Wednesday 20 June 2018

Busboy who held dying RFK breaks silence on his final moments 50 years after assassination

Juan Romero discusses the late Irish American icon in lead up to 50th anniversary of his assassination

Sen. Robert Kennedy addresses the crowd from stage of Ambassador Hotel in LA moments before his assassination. Photo: Getty
Sen. Robert Kennedy addresses the crowd from stage of Ambassador Hotel in LA moments before his assassination. Photo: Getty

Kyle Ewald

In the late hours of June 5 1968, the bustling, crowded Embassy Room of California’s Ambassador Hotel was filled with a new generation of Americans demanding change—and they knew just the man who could enact it.

Joyful chants of hope and excitement filled the room as supporters of New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy took the stage to announce victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.

Juan Romero said he still struggles to talk about RFK's assassination 50 years later. Photo: Getty
Juan Romero said he still struggles to talk about RFK's assassination 50 years later. Photo: Getty

But the moment of inspiration and optimism quickly turned to fear and devastation. Only moments after leaving the stage, the Irish American icon was fatally shot while exiting through the hotel kitchen.

As panic and horror filled the hotel kitchen and staff, a teenage busboy cradled the senator’s wounded head.

50 years later, that busboy—Juan Romero—has shared details of RFK’s final moments with the world.

In an interview with StoryCorps, Mr Romero explained the moment the senator was shot in front of him and his final words: “I remember extending my hand as far as I could and then I remember him shaking my hand and as he let go, somebody shot him. I kneeled down to him and put my hand between the cold concrete and his head just to make him comfortable.

“I could see his lips moving so I put my ear next to his lips and I heard him say ‘Is everybody ok?’ and I said ‘Yes, everybody’s okay’.”

Mr Romero then retrieved his rosary beads for the Catholic senator: “I could feel a steady stream of blood coming through my fingers. I had a rosary in my shirt pocket and I took it out thinking that he would need it a lot more than me.”

The then 17-year-old said he went to school the next day because he “didn’t even want to think about” the horrifying experience, but was recognised on the bus.

“This woman was reading the newspaper and you could see my picture in there with the senator on the floor,” he explained. “She says ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ And I remember looking at my hands and there was dried blood in between my nails.”

The experience haunted him further when he began receiving mass amounts of letters addressed to “the busboy” at the Ambassador Hotel.

“There was a couple of angry letters,” he recalled. “One of them even went as far as to say that ‘If he hadn’t stopped to shake your hand, the senator would have been alive’, so I should be ashamed of myself for being so selfish.”

RFK was assassinated only four years after his brother President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The New York senator was incredibly passionate about civil rights and is seen as an icon of modern American liberalism.

Despite the tragic memory, Mr Romero speaks fondly of RFK and still recalls the moment he first saw him while delivering room service the day before the assassination: “He put down the phone and says, ‘Come on in, boys’. You could tell when he was looking at you that he’s not looking through you—he’s taking you into account. And I remember walking out of there like I was 10 feet tall.”

In 2010, Mr Romero said he felt the need to visit RFK’s grave in Arlington Virginia to ask for forgiveness: “I still get emotional, tears come out, but I went to visit his grave in 2010. I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him.”

The former busboy even bought his first-ever suit for the occasion: “ I felt like it would be a sign of respect to buy a suit. I never owned a suit in my life and so when I wore the suit and I stood in front of his grave, I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him.

“I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good.”

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