Paul Schrade soaked up the excitement as the crowd roared and Robert Kennedy smiled and leaned into the microphone: “So my thanks to all of you, and on to Chicago we go.”
Kennedy had just won the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California, and there was a palpable sense inside the old Ambassador Hotel that the young Massachusetts senator had seized enough momentum to carry his suddenly super-charged campaign through to the convention in Chicago.
And then everything went to hell.
An auto workers union leader who had introduced Kennedy to powerful labor figures such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Schrade was walking a pace or two behind Kennedy when the first shot was fired.
“I got hit by the first shot,” Schrade told The Times. “I was right behind Bobby. It was meant for him and got me. I thought I had been electrocuted. I was shaking violently on the floor and saw flashes.”
When he looked up, Schrade saw Kennedy slumped on the ground, a young busboy cradling the dying senator’s head in his hands. By the next morning, Kennedy was dead and a young Jordanian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan was behind bars, accused of killing the senator.
Kennedy’s death hung over the nation for decades, altering the course of American politics and forming a dismal closing chapter to a turbulent decade. To some, it marked a farewell to a generation’s innocence.
Schrade slid into depression, lost reelection to his union leadership post and returned to the auto assembly line. He also became convinced that there was more than one gunman in the hotel ballroom that June night and that Sirhan — who has repeatedly been denied parole over the last half century — did not fire the shot that killed Kennedy.
An authority on the Kennedy assassination who testified on Sirhan’s behalf at parole hearings, Schrade died early Wednesday after a brief illness at his home in Los Angeles, according to his brother-in-law, Martin Weil. Schrade was 97.
While he believed police and prosecutors had bungled the assassination probe and had failed to earnestly look for a second shooter, he spent the bulk of the energy chasing the causes Kennedy had embraced — ending the war in Vietnam, fighting for the marginalized, dampening the racism that still flared in plain view.
Schrade also helped lead the effort to transform the Ambassador Hotel into a school complex, upending Donald Trump’s plan to build what the future president pledged would be the tallest building in the country. The library at Robert F. Kennedy Communities Schools is now named in Schrade’s honor.
Born Dec. 17, 1924, Schrade was raised in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and briefly attended Yale before heading west for a job at North American Aviation in Los Angeles and then rising up the ranks of the United Automobile Workers Union. He struck up a friendship with Kennedy when the future senator’s brother was on his way to becoming president.
In 1965, he joined Chavez and Huerta in the farm workers’ struggles and twice arranged for Kennedy to travel to Delano to support striking farm workers. The connection between the New England-bred politician and the charismatic Chavez may well have helped propel Kennedy to victory in California.
Many of America’s darkest moments, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among them, spawned mysteries and conspiracy theories. And so it was with the death of Robert Kennedy. How could it be that Kennedy was shot from behind while Sirhan was standing in front of him? Sirhan’s revolver held eight bullets, but some insisted nine shots had been fired. And a ballistics expert concluded the bullets had not been fired from the same gun.
Los Angeles police grudgingly reinvestigated the shooting in the 1970s, but reached the same conclusion: Sirhan was the lone gunman.
For his own part, Sirhan was little help. He testified that he had been at a firing range earlier that day, had come to the Ambassador to attend a party and had briefly left the hotel and then returned after deciding he was too drunk to drive. The rest of the night was enveloped in fog, he said.
Sirhan offered contrition at his parole hearings, but always stopped short of taking full blame.
“Sen. Kennedy was the hope of the world and I injured, and I harmed all of them and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that,” he testified after being recommended for parole in 2021.
To Schrade, none of it added up. The police investigation felt rushed and sloppy, and key pieces of evidence had been ignored, he said. The closer he looked, the more convinced he was that Sirhan did not shoot Kennedy.
“Yes, he did shoot me. Yes, he shot four other people and aimed at Kennedy,” Schrade told the Washington Post. “The important thing is he did not shoot Robert Kennedy. Why didn’t they go after the second gunman? They knew about him right away. They didn’t want to know who it was. They wanted a quickie.”
In 2016, Schrade testified on Sirhan’s behalf but the parole board, as it had before and would again, denied him parole.
“Sirhan, I’m so sorry this is happening to you,’ Schrade shouted as Sirhan was led away in handcuffs.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected parole for Sirhan in January 2022, marking the 16th time he’d been denied freedom, Schrade was saddened, but hardly surprised.
“He did not shoot Robert Kennedy and should have been released long ago,” he said.
Schrade is survived by a sister, Louise “Weezie” Stone Duff. His wife, Monica Weil, died in 2019.