LOS ANGELES — For six years after he was shot and wounded while walking behind Robert F. Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in June 1968, Paul Schrade mourned the loss of his friend and stayed out of the public eye. But beginning with a news conference in 1974, Schrade has demanded answers to the question of whether a second gunman — and not Sirhan Sirhan — killed Kennedy.
Soon after Sirhan’s trial ended with his first-degree-murder conviction in April 1969, journalists noted that Kennedy had been shot in the back of the head at point-blank range, but witnesses all said Sirhan was standing in front of Kennedy. Bullet holes found in the doors of the crime scene indicated more shots were fired than could have come from Sirhan’s eight-shot .22-caliber pistol, some witnesses said. Sirhan’s defense team had not challenged any of the physical evidence at trial.
Fifty years after the assassination, Schrade is still pushing for a new investigation.” I’m interested in finding out how the prosecutor convicted Sirhan with no evidence, knowing there was a second gunman,” Schrade said. “The truth is not known yet about who killed Robert Kennedy.” Schrade, now 93, believes Sirhan wounded him and four other people but did not fire the fatal shot into Kennedy.
Schrade has been supported in his calls for a new investigation into the case by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who met with Sirhan in prison last December and told The Washington Post that “the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father.” Now Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has joined Schrade and her brother.
“Bobby makes a compelling case,” the former Maryland lieutenant governor told The Post. “I think it should be reopened.”
Three other Kennedy children — former Congressman Joe Kennedy, activist Kerry Kennedy and filmmaker Rory Kennedy — have said they do not think the case should be reopened. Ethel Kennedy, the senator’s widow and now 90, has not commented.
Schrade and a host of authors and researchers point to a number of apparent missteps by the Los Angeles police and prosecutors in focusing solely on Sirhan, while suppressing evidence of a second shooter, such as:
• Prosecutors withheld the autopsy report from Sirhan’s defense lawyers until six weeks into the trial, showing that Kennedy had been shot at point-blank range from behind. Five other people in the hotel pantry standing behind Kennedy, including Schrade, were hit by bullets fired from in front of them.
• Police failed to investigate an armed private-security guard who was walking behind Kennedy at precisely the angle where the fatal shots to Kennedy’s head and back were fired. He has consistently denied firing his weapon but has told conflicting stories over the years.
• Police officers and FBI agents identified apparent bullet holes in two door frames of the pantry, indicating more than eight shots were fired. But no evidence of those holes was presented at trial, and the Los Angeles police destroyed the door frames shortly after the trial.
• The lead crime-scene investigator testified at trial that bullets from the wounded victims matched a bullet from Kennedy, but presented no photos or evidence to support that. When two ballistics experts examined the bullets after the trial, they found the bullets didn’t match. Subsequent investigations couldn’t match any of the bullets to Sirhan’s gun. The crime-scene investigator was subsequently criticized even by prosecutors for sloppy work in the case, by a judge for seeming perjury in another high-profile murder, and later suspended by his own police chief.
• Los Angeles police bullied or ignored witnesses whose stories did not match the lone gunman scenario, records show, particularly people who claimed they saw Sirhan with a dark-haired woman in a white polka-dot dress. Then at trial, prosecutors brought in a blonde-haired woman with a green polka-dot dress and claimed she was the mysterious woman in question. Sirhan’s lawyers, focusing on a mental health defense, did not challenge that, either.
The Los Angeles police have heard all this criticism before, did some reinvestigation in the 1970s that confirmed their own work, and now consider the case closed. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office referred inquiries to the California attorney general’s office, which repeatedly defeated Sirhan’s appeals, and which declined to respond beyond court filings. The California and federal courts have consistently held that Sirhan was guilty of murder, even with new discoveries made in the decades after the early morning of June 5, 1968.
“Considering all of the evidence,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich wrote in 2013, “old and new, incriminatory and exculpatory, admissible and inadmissible, the Court cannot say that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found [Sirhan] guilty of the assassination of Senator Kennedy beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lisa Pease, author of a forthcoming book on the investigation’s failures, said: “In ignoring the myriad evidence of conspiracy in this case, the LAPD and DA’s office created the seventh pantry victim: the truth. We have a guy in prison, provably by the evidence, for a crime he didn’t commit.”
There are facts that are not in dispute, namely that Sirhan had a .22-caliber pistol in the hotel pantry on June 5, 1968, and that he emptied all eight shots as Kennedy stood in front of him. Two Ambassador Hotel employees, Karl Uecker and Edward Minasian, said repeatedly that Uecker grabbed Sirhan’s wrist after two shots, slammed it to a table, and that Sirhan continued to fire wildly while being held down but never got close to Kennedy.
“I have told police and testified [to the grand jury],” Uecker said in a 1975 affidavit, “that there was a distance of at least one and one-half feet between the muzzle of Sirhan’s gun and Senator Kennedy’s head. The revolver was directly in front of my nose. … There is no way that the shots described in the autopsy could have come from Sirhan’s gun. … Sirhan never got close enough to a point-blank shot, never.”
But at trial, neither prosecutors nor Sirhan’s defense team focused on the distance between Kennedy and Sirhan. Though Sirhan and prosecutors reached a plea deal in January 1969 for Sirhan to admit guilt and receive a life sentence — a deal the judge rejected — and trial began on Jan. 7, records show prosecutors did not provide coroner Thomas Noguchi’s autopsy report until about Feb. 22. By that time, the defense had already decided to concede that Sirhan had shot Kennedy and was trying simply to avoid the death penalty by claiming he was mentally ill.
Noguchi found that four shots had been fired at Kennedy from at most three inches away. Three shots appeared to be in contact with Kennedy’s back and shoulder, based on powder burns to his jacket, Noguchi said, with one shot passing through the jacket’s shoulder pad and not touching Kennedy. All three were fired sharply upward. The fourth shot was fired into the back of Kennedy’s head from three inches away, Noguchi concluded, by test-firing a similar gun to determine how much gunpowder sprayed at various distances.
“Thus I have never said,” Noguchi wrote in his autobiography, “that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy.” At a conference last month of RFK assassination authors, Pittsburgh coroner Cyril Wecht pressed Noguchi as to whether there was a second gunman, but the 91-year-old pathologist said, “That’s not my duty.” He also told Wecht that defense attorneys never spoke with him before the trial and did not ask him about the muzzle distance at trial.
Prosecutors and some authors have theorized that Kennedy turned and raised his arm as the shots began, thus enabling Sirhan to hit him in the back. The government notes that the jury heard the evidence, convicted Sirhan and sentenced him to death, which was later commuted to a life term. But there was plenty of evidence the jury never heard. An appeal Sirhan’s current lawyers have pending to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says Sirhan suffered from ineffective assistance from his legal team.
The defense attorneys also went lightly on Los Angeles police criminalist DeWayne Wolfer, who oversaw the crime-scene investigation. He and Noguchi were both photographed pointing to bullet holes in the pantry, and police removed those door frames. Numerous witnesses, including police officers and FBI agents, said the holes were made by bullets. But between the bullets which hit Kennedy and those which hit Schrade and four others, all the bullets from Sirhan’s gun had been accounted for by Wolfer.
“I’ve inspected quite a few crime scenes in my day,” FBI Special Agent William Bailey told authors William Klaber and Philip Melanson for their book, “Shadow Play: The Unsolved Murder of Robert F. Kennedy.” “These were clearly bullet holes; the wood around them was freshly broken away and I could see the base of a bullet in each one.” Many other people saw these holes, reports show.
In 1992, former LAPD organized crime Detective Mike Rothmiller filed an affidavit saying he had reviewed an internal intelligence report about the assassination which “listed a total of ten different bullets that had been recovered from the scene of the assassination and victims.” Rothmiller knew Sirhan’s gun held eight bullets. The report was never disclosed to Sirhan’s lawyers.
Wolfer concluded that the holes in the pantry had been made previously through hotel wear and tear, not bullets, though Uecker and other employees said the holes were not there before. The issue was not explored at trial, and when an article appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press shortly after the trial ended questioning the four holes, Los Angeles police destroyed the door frames, records show. The police said there was no room to hold the frames and they were not needed after the conviction, though Sirhan’s appeal was pending. Ceiling tiles with apparent bullet holes in them, removed from directly above the shooting area and also not introduced at trial, were destroyed by the police, too.
Crucially, Wolfer testified that a bullet removed from Kennedy’s neck and a bullet removed from a wounded victim had come from Sirhan’s gun. But he did not submit any photos comparing the two bullets or keep any notes documenting his comparison, and the defense accepted his testimony without challenge. In 1970, when ballistics expert William Harper examined the bullets with a newly invented comparison camera, he found the bullets had not been fired from the same gun.
Soon two other ballistics experts also said the two bullets came from different guns. In 1975, a commission of seven experts was empaneled to review the ballistics, including refiring Sirhan’s gun. But Sirhan’s gun had deteriorated, and it couldn’t be determined whether it had fired either the Kennedy bullet or the wounded victim’s bullet. Later, it was determined that the bullet police submitted for the 1975 test as the Kennedy bullet was from another victim, not Kennedy.
If police had followed a trail of bullets from behind Kennedy’s right side, the person who was standing closest to him was an armed private-security guard, Thane Eugene Cesar. Cesar said he fell down as the shooting began, then pulled his .38-caliber gun but didn’t fire because Sirhan had already been captured. A news assistant for a local TV station, Don Schulman, gave a radio interview moments after the shooting and described Cesar firing back at Sirhan.
But Los Angeles police did not check Cesar’s gun, records show. When he showed them a .22-caliber revolver similar to Sirhan’s, the police didn’t check that gun either. Cesar was never a suspect for the police and always maintained his innocence. Prosecutors never called him as a witness, even though he was one of those standing closest to Kennedy. Journalist Dan Moldea hired a top polygraph examiner to question Cesar in 1994, and Moldea said Cesar was found truthful. He lives today in the Philippines. His .22-caliber revolver has been found but never tested for comparison to the Kennedy bullet.
Another angle the police were disinclined to follow was the “girl in the polka-dot dress.” Numerous people in the pantry spotted her standing with Sirhan, consistently describing her as “shapely” or “proportionate,” in a white dress with black dots. Most notable of these witnesses was Sandra Serrano, who gave an interview to NBC’s Sander Vanocur an hour after the shooting describing the woman, and a man, running out of the hotel saying, “We shot Kennedy.” But records show an aggressive and demeaning polygraph interview given by an LAPD examiner caused Serrano to change her story. [“Nobody told you ‘We have shot Kennedy,'" Lt. Enrique Hernandez told Serrano, recordings show. “Sandy, you know that this is wrong . . . This didn’t happen."] Serrano later returned to her original story. John Fahey, a man who spoke to police during their investigation, had said he spent the day of the election with a woman in a polka-dot dress who told him, “They’re gonna take care of Kennedy tonight.” But police interrogators told him, “These answers will have to be changed,” and eventually Fahey equivocated and his account was dismissed, according to Shane O’Sullivan’s book “Who Killed Bobby?”.
An older couple told Sgt. Paul Sharaga about the man and the woman in the polka-dot dress and also heard the “We shot Kennedy” remark. Sharaga broadcast a lookout for the pair, only to have it canceled 90 minutes later. Recordings show that an LAPD inspector told Sharaga over the radio that one man was in custody, and police “don’t want them to get anything started on a big conspiracy.”
Twenty years later, when the case records were released, Sharaga said the LAPD report on his action was “phony,” because it said the couple reported the girl saying, “They shot Kennedy” instead of “We shot Kennedy.” Sharaga told author William Klaber: “This is just how things were done. If they couldn’t get you to change your story, they’d ignore you. If they couldn’t ignore you, they’d discredit you, and if they couldn’t do that, they’d just make something up.”