On June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, former U.S. Attorney General, then U.S. Senator from New York and Democratic Presidential candidate, was fatally shot by an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just finished delivering a California Primary victory speech before a throng of supporters in the hotel’s Embassy Room ballroom. He then headed with campaign staffers to another room in the hotel for a press conference. They were directed through the hotel kitchen and pantries. As Kennedy worked his way, shaking hands, through well-wishers and hotel staff, he was shot several times by Sirhan B. Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant from Jordan. Within 26 hours, the promising candidate for President of the United States was dead.
Until that early morning in June, 1968 had already been a year reeling from social and political unrest. Los Angeles had earlier experienced the East Los Angeles school walkouts and escalating clashes between Chicano activists and local authorities. Just two months earlier, the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking outbreaks of violence in cities across the nation. The war in Vietnam had already consumed 28,753 American lives, fomenting increasing anti-war militant student activism on college campuses across the U.S.
Many saw Robert F. Kennedy as new hope for the nation. With votes in from the June 4 primaries in California and South Dakota, Kennedy was running second place in the overall Democrat race against first place Vice President Hubert Humphrey and third place Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy took 46 percent of California’s Democrat vote against McCarthy’s 42 percent. Although California’s Democratic establishment favored Humphrey as the establishment candidate (with the notable exception of California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who supported Kennedy), Kennedy’s support in California came largely from its minority, low-income and working-class white populations.
The final words of Kennedy’s speech, shortly after midnight on June 5, to a cheering ballroom crowd were, "My thanks to all of you; and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there!” Illinois was going to be the final state primary, set for June 11. Kennedy planned, right after delivering his speech, to meet with supporters in another room in the hotel, but with pressing time constraints, aides redirected him to a press conference. As Kennedy followed the lead of maître d'hôtel Karl Uecker through the hotel kitchen, his only protection was former FBI agent William Barry and two former athlete bodyguards. Until that time, only incumbent presidents were protected by the U.S. Secret Service in presidential campaigns (a policy changed by congress and President Lyndon Johnson as a result of Robert Kennedy’s assassination). Kennedy, nevertheless, welcomed close contact with the public. He shook hands with kitchen staff as he moved through the serving pantry. As he came to a narrow point between a serving table and an ice machine, Kennedy reached out and shook the hand of 17-year-old busboy Juan Romero, a Roosevelt High School student. Just then, at 15 minutes after midnight, Sirhan Sirhan stepped toward Kennedy, brushed past Uecker, and, at very close range, fired several shots at Kennedy with a .22 caliber, eight-round revolver. Kennedy, wounded, immediately fell backwards to the floor, with Romero still at his side. Barry promptly jumped at Sirhan to disarm him, joined by the two unofficial bodyguards, Rafer Johnson (an Olympic decathlete gold medalist), Rosey Grier (a former professional football player) and writer George Plimpton. Before being completely subdued, Sirhan continued to fire to empty his handgun, wounding Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers union and Kennedy’s campaign labor chair, Ira Goldstein, a 19-year-old part-time radio reporter for Continental News Service, William Weisel, associate news director for ABC News, and Irwin Stroll, a 17-year-old campaign volunteer, and Elizabeth Evans, a Democrat activist from Saugus. Schrade was the most seriously wounded of the five other victims. He later remarked that, despite his own wounds, he was angry that they had not better protected the senator, especially in light of the death of Robert Kennedy’s brother. Sirhan was held by Johnson and Grier until police arrived to take him into custody. Police led him out of the hotel, cuffed and heavily protected (more so than was Kennedy), back through the ballroom and a crowd of upset, jeering Kennedy supporters.
As Kennedy lay seriously wounded on the kitchen floor with the young Romero at his side, Barry placed his jacket beneath Kennedy’s bloodied head. Kennedy was still conscious and Romero pressed a rosary into his hand. Romero reported that Kennedy asked, “Is everybody OK?” Kennedy also asked about Paul Schrade, also wounded on the floor nearby. Romero tried reassuring him, “Yes, everybody’s OK.” Kennedy then turned his head away and said, "Everything's going to be OK." That moment, as Romero crouched next to stricken Kennedy, was captured in what are now iconic images by photographers Bill Eppridge of Life magazine and Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times.
At the time of the shooting, only ABC News was still on the air, although it was in the process of signing off for the day. As music played as part of the sign off, the voice of announcer Carl Caruso came over telling remaining viewers to "please stand by for a special report." His announcement was repeated over almost four and one half minutes until announcer Howard K. Smith, who had earlier closed out ABC’s broadcast, finally came back on air from the ABC newsroom. He announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have kept the air on because we have heard an alarming report that Robert Kennedy was shot in that ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles."
Medical responders arrived at the scene at the hotel within a few minutes of the shooting. Before Kennedy lost consciousness, he was reported to have said, “Don’t lift me,” as he was lifted to a stretcher. These were believed to be his last words. Kennedy was rushed to Central Receiving Hospital, about two miles away from the hotel (closed in 1970; currently site of LAPD Rampart Station), where emergency care doctors sought to maintain his life. There, doctors offered a stethoscope to his wife, Ethel, to reassure her that her husband’s heart was still beating.
After about a half hour at Central Receiving Hospital, Kennedy was transferred a few blocks away to Good Samaritan Hospital for emergency surgery. The surgery lasted for three hours and 40 minutes. Afterwards, he remained in extreme critical condition. He had been shot three times, once in the head and twice in the abdomen. Surgeons removed a bullet lodged in his neck and bone fragments from his brain. At 1:44 a.m., on June 6, almost 26 hours after the shooting, doctors pronounced Kennedy dead.
Campaign spokesman, Frank Mankiewicz, delivered the terse announcement of Kennedy’s death to reporters waiting nearby for updates:
“I have a short announcement to read, which I will read at this time. Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 AM, June 6, 1968. With Senator Kennedy at the time of his death were his wife Ethel, his sisters Mrs. Stephen Smith, Mrs. Patricia Lawford, his brother-in-law Mr. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was 42 years old. Thank you.”
Kennedy's body was taken to the Los Angeles County Coroner for an autopsy on June 6, after which his body was flown back to New York. On June 8, he was laid to rest near the gravesite of his elder brother at Arlington National Cemetery.
Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan B. Sirhan, was a 24-year-old Palestinian from Jordan who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12. After briefly living in New York, his family moved to Pasadena. He had been raised Christian, dabbled in several different Christian expressions, and, later joined the Rosicrucians. In 1968, he worked at the stables at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia. He was a strong anti-Zionist and opponent of Israel. After his arrest for shooting Kennedy, he confessed to police that he had shot Kennedy and later testified in his trial that he hated Kennedy for supporting Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Police had also found a diary among his possessions in which he recorded his “determination to eliminate RFK” and “RFK must die. RFK must be killed.” Sirhan’s defenders, however, argued that he was driven more by mental instability than by political views. His counsel defended him on grounds of “diminished responsibility.” Days before the trial, they even offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. Sirhan, however, wanted not only to plea guilty, but to do so to all counts without reservation. He testified that he killed Kennedy "with 20 years of malice aforethought” (referring back to when the modern state of Israel was established 20 years earlier). He further requested the dismissal of his defense counsel and, when asked by his trial judge, Judge Herbert V. Walker, about what possible sentence he might receive, he asked for the death penalty. Judge Walker, however, would hear nothing of it and declined to accept Sirhan’s guilty plea.
The trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, held at the Hall of Justice in Downtown Los Angeles, commenced on February 12, 1969 and ended, just over nine weeks later, on April 17, 1969. Sirhan was found guilty for the murder of Robert Kennedy. He was sentenced to death on April 23, 1969. Three years later, in 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled against California’s death penalty, forcing Sirhan’s sentence to be commuted to life in prison. As of 2018, all appeals had been unsuccessful as well as 15 applications for parole. He is currently imprisoned at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego. Sirhan maintains that he has no memory of the events of the assassination. Some, now including Robert Kennedy’s son Robert Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s friend and fellow shooting victim Paul Schrade, believe that an unidentified second shooter was involved and delivered the actual fatal shots.
Some historians believe that Robert Kennedy’s assassination of was the first incident of violence on U.S. soil related to the conflict in the Middle East.
The Los Angeles Police Department held all evidence related to the Robert F. Kennedy assassination until 1987. These included all investigative and trial documents and physical evidence such as the murder weapon, recovered bullets, Kennedy’s blood-stained clothing and removed bone fragments. In 1987, the LAPD turned over all items except for the clothing items to the California State Archives in Sacramento. The clothing items are currently in the possession of the Los Angeles County District Attorney. In 2010, the LAPD arranged with the District Attorney to add Kennedy’s clothing items to a temporarily public display, along artifacts from other historical high profile Los Angeles homicides, at a California Homicide Investigators Association conference in Las Vegas. The Kennedy family promptly took notice and, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy’s sons, sharply criticized the display as "a cheap bid for attention" and “macabre publicity stunt.” He further stated:
"It is almost incomprehensible to imagine what circumstances would have led to a decision to transport these items across state lines to be gawked at by gamblers and tourists. It is demeaning to my family, but just as important, it is demeaning to the trust that citizens place in their law enforcement officers."
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck immediately removed the items from the display and issued an apology to victims’ families in an open letter.
In a 2015 interview with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, the man who had been that young busboy at Kennedy’s side, Juan Romero, spoke of how he felt about Robert Kennedy up to that fateful event. Earlier that evening, Romero delivered room service to Kennedy. “He made me feel like a regular citizen,” he said. “He made me feel like a human being. He didn't look at my color, he didn't look at my position ... and like I tell everybody, he shook my hand. I didn't ask him." Romero continued to work at the Ambassador Hotel for a short time after Kennedy’s death, but decided to leave after hotel visitors kept asking to be photographed with him. For decades, Romero struggled with the guilt that, had he not shaken Kennedy’s hand, the senator might not have been killed. With time and help, he learned to lay that guilt aside. The hope that Kennedy had inspired in him, however, was also a victim. With violent ends to John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, Romero echoed the sentiments of millions of others at the time. "It made me realize that no matter how much hope you have it can be taken away in a second.”
L.A. Video: Robert Kennedy's Final Speech and Aftermath, ABC News, 1968.