Echoes of a Tragedy

The death by a gunman of former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is an eerie reminder of another tragic death in America, that of Robert Kennedy, whose consequences are felt even today. Both deaths demonstrate the fragility of democracy, and how only one person can alter the political landscape of a country.

The shots followed quickly: pat, pat, pat, pat! Seconds before it was a scene of jubilation: the crowd gathered at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was celebrating Robert Kennedy’s victory in the California primary elections shouting: We want Bobby, we want Bobby! What had been an atmosphere of elation became suddenly a tragedy. It was exactly 10 minutes after midnight on June 5, 1968.

On the floor, holding a rosary of black beads with one hand while his other hand was held by Juan Romero, a hotel kitchen helper, lay the American Senator Robert Kennedy. He was the unquestionable star of the Democratic Party, with great chances of being next President of the United States. Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian with a gun still warm in his hand, was immediately arrested and charged with having shot Kennedy, killing him 25 hours later.

It was the end of Robert Kennedy’s life and the beginning of what remains a mystery: who really killed him. Almost 50 years later, in an unexpected turn of events, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said recently that he now doesn’t believe that Sirhan Sirhan murdered his father but there was probably a second gunman who did it. Although there is plenty of damning evidence against him, the hypothesis that Sirhan Sirhan was the murderer has many weaknesses.

On February 10, 2016, Paul Schrade, an official of United Automobile Workers (UAW) and personal friend of Bobby Kennedy who was next to him at the time of the shots that finished with his life, made new statements on the assassination of Kennedy in front of the Board of Prison Parole Richard J. Donovan in San Diego County, California.

Schrade’s testimony is fundamental because he seriously questions that Sirhan Sirhan has been the real murderer of Robert Kennedy, as is generally believed, and draws attention to the role of the CIA in that assassination. Moreover, Schrade believes that a second attacker is the true assassin of Kennedy.

In an emotional testimony, addressed both to Sirhan Sirhan, still in prison, and to the county authorities, Schrade said: “I was wounded when I was standing next to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had just won the Democrat primary California for the Presidency of the United States. Five of us survived our wounds. As history shows, Senator Kennedy was fatally wounded. The evidence clearly shows that you were not the murderer who killed Robert Kennedy. There is clear evidence that there was a second killer in the kitchen pantry that shot Kennedy. One of the shots -the fatal shot- hit Kennedy in the back of his neck. Two more shots hit him in the back. A fourth shot ran through the right sleeve of his coat and did no harm. I think those four shots were fired by a second killer behind Bob. You were never behind Bob, nor was his back exposed in your direction. Moreover, Sirhan, the evidence not only shows that you did not shoot Kennedy but you could not even do it … While Sirhan was in front of Bob Kennedy and his shots distracted attention, the other murderer secretly shot from behind and wounded him fatally. Bob died 25 hours later. ”

The same opinion that Sirhan Sirhan was in front of and not behind Kennedy – and therefore could not be the murderer since the lethal shots came from behind – was shared by Scott Enyart, a youth of then 15 years who was in the place of the murder by taking photos for the diary of his school. According to Enyart, he took three rolls of film. However, authorities said he only took a roll. In highly suspicious circumstances the Enyart rolls which were in the possession of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) disappeared or were stolen.

In his statement about the existence of a second assailant, Schrade cites the opinion of an audiology expert, Philip Van Praag, who heard the only recording of the time of the murder and concluded that two revolvers were fired at Kennedy. Van Praag also found a total of 13 shots on the tape despite the fact that Sirhan’s revolver had only eight bullets and that Sirhan had not been able to recharge his revolver. That opinion was later confirmed by other specialists in audiology.

To reinforce his version of the existence of a second attacker, Schrade cites the opinion of two kitchen helpers at the Ambassador Hotel: Karl Uecker and Edward Minasian, who were at the time near Kennedy. They stated that Sirhan was in front of him while the senator walked towards him and that Sirhan was still in front of Kennedy when he fired at him.

The Kennedy autopsy report also says that all the shots came from behind, a hypothesis supported by Thomas Noguchi, a Los Angeles County legal doctor. In addition, Schrade says, lawyers for the Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Police Departments knew two hours later that Kennedy was killed by a second person and that Sirhan was not and could not have been the killer.

If not Sirhan Sirhan, who was then the assassin of Robert Kennedy? In November 2006, the BBC news program presented an investigation by filmmaker Shane O ‘Sullivan where he claimed that several CIA officials were present the night of the bombing. Several former colleagues and associates of three men who appear in movies and photographs that night identified them as former CIA officers they had worked with in 1963 on JMWAVE anti-Castro radio station. Among them was David Morales, station’s Chief of Operations, known for his hatred of the family of assassinated President John Kennedy for what he considered his betrayal during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

On February 22, 2012, Sirhan’s attorneys, William Pepper and Laurie Dusek, filed a writ in the Los Angeles District Court saying a second person had shot Kennedy, fatally wounding him. It was the fourth time they had made that presentation. Strangely, Sirhan Sirhan always insisted that he did not remember anything of the event, which happened at a time when the CIA was carrying out numerous experiments of mental control.

An important hypothesis as to why the CIA might have been involved in this assassination is that, if elected president, Robert Kennedy had stated that he would thoroughly investigate the death of his brother John, and the CIA feared where those investigations might lead to.

As the political analyst Carlos Duguech says: “Magnicides are carefully prepared so that they will never be discovered.” In support of his assertion, the Los Angeles Police Department destroyed hundreds of documents which were important evidence to elucidate the case, further complicating the understanding of this tragedy. The death of Robert Kennedy opened a Pandora’s Box of possibilities, and a sweet illusion had come to a tragic end.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”