When Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro headed to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of June 4, 1968, he wasn't on assignment.
He'd just heard on the news that Robert F. Kennedy was going to win the California Democratic presidential primary. Yaro admired Kennedy, and he wanted a picture of him for his living room wall.
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He wound up taking one of the most unforgettable images of 1968.
With his press pass and camera hanging around his neck, Yaro was able to get close to Kennedy as he finished his victory speech and walked away to shake hands. That’s when a man named Sirhan B. Sirhan walked up and began firing at Kennedy’s head.
“Pop! Pop! Pop!” Yaro told the StoryCorps podcast earlier this year. “The crowd separated like Moses parting the Red Sea. And Kennedy was putting his hands up like a boxer, trying to avoid getting hit. Bobby, I saw him slump to the ground . . . His legs were splayed toward me, and I saw the blood dropping out of his ear.”
Then he shot the photo that haunts history: Kennedy, his legs limp, staring blankly into nowhere and a young busboy crouched beside him, propping up his head, with a stunned, helpless look on his face.
That busboy, Juan Romero, died this week from a heart attack at age 68, according to the L.A. Times — though, in truth, his heart broke as Kennedy lay dying in his hands. Just the day before, Romero, a 17-year-old Mexican immigrant, delivered room service to Kennedy.
“They opened the door and the senator was talking on the phone,” Romero told StoryCorps. “He put down the phone and says, ‘Come on in, boys.’ You could tell when he was looking at you that he’s not looking through you; he’s taking you into account. And I remember walking out of there like I was 10 feet tall.”
After snapping the photo, Yaro raced to find a phone so he could alert his editor.
“And I said, ‘Kennedy has been shot,’” Yaro, now retired, told the L.A. Times earlier this year. “He said, ‘Yeah, we know, he’s been shot in the leg.’ I said, ‘No sir. I saw blood coming out of his ear.’”
Yaro was ordered to the newsroom immediately. When he arrived, someone else developed the film. Yaro cried when he saw the photo.
For the rest of their lives, both men — the photographer and the busboy — were traumatized by the moment. That year, 1968, was chaotic and deadly. Riots. Assassinations. The country was seemingly coming apart.
“I hate that damn picture,” Yaro told StoryCorps. “I had no copy in the house. I didn’t like it then, and I’m not crazy about it now. I had covered the Watts Riots, 1965. JFK was killed. Martin Luther King was killed. I was seeing anger in the world. And it was getting worse. Bobby Kennedy was going to be the knight in shining armor. And he didn’t get a chance.”
The psychological damage was worse for Romero.
Just before the shooting, Romero, then just 17 years old, offered his hand to Kennedy for a congratulatory handshake. Among the hundreds of letters he received — they were addressed to “the busboy” — were ones blaming him for Kennedy’s death.
“If he hadn’t stopped to shake your hand,” he recalled the letters saying, “the senator would have been alive.”
Romero moved to Wyoming. Still, he couldn't escape the memory. He cried a lot. He felt guilty. In 2010, he apologized in person.
Romero traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to visit Kennedy’s gravesite. He had never owned a suit, but he bought one for the occasion — “a sign of respect,” he later said.
“I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him,” Romero said. “And so, when I wore the suit and I stood in front of his grave, I felt ...”
And just then his voice began to crack, recalling that the way he felt at the gravesite was a little like how he felt when he arrived at Kennedy’s room in his busboy uniform.
“I felt important,” Romero said. “I felt American. And I felt good.”
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