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RFK Slaying Still Stirs Emotions, Theories

Assassination: Sirhan supporters say evidence hints at a second gunman. Holden seeks memorial to the slain senator, as witnesses to the killing recall fateful night.

June 06, 1998|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty years after Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles grappled with the assassination anew Friday, dredging up the emotion and suspicion that continue to haunt the killing and its legacy.

In Pasadena, the brother and lawyer of Sirhan Sirhan sought support for their attempts to gain a new hearing for the man convicted of the killing. Outside the remains of the hotel, conspiracy theorists laid out their argument that Sirhan may have been a hypnotized dupe sent that night to provide a distraction for the real killer.

And at City Hall, Councilman Nate Holden used the anniversary as a political platform--in this case to promote his suggestion that a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard near the old hotel be renamed in the senator's honor.

As with the other assassinations of the period--those of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968--Bobby Kennedy's killing continues to stake a claim on the public imagination, defying resolution even 30 years after the fact.

Sirhan and his supporters point to what they say is intriguing new ballistics evidence and say it could either clear Sirhan or at least implicate a second gunman. They are particularly captivated by forensic evidence suggesting that the bullets that killed Kennedy were fired at point-blank range, an important fact because witnesses say Sirhan did not get that close to the senator.

What's more, they accuse the Los Angeles Police Department of wantonly mishandling and cavalierly destroying evidence. Some of Sirhan's most aggressive backers go so far as to implicate the department in an active cover-up--making police accessories after the fact to one of the most traumatic criminal acts of the 1960s.

Other veterans of the period, however, say that they are confident the right man is spending his life behind bars for the crime.

"These conspiracy people have exhausted their remedies," snorted Ed Davis, the retired LAPD chief who was a deputy chief at the time of the killing. "Immediately after the assassination, the conspiracy theorists came up with implausible hypotheses. The Board of Police Commissioners . . . listened patiently for months and months but decided there was nothing to them."

And yet, Davis on Friday found himself musing on the assassination too.

"I'll never forget Sirhan Sirhan sitting up there in Homicide," Davis said from his home in Morro Bay. "He was just sitting there, snickering."

Just as the presidency that Kennedy might have had inspires--and its failure to occur saddens--many of those who knew him best, memories of that fateful night at the Ambassador still tug at the men and women who were closest to the senator when the shots were fired.

On Friday, two of them joined Holden at City Hall for the news conference announcing the councilman's motion to create the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Parkway.

Paul Schrade, who was shot in the head during the commotion at the hotel, recalled in soft tones the tenderness that Kennedy radiated when, flush from the most important political victory of his life, he stopped in the hotel pantry after his speech to shake hands with two busboys. It was, Schrade said, "the profoundest moment of my life in politics."

After pausing, he continued: "We turned and the bullets started flying."

The Rev. Roosevelt Grier, a former football star who was with Kennedy when he was shot and who wrestled Sirhan to the floor, said that from that night on, he dedicated his life to action. "Each person has a responsibility . . . to be part of something great," he said. "You can't sit back."

Even though Grier and Schrade were both profoundly affected by Kennedy and his assassination--and even though they were just a few feet apart at that moment on June 5, 1968--they disagree on some recollections of the murder itself.

Schrade has long questioned the official police explanation that Sirhan acted alone and fired all the shots that killed Kennedy and wounded five others. He repeated that skepticism Friday, saying that he wonders whether there could have been a second gun firing that night.

"I don't think the case is closed," he said.

But Grier said he is confident that the killing has been investigated thoroughly and correctly.

"I have no doubt that there was just one man," he said. "I did not see anyone else."

Grier's recollections hold little weight with the ragtag but determined legal and investigative team that has long worked to set Sirhan free. The group hosted a rambling news conference Friday in Pasadena, setting up photographers and reporters in the frontyard of brother Addl Sirhan's home.

Lawrence Teeter, Sirhan Sirhan's lawyer, opened the gathering by declaring: "It is an outrage that 30 years after the assassination, the crime remains unsolved. . . . Sirhan was out of position and out of range."

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