and trying to comfort him.”
There was no comfort for anyone on this night. For years, Romero wondered if that handshake placed Kennedy in the killer’s line of fire.
Hamill went home, looked at his small daughters, and burst into tears. Schrade escaped with his life, only to become convinced that the truth of what happened that night was never told.
The official verdict, as recorded at trial and affirmed by subsequent investigation: Sirhan stalked Kennedy before the killing, kept diaries detailing his venomous intent, and fired a point-blank bullet into the presidential hopeful’s head.
There was no questioning one incontrovertible fact: Bobby Kennedy, like his brother Jack before him on Nov. 22, 1963, died at the hands of an assassin.
Sirhan Sirhan, age 24 on the night of the killing, emigrated 12 years earlier from Jerusalem to the U.S. He was not an Israeli, but a Palestinian Christian.
By June 1968, he shared a Pasadena, Calif., home with his mother and three brothers — the family patriarch abandoned his clan for a return to the Middle East.
The slight Sirhan, just 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, considered a career as a jockey until he was thrown from a horse — a fast finish to his equine dreams.
He lived as a stranger in a strange land, working menial jobs far from the Hollywood lights.
His hate for Kennedy followed the Democrat’s support of Israel during the Six-Day War of June 1967. RFK was putting the Palestinian people in the line of fire, according to an obsessed Sirhan.
The young man was spotted at the Ambassador Hotel as Kennedy delivered a June 2 speech — and was even spied in the pantry area, where their paths would cross just after midnight three days later.
On June 4, only hours before the shooting, Sirhan visited the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club to purchase ammunition for his .22-caliber handgun.
He made a specific and ominous request of the counterman: “I want the best box of shells you have, and I want some that will not misfire.”
Sirhan went to the firing range, squeezing off more than 200 rounds before heading out around 5 p.m.
Later in the evening, Kennedy staffers spotted Sirhan in an area to the rear of the ballroom stage and chased him out. He returned a short time later to the pantry, asking two hotel employees if Kennedy “was coming back through this way.”
As it turned out, he was.
Witnesses reported the assassin smirked as he squeezed the trigger. Some recounted the gunfire followed a verbal outburst: “Kennedy, you son of a bitch!” shouted Sirhan.
“Why him?” asked Kennedy’s California campaign manager, Jesse Unruh, as RFK was dying nearby.
“I did it for my country,” said Sirhan. “It is too late.”
A Kennedy staffer came to the podium where the smiling candidate stood minutes earlier.
“Would a doctor come right here, please, immediately,” he implored as the ballroom echoed with screams of horror and disbelief.
As Sirhan disappeared in cuffs, the Kennedy crowd started a new chant: “Kill him! Kill him!”
“I was a witness to history at its rawest and ugliest,” recalled Hamill. “I was assaulted by the totalness of the horror that we had witnessed.”
The suspect carried no identification, but his pockets contained $410.66 in cash and two newspaper articles: One about Kennedy promising to provide fighter jets to Israel if elected, the second about the candidate’s June 2 speech at the hotel.
A search of his home turned up more damning proof: Three notebooks recovered from Sirhan’s bedroom declared his lethal intent — right down to the day.
“My determination to eliminate R.F.K is becoming more and more of an unshakeable obsession,” read his handwritten note from May 18. “R.F.K. must be assassinated before 5 June 68.”
Bobby Kennedy underwent nearly four hours of surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital, but the prognosis was dire from the outset.
He was struck with three bullets, one behind the right ear fired from such close range that the candidate suffered powder burns. A second shot struck Kennedy in the right rear shoulder, and a third tore through his chest.
He never regained consciousness, although Kennedy hung in for 25 hours. Spokesman Frank Mankiewicz emerged in the early morning hours of June 6 with the news.
“Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today,” he declared. At his bedside were Ethel Kennedy, two of his sisters — and his brother John’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.
The accused assassin was quickly convicted of the killing in 1969. At trial, Sirhan screamed that he murdered Bobby Kennedy “willfully, premeditatedly, with 20 years of malice aforethought.”
And in a 1989 interview, Sirhan told interviewer David Frost, “I was not doing it out of personal malice toward the man, but out of concern for other people.”
More frequently, Sirhan has denied any recollection of the assassination — suggesting a “Manchurian Candidate”-type scenario. He’s serving a life sentence, commuted in 1972 from the death penalty.
At his latest parole hearing, in December 2016, he stuck with his nonstory story.
“It’s all vague now,” he declared. “I can’t deny or confirm it. … If you want a confession, I can’t make it now. Legally speaking, I’m not guilty of anything.”
Each year, when June 5 arrives, Hamill reflects on the death of Robert Kennedy and the carnage of the next seven years in Vietnam.
RFK backers saw their hopes for peace and social change buried along with Kennedy. Richard Nixon carried California that November to win the presidency in a tight race.
“Every time the anniversary comes, I think about every guy in Vietnam who died,” said Hamill. “All the names, and all the locations. If it had stopped in 1969, if we worked out a way to get out of there instead of waiting until 1975. That’s a long time in the grind of war.”
For Schrade, the anniversary means unfinished business. He reiterates, yet again, that the evidence indicates the shot into Kennedy’s head came from behind the victim, fired by a shooter less than 2 inches away. And yet, he notes, Sirhan was standing in front of them when he fired a bullet at Schrade.
He cites a 2007 analysis of an audio recording of the assassination that indicates there were 13 shots fired, five more than Sirhan’s gun held. He wants the release of all evidence and information collected by authorities.
At Sirhan’s parole hearing, he tried to shake the hand of the man who shot him.
“We want a new investigation,” Schrade said. “Not a reinvestigation — they’ve been done before, and always closed the door on the facts. They know what I do: Sirhan did not kill Bobby Kennedy, a second gunman did. And they haven’t admitted that for 50 years.”