Tuesday marks 55 years since Robert F. Kennedy died after being shot in the dimly lit kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel.
Kennedy’s killer confronted him in the heady moments after the senator had scored a victory in the all-important California Democratic primary during the race for president of the United States in 1968.
It was there that Kennedy’s dream of being the next president would end with a bullet to the head.
His assassin, Sirhan B. Sirhan, was 24. He was a young man who struggled not only with the violence he saw firsthand as a child in the Middle East but also with finding his place as an adult in one of the most seminal decades in U.S. history.
The course of history would change just after midnight on June 5, 1968, as the two came face-to-face in the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen pantry.
Who is Sirhan and why did he shoot Kennedy? Here’s what you may not know about him.
Sirhan’s early years
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born into a Christian family in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem in 1944. By the time he turned 3, witnessing violent clashes stemming from the war for Israeli independence was a daily occurrence.
His mother, Mary, said that as a youngster Sirhan had seen a man ripped to pieces by a bomb during an attack in his neighborhood. The image haunted her son, she said, and he would never be the same.
When he was 12, his family emigrated to the United States on a special visa granted to Palestinian refugees. The family stayed briefly in New York and then moved on to California where Sirhan attended junior high, high school and community college.
His faith was important to him, according to his mother. He even complained to her once that children of his age did not take religion seriously enough.
He joined the Baptist church and was briefly a Seventh-day Adventist. In 1966, two years before he would kill Kennedy, he turned to an occult organization called the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, or the Rosicrucians. The organization studies mystical and philosophical doctrines and how they apply to modern life.
Sirhan never settled into a career but held a series of menial jobs. At one point, he was working at the Santa Anita racetrack, and at 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 115 pounds, he had hopes of one day becoming a jockey. That plan had not panned out, and by the end of May 1968, Sirhan was adrift with no job prospects.
Late on June 4, 1968, election returns in the California and South Dakota Democratic primaries for president were counted and Kennedy was declared the winner. As the people who had been crammed into the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles cheered, Kennedy’s victory speech recalled the themes that had propelled him to victory that night – resetting the moral compass of the country, the fight against poverty and hunger in the United States, peace in Vietnam.
From the stage, he acknowledged supporters by name and thanked volunteers – many of them in their late teens and 20s – who had worked hard for him in California, a state vital to his run for the Democratic nomination.
“My thanks to all of you. Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” Kennedy said to the crowd.
While Kennedy was ending his speech in the ballroom, Sirhan was in the hotel’s kitchen pantry area with a .22-caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet handgun in his pocket. Two hotel employees would later say they saw Sirhan near the service elevator close to the door that leads into the Embassy Ballroom as Kennedy came down earlier to give his victory speech.
According to Jesus Perez and Martin Petrusky, Sirhan asked if Kennedy would be returning through the kitchen area, the same way as he had gone to the stage. Petrusky and Perez told him they did not know. Both men remembered that Sirhan lingered around the elevator area as Kennedy spoke from the stage.
It was not the first time Sirhan had been in the hotel, according to testimony at his trial. The prosecution was able to place him there on June 3, two days before Kennedy was shot. According to testimony, he was noticed by someone who worked at the Ambassador because he seemed to be out of place.
Two days before he was spotted at the hotel, Sirhan visited the Lock, Stock ‘N Barrel gun shop, according to testimony. He purchased two boxes of .22-caliber hollow-point bullets. Early on June 4, hours before he would confront Kennedy in the hotel kitchen, he visited the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club to practice at its gun range.
Sirhan was waiting with the gun in the service area as Kennedy finished speaking. Kennedy was led off the stage, through a door and down a hallway toward the Colonial Room of the hotel where the press was waiting to talk to him.
According to witnesses, Kennedy was moving slowly through the pantry, shaking hands with some of the people who worked there. Kennedy reached out to shake the hand of a busboy, Juan Romero, when Sirhan, smiling, moved toward Kennedy, planted his right foot, raised his arm and shouted “Kennedy, you son of a bitch,” and began shooting.
Kennedy was hit three times — one bullet went into his armpit, a second hit him in the back and the third went into the back of his head behind his right ear. A fourth bullet tore a hole in his jacket. He fell to the floor bleeding as those in his entourage, including former NFL star Rosey Grier, writer George Plimpton, Olympic track star Rafer Johnson, journalist Pete Hamill and others, wrestled Sirhan down, pried the gun from his hand, grabbed him up and slammed him down on some metal steaming tables.
“Let me explain!” Sirhan screamed. “I can explain. I did it for my country. I love my country.”
Before the gun was wrested from his hand, five others in the pantry — Paul Schrade, William Weisel, Ira Goldstein, Elizabeth Evans and Irwin Stroll — were shot. All five would recover from their wounds.
Romero, an Ambassador busboy, knelt to help Kennedy, who was on the floor, bleeding from his head and back. According to Romero, he bent down to hear Kennedy reportedly ask, “Is everybody OK?” Romero told The Los Angeles Times, “I told him ‘Yes, everybody’s OK’. And then he turned away from me and said, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.”
Those were the last words he spoke. Kennedy died about 26 hours later, having never regained consciousness.
After the assassination, investigators searched Sirhan’s apartment and found a diary he had been keeping. In the spiral notebook showed evidence of a growing rage against all Zionists, with Kennedy’s name mentioned throughout.
One entry even named the date by which Sirhan said Kennedy should die. The date was June 5, the day Kennedy was shot. June 5, 1968, was the one-year anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Sirhan was angry with Kennedy for his support of Israel and his support for the U.S. selling jet fighters to Israel. He said he had made the decision to kill Kennedy after he heard him say in a speech in the spring of 1968 that he would support giving the planes to Israel.
The entry on May 18, 1968, read, “My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming the more and more of an unshakable obsession...Kennedy must die before June 5th.” Other entries more hauntingly read, “die, die, die, die, die.”
Caught, confessed, convicted
Sirhan refused to speak or to identify himself after he was taken into custody in the hotel’s pantry that night. It wasn’t until June 9, four days after the shooting, that he confessed to police that he was the one who shot Kennedy. Despite the confession, Sirhan pleaded not guilty in court.
The trial was set for January 1969.
Opening statements began in February, and, after a three-month trial in which his defense team argued he was mentally ill, Sirhan was found guilty of Kennedy’s murder. He was sentenced to death in California’s gas chamber.
Sirhan testified in his own defense, saying he had no memory of killing Kennedy, and that he had been drunk the night of the shooting. He testified that he had borne no “ill-will towards Kennedy.”
After three years in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California’s death penalty law, and Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He has remained an inmate of the state of California since.
Through the years, Sirhan changed aspects of his story in some ways but has always repeated the claim that he does not remember what took place in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel.
Conspiracy theories were born even as Sirhan was being restrained in the moments after the shooting According to Hamill, someone yelled as Sirhan was being slammed onto the table, “Don’t kill him. Don’t kill him. No Jack Ruby!”
Many thought Sirhan a patsy, the same thing Lee Harvey Oswald called himself following JFK’s assassination. They said larger forces used him as a cover so someone else could kill another Kennedy.
In 2011, Sirhan’s lawyers claimed in court papers that he had been speaking to and had been hypnotized by a psychiatrist. According to the filings, Sirhan revealed that while he shot Kennedy, he had not killed him and that he had seen a flash from the gun of the person who did kill him. The flash came from behind Kennedy, Sirhan said under hypnosis.
One of his attorneys said Sirhan also revealed under hypnosis that a “girl in the polka-dot dress” tapped or pinched him on the arm and that when that happened he was conditioned to believe that he was on a weapons firing range and he was to begin firing.
Under hypnosis, he remembered meeting the girl that night and that she led him to the pantry, according to an Associated Press report.
“I am trying to figure out how to hit on her.... That’s all that I can think about,” he said in one interview cited in the documents. “I was fascinated with her looks .... She never said much. It was very erotic. I was consumed by her. She was a seductress with an unspoken unavailability.”
When he was not under hypnosis, he remembered nothing about the shooting, according to his attorneys.
Sirhan’s defense team in 1969 claimed Kennedy’s autopsy proved that he could not have killed the senator because the fatal shot entered his head from behind his right ear. Sirhan was standing in front of Kennedy.
In a parole hearing in 2016, Paul Schrade, one of the five other people injured in the shooting, apologized to Sirhan for not helping him before by testifying at his parole hearings. It was the first time Schrade had seen Sirhan since 1969. Schrade said the evidence clearly showed a second gunman had been in the kitchen pantry.
“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 in the hearing.
Schrade since called for the investigation into Kennedy’s shooting be reopened.
Other conspiracy theories claim:
- The CIA was involved in Kennedy’s death. According to a story in the Guardian, a CIA agent named David Morales once bragged to friends while talking about the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, “I was in Dallas when we got the son of a bitch and I was in Los Angeles when we got the little bastard.”
- Still, others have wondered how Sirhan shot Kennedy in the back if he was standing in front of him as he fired the gun. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2005 that Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi found: “Eyewitnesses put Sirhan no closer than 18 inches from Kennedy, but Noguchi testified that when the fatal wound was inflicted the gun was 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches from Kennedy’s ear. His testimony fed conspiracy theories that Sirhan had not acted alone.” “Based solely on the examination of the remains and the scene afterwards, I came to the conclusion that Senator Bobby Kennedy was shot by a small caliber gun from the right side of the back of the head,” Noguchi said.
- A radio reporter recorded the sound of 13 shots being fired in the pantry. Sirhan’s gun held only eight bullets.
- An actress and Kennedy campaign volunteer, Nina Rhodes-Hughes, was in the pantry when the shooting started and she reported to the FBI that she heard anywhere from 12-14 shots that night. “There were at least 12, maybe 14. And I know there were because I heard the rhythm in my head,” Rhodes-Hughes told CNN in 2012. She says she believes senior FBI officials altered statements she made to the agents to “conform with what they wanted the public to believe, period.”
- According to some witnesses, a security guard standing behind Kennedy at the time was seen drawing his weapon. That man, Thane Cesar, later passed a polygraph test that included questions about whether he shot Kennedy.
- Through the years other theories have been advanced and even members of Kennedy’s family have wondered if the right man is in prison for the assassination. Robert Kennedy’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., told The Washington Post that he believes that there were two shooters in the kitchen pantry that night. “There were too many bullets,” Kennedy said. “You can’t fire 13 shots out of an eight-shot gun.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. is running for president in 2024.