The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: Was There a Second Shooter?

Updated on June 23, 2018
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in 1968.

Introduction

1968 was a year of turmoil in America as the Vietnam War raged, American cities had erupted into violence and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and tensions between supporters of the war and protestors were at a fever pitch. One bright spot in the chaos was the young Democratic senator from New York seeking the office of the president, a man who sought to unite the nation. On a warm June night in Los Angeles, a gunman would kill the ascending leader and add more tumult and grief to a nation already at the boiling point. Out of the confusion of that night at the Ambassador Hotel, where the deadly crime was committed, creditable sources close to the family and the crime itself have brought forth the theory of a second shooter. All the facts don’t seem to add up to the theory that a lone gunman could wreak so much deadly havoc.

Background

Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy was the younger brother of slain President John F. Kennedy. Like his older brother, Robert Kennedy was a career politician. Kennedy started his political career as his brother John’s campaign manager for his win of the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts. Once again, Robert helped his brother with a successful campaign, this one for the 1960 presidential election. Once seated as president, John appointed Robert as United States attorney general. Up until his brother’s death in 1963, Robert was the president’s closest advisor. After his brother’s death, he won the U.S. Senate seat from New York. Kennedy was an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, opposed racial discrimination, and was an advocate for human rights and social justice. Kennedy next set his sights on the presidency, and in the election of 1968, he was a leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination. Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy in the California and South Dakota presidential primaries on June 5, 1968, and that night would prove to be fatal for the 42-year-old Bobby Kennedy.

Layout of the Ambassador Hotel.
Layout of the Ambassador Hotel.

The Assassination

Kennedy won the primary election in California over McCarthy, and four hours after the polls closed he claimed victory while addressing a delirious crowd of campaign supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy ended his short speech with, “My thanks to all of you; and it’s on to Chicago, let’s win there!” After his speech, he went to be with supporters in another part of the hotel. The Secret Service at that point did not provide security to presidential candidates. Kennedy’s only security was provided by former FBI agent William Barry and two unofficial body guards, Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson and former professional football player Rosey Grier.

The plan after the speech was for Kennedy to go through the hotel’s kitchen and pantry area adjacent to the ballroom to the press area. Kennedy was hemmed in by the crush of the crowd and unable to go through the swinging doors to the kitchen corridor; instead, Kennedy followed the maître d'hôtel through the back exit. Kennedy shook hands with those in the kitchen and, led by the maître d’hôtel, they started down a passageway narrowed by an ice machine against the right wall and a steam table on the left. As Kennedy was shaking hands with busboy Juan Romero, a man rushed Kennedy from a tray-stacker beside the ice machine and began firing a .22 caliber revolver. The Senator fell to the floor and his bodyguard Barry hit the assailant twice in the face while others forced him against the steam table and attempted to disarm him. During the struggle, the gunman continued to fire in random directions, wounding five bystanders in addition to Kennedy. Barry went to Kennedy and placed his jacket under the candidate’s head. As Kennedy lay on the floor, the busboy Romero cradled his head and placed a rosary in his hand. Kennedy asked Romero, “Is everybody OK?” and Romero answered, “Yes, everybody’s OK.” Kennedy’s wife Ethel, three months pregnant with their eleventh child, was led to her husband and knelt beside him. After a few minutes, emergency responders arrived and lifted him onto a stretcher, prompting him to issue his final words, “Don’t lift me.” Unconscious, he was taken to the nearby Central Receiving Hospital. Arriving near death, a doctor shook his face calling, “Bob, Bob,” as another doctor massaged his heart. After his heart was revived, the doctor handed Ethel a stethoscope so she could hear his beating heart.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy awaits medical assistance as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy awaits medical assistance as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot.

The Shooter

The man wrestled to the floor by the two bodyguards after the shooting was Sirhan B. Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian Arab with Jordanian citizenship, born in Jerusalem. A notebook found in Sirhan’s Pasadena home contained “a direct reference to the necessity to assassinate Senator Kennedy before June 5, 1968,” according to Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty. The date of June 5 was significant because it was the first anniversary of the six-day war in which Israel’s force smashed those of the United Arab Republic, Syria, and Jordan. Sirhan claimed to be inflamed by Kennedy’s strong support of the state of Israel. Sirhan was convicted of Kennedy’s murder in April 1969 and sentenced to death. In 1972, Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole after the California Supreme Court invalidated all pending death sentences that were imposed prior to 1972. Over the years, Sirhan has repeatedly been denied parole and is currently held in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in California. He claims to have no memory of the shooting and his lawyers assert he was framed.

Sirhan B. Sirhan
Sirhan B. Sirhan

Second Shooter Theory

The idea that there was a second hooter in the assassination is not new. During the 1969 trial, the autopsy revealed that Kennedy was shot three times at point blank range from behind, including the fatal shot behind the ear. A fourth bullet was fired but passed through Kennedy’s jacket and did not enter his body. One problem is that Sirhan was standing in front of Kennedy and it is unclear how the assailant could have shot Kennedy in the back four times. Renewed interest in the possibility of a second gunman has been brought forth by Robert Kennedy, Jr., the son of the slain senator. The junior Kennedy has been investigating the evidence and said, “I was disturbed that the wrong person might be convicted of killing my father. My father was chief law enforcement officer in the country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Another advocate of the idea of a second shooter is Paul Schrade, now 93, who was walking with Robert Kennedy when the shooting broke out in the kitchen area. Schrade was one of those wounded and vividly recalls the scene in the pantry, “He [Kennedy] immediately started shaking hands…The TV lights went on. I got hit. I didn’t know I was hit. I was shaking violently, and I fell. Then Bob fell. I saw flashes and heard crackling. The crackling actually was all the other bullets being fired.”

More evidence suggesting a second shooter came from the coroner, the now famous Thomas Noguchi, who found powder burns on the Senator’s jacket and on his hair, suggesting the shots were fired at close contact. Several other witnesses said that Sirhan was not close enough to place the gun against Kennedy’s back. Schrade believed Sirhan shot him and wounded others but did not fire the shot that killed Kennedy. Starting in 1974, Schrade has led a crusade to persuade authorities, the police, prosecutors, and the feds to reinvestigate the case and identify the second gunman.

Robert Kennedy Assassination Video

Ballistic Evidence

There has been considerable debate regarding the ballistic evidence in the case. The lead crime scene investigator, DeWayne Wolfer, testified at trail that a bullet taken from Kennedy’s body and two of the bullets taken from wounded victims all matched Sirhan’s gun. Other experts disagreed, stating that the three bullets had markings from different guns. An internal police report concluded that, “Kennedy and Weisel bullets not fired from same gun” (Weisel was one of the other shooting victims) and “Kennedy bullet not fired from Sirhan’s revolver.”

Audio Evidence

In addition to the eyewitnesses at the scene and contradictory ballistic evidence, there is also audio evidence from a reporter’s microphone that captured the event on tape. The Polish journalist Stanislaw Pruszynski had inadvertently left his microphone on and recorded audio of the event. In 2005, the audio tape was analyzed by audio engineer Philip Van Praag and he said the tape revealed about 13 shots. The technology used by Van Praag was similar to that used by police departments to alert them to gunshots in urban areas, and the algorithms are sensitive enough to differentiate between loud noises, firecrackers, and different types of guns. Van Praag concluded that there were more than eight shots fired during the incident. Sirhan’s gun was only capable of firing eight shots, and he didn’t have time to reload. “There were too many bullets,” Robert Kennedy, Jr., said. “You can’t fire 13 shots out of an eight shot gun.” Van Praag’s findings have been refuted by other audio experts.

We may never know if Sirhan Sirhan was the only shooter in the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, though it is sure to be a point of contention for years to come.

References

Felsenthal, Edward (editor). Robert F. Kennedy: His Life and Legacy. Time Special Edition. Time Inc. Books. 2018.

Jackman, Tom. “Who killed Bobby? RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan.” The Kansas City Star. May 27, 2018.

Kuiss, Peter. “Notes on Kennedy in Suspects Home.” New York Times. June 6, 1968.

Porter, Linday. Assassination: A History of Political Murder. The Overlook Press. 2010.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        7 weeks ago from Oklahoma

        Intersting analysis.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        7 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

        It is amazing that 50 years later his assassination it is still a point of debate. 50 years from now, it will probably still be talked about.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        7 weeks ago from U.S.A.

        Excellent article, Doug. Robert Kenedy's assassination still has many questions to be answered. Interesting and thoughtfully done.

        Sincerely,

        Tim

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        7 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        This will continue to remain a puzzle to many of us. It is sad that a father who wanted to serve his country was killed.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        7 weeks ago from Auburn, WA

        Doug, I got to speak with Buck Compton (one of the chief prosecutors) and he was adamant that there was no second shooter. I asked him what state Sirhan was in during the interrogation, he said almost catatonic, as everyone described him. I'm not surprised with his belief, although I share it. If there had been a second shooter, he would have been spotted.

        Compton's primary beef was with reports that evidence had been destroyed prematurely. I guess sometime in the early 2000s, LAPD incinerated a whole bunch of items. Great topic. Thx.

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