How the AP covered the RFK assassination 50 years ago
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Associated Press Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas was on a one-night political assignment in June 1968 to cover Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s victory in the California presidential primary when mayhem unfolded before his eyes.
He heard pops of gunfire, then screams, and quickly rushed into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel to see what was happening. People stood in a circle, staring down at the concrete floor in shock. Thomas jumped up on a stack of kitchen trays and saw Kennedy on the floor, blood oozing from his head.
Thomas sprinted into the press room to find an open phone line to call in the story to his editors. The line was dead, so he tried again at a phone booth in the lobby and reached editor Bob Myers.
“I’ve got a flash. Kennedy shot,” Thomas said.
“Are you serious?” Myers responded.
“I’m serious. Kennedy’s been shot,” Thomas said.
Within moments, AP bulletins and story updates were transmitted to newspapers and TV and radio stations around the country, informing the world that Kennedy had been shot.
The AP filed numerous takes to the wire that night — the story broke just after midnight Los Angeles time — and did the same the next day when Kennedy succumbed to his wounds and the story became an obituary for the 42-year-old senator just five years after his brother was assassinated.
Here is some of the AP’s coverage surrounding the assassination:
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, was shot in the brain early today just after he claimed victory in the California primary that he felt was the key to his own bid for the presidency.
Mayor Sam Yorty and Police Chief Tom Reddin told a news conference that a Sirhan Sirhan, 23, was traced through the .22 pistol used to wound Kennedy and five others, less seriously, and identification was made through a brother, Adel Sirhan, of Pasadena.
Even after the identification, Yorty said, the prisoner refused to identify himself. As the two city officials made their announcement, Kennedy lay in a hospital fighting for life. A doctor said he fears “the outcome may be extremely tragic,” adding that a bullet evidently caused serious damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain at the back of the head.
The New York senator was shot just after jubilantly proclaiming victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary election.
The man accused of the shooting was captured on the spot and later identified as being a Jordanian born in Jerusalem, according to Mayor Yorty. He said Sirhan, who earlier had been arraigned as “John Doe” on six counts of assault with intent to commit murder, had four $100 bills with him and a newspaper story not favorable to Kennedy. He also, Yorty said, had a schedule of where Kennedy was speaking in June. His bail was set at $250,000. “Every right thinking person deplores this terrible tragedy,” said Yorty.
The slender, dark-haired young man sat stonily silent for hours under police questioning, giving only a lone “yes” to one question. Finally he opened up, they said, and become quite talkative – “very cool, very calm, very stable and quite lucid.” But he declined to discuss himself or the shooting.
A team of six surgeons removed all but a fragment of a bullet from Kennedy’s brain. A second and less serious bullet remained lodged in the back of his neck.
Dr. Lawrence Pool, a New York neurosurgeon, said after talking with a member of the surgery team that the head wound “is much more serious than initially had been expected.” He added: “There was evidently serious damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain on the extreme back of the head on the right side; also to part of the right cerebral hemisphere … and also to the mid brain, which is the main cable connecting the brain itself with the rest of the body.”
“This mid brain deals with not only the function of motion in the arms and legs and sensation to the body but also with eye movements and even the life function itself, such as blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.
“So it’s critical area and this was injured and this is why I fear … the outcome may be extremely tragic.”
Kennedy had proclaimed his win to about 2,000 supporters at an Ambassador Hotel rally and was taking a shortcut through the kitchen to a meeting with newsmen when shots rang out.
With stunning rapidity at 12:15 a.m., a man police described as a Caucasian, about 25, 5 feet 5 and 120 pounds, with dark hair and complexion, emptied the chamber of an eight-shot .22 pistol.
Kennedy fell, hit apparently three times. Five others near him were wounded, none as badly as the presidential candidate.
Kennedy lay for a time flat on his back in the kitchen, eyes open, a crowd milling around him. Some observers say they heard him say, as he was lifted into a police ambulance, “Oh, no. No. Don’t.”
Pandemonium broke loose. Roosevelt Grier, giant Negro tackle for the professional Los Angeles Rams, quickly grabbed the much smaller gunman, wrestled the gun from him and held him for police.
President Johnson and others around the nation, including Kennedy’s rival on the campaign primary trail, Minnesota’s Sen. McCarthy, expressed shock and sorrow. Johnson ordered the full resources of the FBI thrown into the case and ordered secret service protection for major candidates.
Kennedy was brought first to Central Receiving Hospital where a doctor said he was “practically dead” upon arrival. Physicians there administered closed cardiac massage, oxygen and adrenalin. “At first he was pulseless,” said a doctor who treated him, “then his pulse came back and we began to hear a heartbeat and he began to breathe a little erratically.”
The doctor, Victor Baz, said Ethel Kennedy, who accompanied her husband in the ambulance, was frightened, “she didn’t believe he was alive because she couldn’t see that he was responding. I put the stethoscope to her ears so she could listen and she was tremendously relieved. She was “very distraught but superb … very edgy, but my own wife wouldn’t have done as well, I don’t think. She was gracious at all times.”
Kennedy was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. There, a team of six surgeons began brain surgery at 3:12 a.m. that lasted about 3 hours and 40 minutes.
Doctors said one bullet struck near the right ear and entered the brain. Another hit in the shoulder. A third apparently grazed his forehead.
Kennedy’s press aide said after the surgery that no further effort is planned for removal of the remaining bullet fragment in the skull. “Some fragments of the bullet and bone went to the brain stem,” he said, and the senator lost considerable blood.
Kennedy was moved, unconscious, to the hospital’s intensive care unit. The surgery was pronounced successful in that it accomplished what it set out to do, remove most of the bullet.
Kennedy’s personal physician was flying here from Boston. The actual surgery here was performed by Drs. Maxwell Ambler of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School and Nat Downes Reid and Henry Cuneo of the University of Southern California Medical School.
In Washington, Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark said the FBI is investigating every possible angle, and “according to information that I have at this moment we have no evidence of conspiracy.”
Clark told a news conference, “It seems incredible that another such profound tragedy would strike the Kennedy family which has suffered so much from violence already.” Clark was an assistant in the Justice Department when Kennedy was attorney general.
Kennedy aides said six of Kennedy’s 10 children who accompanied him here are being returned to Washington on an Air Force plane arranged for by a campaign rival, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Kennedy, in his address to the cheering supporters just before the shooting, was in good spirits with the long primary campaign trail behind him. He looked tired, however, and was looking forward to a few days of rest at the Malibu Beach home of a friend.
Then the shots rang out. One witness said the shots came so close together that he could hardly believe they had been fired by one gun. This reporter heard the shots from an adjoining room and they sounded almost like a brief burst of machine-gun fire.
The gunman appeared in the kitchen area behind the bandstand of the Embassy Room, where Kennedy backers, including movie stars and students, were listening to their candidate’s light-hearted victory speech. The gunman carried papers, which he spread out on a stainless steel table. One waiter described them as sketches.
The backstage area was crowded with waiters, press and others, and the man’s presence caused little notice.
Kennedy finished his speech and began working his way off the platform and into the kitchen, followed by close associates and members of his family. His wife, Ethel, had been at his side during the speech, but she became enveloped in the crowd. Kennedy gazed around as if searching for her.
At that moment the gunman pushed through the throng, reached his arm around others in front of him and shot the senator.
Roosevelt Grier, beefy tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, grabbed the man’s arm. Joe LaHive, a local Kennedy campaigner, wrested the gun away. Grier and Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson lifted the assailant and spread him on a steel kitchen table. “Nobody hurt this man,” one of the athletes shouted. “We want to take him alive.”
Women were screaming, “Oh, no.” ”God, God, not again.”
Kennedy was stretched on the floor, his face covered with blood. “Give him room. Step back.” Someone yelled. Kennedy seemed to hear nothing. His face was blank, his eyes staring sightlessly.
Grier, Johnson and two or three others held the gunman on the table 10 feet away. Screams began to be heard in the ballroom as news of the shooting spread to the campaigners, who had been cheering their candidate two minutes before. “Let me explain” the gunman shouted. “I can explain.”
A priest handed Kennedy a rosary, and he clutched it in his hand, but the priest was jostled aside. Kennedy was given emergency treatment by a doctor summoned from the ballroom. Then he was wheeled on a stretcher to the hotel service elevator and put into an ambulance.
He was treated at Central Receiving Hospital, where the Rev. Thomas Peacha administered last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Kennedy was then taken a few blocks to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he entered the intensive care unit.
The gunman, apparently unharmed, was rushed through the Ambassador lobby by police 10 minutes after the shooting. By this time the crowd knew that Kennedy had been shot.
“Kill him. Lynch him,” onlookers shouted. They milled forward to get at the man, but the police ran him down the stairs next to the famed Cocoanut Grove night club and got him to the central jail.
Chief Reddin said there was only one suspect in the case, the man in custody.
The gunman carried no identification, Reddin said, adding that “We made a skin search of him, checking that he had nothing on him to take his life. We have advised him of his rights. He doesn’t want a lawyer now.”
Asked if the man was of Latin-American extraction, Reddin said; “I don’t know. I can’t tell.” He added that he might possibly be of Eurasian extraction. “He sits there and says nothing,” Reddin said. There were scraps of paper in the man’s pockets, Reddin said, but he declined to identify them.
At first, Stephen Smith, the senator’s brother-in-law, was believed to have been shot, but the report proved untrue. Wounds were suffered by; Paul Schrade, 30, a union official; Ira Goldstein, Los Angeles; William Wiesel, unit manager for the ABC network; a woman identified only as Mrs. Evans; Irwin Stroll, 17, Los Angeles.
President Johnson was notified of the shooting. There was no immediate comment from the White House.
Kennedy’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, had retired to his Beverly Hilton Hotel room. He was awakened, and he went to his hotel ballroom to ask his supporters to pray for the life of Senator Kennedy.
Kennedy’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy of Mass., was reported to have arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and been flown by helicopter to Good Samaritan Hospital.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., Vice President Hubert Humphrey said “Our hopes and prayers are with Senator Kennedy and those others who have been the victims of this dreadful act of violence. It is a shocking and terrible thing that this happened. Our hearts go out to Mrs. Kennedy and the children and the families of the other wounded.”
One of Kennedy’s last acts before he was shot was to issue a challenge to Humphrey to engage with him in a duel for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy appeared to have ruled out McCarthy as a rival.