After decades of investigation, Paul Schrade has no doubt about the identity of the man who shot him in the head shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel:
It was Sirhan Sirhan, the same gunman convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.
And yet, when Schrade came face to face with Sirhan for the first time in nearly 50 years, at a parole hearing in San Diego on Wednesday, he argued that the notorious gunman wasn’t Kennedy’s killer.
But the panel wasn’t swayed and Sirhan was denied parole for the 15th time, according to the Associated Press, which noted:
Commissioners concluded after more than three hours of intense testimony at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Center that Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understand the enormity of his crime.
Still, the AP reported, Schrade forgave his shooter during the hearing and apologized to Sirhan not doing more to win his release.
“I should have been here long ago and that’s why I feel guilty for not being here to help you and to help me,” Schrade said.
The AP noted that “Schrade’s voice cracked with emotion during an hour of testimony on his efforts to untangle mysteries about the events of June 5, 1968.” He said he believed Sirhan shot him, the AP noted, but that a second unidentified shooter killed Kennedy.
The 91-year-old Schrade, a Kennedy family friend, was working as the labor chairman of the senator’s presidential campaign in 1968. He was walking behind Kennedy when the Democratic candidate was shot four times.
In part because Kennedy was struck from behind, Schrade has long advanced the argument that Sirhan fired shots that night — but not the ones that killed Kennedy.
The fatal bullets, Schrade argued, were fired from a different shooter’s gun.
The AP reported Wednesday that Schrade “provided much of the drama” during Wednesday’s parole hearing.
He angrily ignored the commissioner’s admonishment to avoid directly addressing Sirhan and chastised the prosecution for a “venomous” statement advocating that Sirhan stay in prison.
Schrade, who long advocated the second-gunman theory, recalled how he became depressed and upset after the shooting and vividly described his extensive efforts to find answers. He stopped occasionally to apologize for being nervous and emotional.
The commissioner asked Schrade to wrap up after about an hour, saying, “Quite frankly, you’re losing us.”
“I think you’ve been lost for a long time,” Schrade shot back.
At one point, the commissioner asked if anyone wanted a break.
“No, I want to get this over,” Schrade answered from the audience. “I find it very abusive.”
It was the first time the shooter and Schrade had faced each since he testified at Sirhan’s 1969 trial, according to the AP, and Schrade apologized for not going to any of Sirhan’s 14 previous parole hearings.
Schrade told the Saratogian last year that even all these decades later, each anniversary of Kennedy’s death renews his stubborn resolve to seek justice.
“The truth is in the prosecution’s own records and the autopsy,” Schrade told the New York newspaper. “It says Sirhan couldn’t have shot Robert Kennedy and didn’t. He was out of position.”
In a statement to Shane O’Sullivan, author of “Who Killed Bobby? The Unsolved Murder of Robert F. Kennedy,” ahead of Wednesday’s parole hearing, Schrade outlined the scope of his argument.
“The LAPD and LA DA knew two hours after the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy that he was shot by a second gunman and they had conclusive evidence that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan could not and did not do it,” the statement said. “The official record shows that [the prosecution at Sirhan’s trial] never had one witness – and had no physical nor ballistic evidence – to prove Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy.
“Evidence locked up for 20 years shows that the LAPD destroyed physical evidence and hid ballistic evidence exonerating Sirhan, and covered up conclusive evidence that a second gunman fatally wounded Robert Kennedy.”
Sirhan, a Jerusalem native, was subdued on the ground with a gun in his hand in the chaotic moments after Kennedy was shot.
Kennedy, who had just won the Democratic presidential primary in California, died the next day.
Sirhan was sentenced to death in 1969, but his sentence was commuted after the California Supreme Court temporarily outlawed capital punishment in 1972.
Now 71, Sirhan has steadfastly maintained that he has no memory of the 1968 shooting, while various parole boards have asserted that he has not shown remorse for his crime or acknowledged the historic gravity of his actions.
“I don’t remember pulling a gun from my body,” he told board officials in 2011. “I don’t remember aiming it at any human being. Everything was always hazy in my head. I don’t remember anything very clearly.”
He added: “I’m not trying to evade anything.”
On Wednesday, according to the AP, Sirhan said yet again that he didn’t remember the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel.
Sirhan recalled events before the shooting in some detail — going to a shooting range that day, visiting the hotel in search of a party and returning after realizing he drank too many Tom Collins’ to drive. He drank coffee in a hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted.
The next thing he said he remembered was being choked and unable to breathe.
“It’s all vague now,” he said. “I’m sure you all have it in your records, I can’t deny it or confirm it. I just wish this whole thing had never taken place.”
Sirhan may not remember what happened that night, but Schrade says he does, in exquisite detail.
Before the shooting began, he recalls walking six to eight feet behind Kennedy through a hotel kitchen as the senator stopped to shake hands with several busboys, according to O’Sullivan.
As Kennedy turned to continue walking, Schrade saw more than one flash and heard “a crackling sound like electricity,” according to O’Sullivan’s book, “Who Killed Bobby?”
“I got hit with the first shot,” Schrade told the Saratogian. “I was right behind Bob. It was meant for him and got me. I thought I had been electrocuted. I was shaking violently on the floor and saw flashes.”
Writing for the Huffington Post in 2013, Schrade described his final moments with Kennedy and noted how close he came to death:
Bob knew I was hit first because he asked “Is everybody OK? Is Paul all right?” as he lay fatally wounded — always more concerned about others than himself.
I was lucky. If the bullet that hit me in the forehead had been a fraction of an inch lower, I would have been killed instantly. Instead, I survived and, after several years of recovery, I was asked to take part in legal efforts to discover all the facts about the shootings — specifically serious questions about whether Sirhan Sirhan had acted alone that night. As painful as it was for me to pursue, I knew that Americans deserved to know the truth about what really happened to Robert Kennedy, whose death — like the death of President Kennedy — changed the course of American history forever.
For those skeptical of Sirhan’s guilt, the crux of the argument rests on the number of shots fired that night.
According to O’Sullivan, Kennedy’s autopsy revealed that the senator was hit four times and that five others at the scene were wounded. If nine shots were fired, conspiracy theorists maintain, one must have been fired by someone other than Sirhan, who was carrying an eight-shot revolver.
Sirhan’s lawyers have also argued that their client was not in the right physical position to fire the shot that killed Kennedy, according to Reuters.
Schrade told the Saratogian that while no live television footage captured the shooting, he believes that a second gunman could have used the chaos to conceal a weapon and fire from close range.
The newspaper noted that skeptics’ arguments were seemingly bolstered by a 2007 analysis of an audio recording of the shooting. The analysis, the newspaper noted, “indicates a total of 13 shots fired, further strengthening the argument of those who believe a second gunman was involved, Kennedy’s true assassin.”
“No witness saw Sirhan’s gun close to Robert Kennedy or behind him,” Schrade told the Saratogian. “He was three feet in front of Kennedy. We need to take the evidence we have in the files and try to find out who the second gunman was and if there was a connection with Sirhan. If all else fails, I’m going to have to go public and accuse the justice establishment of not bringing justice to RFK. He deserves it and the family deserves it.”
When commissioners pressed Sirhan on his memory Wednesday and asked whether he felt remorse, the AP reported, he told them: “If you want a confession, I can’t make it now. Legally speaking, I’m not guilty of anything. … It’s not that I’m making light of it. I’m responsible for being there.”
Retired prosecutor David Dahle said at the hearing that Sirhan was guilty of “an attack on the American political system and the American political process,” the AP reported.
“The prisoner has still not come to grips with what he has done,” Dahle said.
After the hearing, the AP reported, Schrade shouted: “Sirhan, I’m so sorry this is happening to you. It’s my fault.”
Sirhan tried to shake hands with Schrade but a guard blocked him, the wire service added.
Sirhan will be eligible for parole again in five years.
This post has been updated.