On Wednesday morning in San Diego, Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Bobby Kennedy, will once again be considered for parole. Sirhan was originally scheduled for release in 1984 but after intense political pressure, his parole date was rescinded and he has since been denied 13 times.
At the hearing, Sirhan will come face-to-face with Paul Schrade for the first time — a close friend of the Kennedy family who, on June 5, 1968, was walking behind the senator when the shooting started. Schrade was shot in the head by Sirhan.
For over 40 years, Schrade, now 91, has been campaigning to reopen the case, based on eyewitness evidence that Sirhan could not have fired the fatal shot described in Kennedy’s autopsy and an analysis of the only known audio recording of the shooting which indicates that 13 shots — and two guns — were fired.
Schrade plans to tell the parole board that new evidence shows Sirhan shot him and several others — but did not shoot Kennedy. In a short statement released in advance of the hearing, he says:
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 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.
Schrade argues that a closer look at the bullet that hit him proves a second gun was fired and Sirhan could not have killed Robert Kennedy.
As labor chairman of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he stood beside the senator during his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on the night of the crucial California Democratic primary that kept hopes of an RFK Presidency alive.
After the speech, Schrade was walking six to eight feet behind Kennedy through a kitchen pantry, en route to a late-night press conference, when the shooting started. The senator stopped to shake hands with some busboys and had just turned to walk forward again when Schrade saw flashes, heard “a crackling sound like electricity” and thought he was being electrocuted by wet television cables. He was hit in the center of the forehead, fell to the floor and blacked out.
Later, he said “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.”
The autopsy concluded one bullet passed through the right shoulder pad of Kennedy’s jacket without entering his body, two bullets hit him under his right armpit at a sharp upward angle, and the fatal shot entered one inch behind the ear and penetrated the brain.
Kennedy was hit four times and five others were injured, so the LAPD had to account for how nine shots were seemingly fired from Sirhan’s eight-shot revolver.
LAPD criminalist Dewayne Wolfer’s solution was to claim Sirhan’s second bullet “passed through the right shoulder pad of Kennedy’s suit coat…and traveled upward [at an 80-degree angle] striking victim Schrade in the center of his forehead.”
As Schrade later told author Dan Moldea, the only way a bullet could do this would be “if I was nine feet tall or had my head on Kennedy’s shoulder.” As Wolfer had already accounted for all eight bullets in Sirhan’s gun, this meant a ninth shot was fired, and two more bullets were found in the center divider of the pantry door frame by FBI agent William Bailey within hours of the shooting.
LAPD criminalist Dewayne Wolfer (left) and L.A. County Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi (center) trace the trajectories of the bullets fired at Robert F. Kennedy Photo credit: California State Archives