Paul Schrade, union leader wounded in Robert Kennedy slaying … – The Washington Post

Paul Schrade, an autoworker union leader who aided Robert Kennedy’s presidential run in 1968 and was wounded when an assassin opened fire on Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, then spent more than five decades seeking to prove gunman Sirhan Sirhan did not act alone, died Nov. 9 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.
Mr. Schrade’s brother-in-law, Martin Weil, confirmed the death. No specific cause was given.
Los Angeles police and other official investigators have repeatedly rejected assertions about an alleged second shooter and other theories about the June 1968 slaying as Kennedy celebrated a win in California’s Democratic primary.
Sirhan, a Jordanian immigrant, was captured on the spot and later convicted of being the lone gunman in the killing — which stunned the world just two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot in Memphis. (Robert Kennedy’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.)
Mr. Schrade — who was struck in the head by a bullet — said he did not believe Sirhan was guilty and became an outspoken contrarian in the case, claiming that evidence was destroyed or overlooked that showed critical discrepancies in the official account of the killing of Kennedy, then a senator from New York. Among his allegations was that audio clips and on-scene accounts suggest more shots were fired than the eight in Shiran’s .22-caliber revolver.
“I sympathize very clearly with the way Sirhan’s been treated,” Mr. Schrade said in 2021 at the inmate’s hearing with a parole panel, which recommended Sirhan’s release but was denied by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).
“After decades in prison, [Sirhan] has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy,” Newsom wrote in his decision in January 2022. “Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”
Mr. Schrade stood by his contentions. “This guy is not guilty,” he said.
Many scholars and historians disagree, citing follow-up probes and the release of documents that offered no new evidence. “There is no accurate element that we have missed” in the Robert Kennedy assassination, said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Conspiracy theories, she noted, often take root in the desire to “bring a more complicated explanation” to major events with uncomplicated narratives.
“This is the case here,” Perry said. “Bobby Kennedy seemed on the cusp of a public career with such promise. It’s hard for some people to accept that one man with a gun ended it all.”
Late on June 4, 1968, Kennedy watched the primary returns from his campaign headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It was a big win: 46 percent over runner-up Sen. Eugene McCarthy (Minn.) at 42 percent.
Mr. Schrade was basking in the moment, too. As a union leader, he had introduced Kennedy to influential farmworker organizers such as Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, both of whom became campaign allies. Chavez suspended a grape pickers’ strike so picketers could take the day to vote for Kennedy.
“Chavez proved invaluable after unleashing his small army of organizers, canvassers, and get-out-the-vote activists for Kennedy,” political historian Joseph Palermo said in 2008.
Mr. Schrade recalled watching the votes for Kennedy “come in from the barrio in East L.A.”
“I knew we had won,” he said in a 2018 interview with the Detroit Bureau, a news site focused on the auto industry.
Kennedy left his fifth-floor suite and went to the hotel’s Embassy Ballroom to address more than 1,800 supporters. “On to Chicago,” he said minutes after midnight on June 5, looking ahead to that summer’s Democratic National Convention.
As Kennedy exited the ballroom, Mr. Schrade was a few paces behind. The entourage entered the hotel pantry. Kennedy stopped to greet members of the kitchen staff and others. Sirhan stepped out from behind trays and an ice machine.
“I never saw Sirhan,” Mr. Schrade recounted in 1993. “Robert Kennedy had just talked to me and shaken my hand, and he turned to shake [hands] with kitchen workers when the shots came.”
The wounded Mr. Schrade collapsed into the arms of Vincent DiPierro, a student and part-time waiter. Four other people were hit: two journalists, a Democratic Party activist and a campaign volunteer.
Crowds rushed at Sirhan, including writer George Plimpton and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson. “People were trying to grab him,” DiPierro recounted in 1969. “People were trying to hit him. It was completely pandemonium.”
Kennedy, mortally wounded, was cradled by a young busboy, Juan Romero. Kennedy died the next day, June 6.
“It’s something you never get over,” said Mr. Schrade.
Mr. Schrade spent 10 days in a hospital, speaking to reporters from his bed with his head in a turban-like wrap. Meanwhile, a funeral train with Kennedy’s body headed to Washington, with people lining the tracks and some singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the cars rolled past.
Mr. Schrade recovered from the injury, but the ordeal left other scars. He couldn’t shake the anguish. He lost his director role at the United Auto Workers in California. That sent him back to the assembly line at North American Rockwell (later Rockwell International), which had built the command and service modules for Apollo missions and was working on the upcoming space shuttle. Because of seniority, he was moved into a supervisory role. Mr. Schrade retired in the 1980s.
Mr. Schrade kept up his activism, joining marches against the Vietnam War and working with union leaders on political campaigns and community outreach in Southern California. Increasingly, he became a public spokesman for the loose network of authors, researchers and self-styled forensic historians who insisted the full story of the RFK assassination was still buried by authorities.
“It was horrible, horrible,” Mr. Schrade said in 2018. “[Kennedy] was a great friend.”
Paul Hermann Schrade was born Dec. 17, 1924, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and briefly attended Yale University before taking a job at North American Aviation, a forerunner of North American Rockwell, in Southern California’s booming aerospace industry.
Mr. Schrade moved up the union ranks of the United Automobile Workers, shifting to Detroit as a top aide to UAW President Walter Reuther. Mr. Schrade was seen as a “bright young radical” in union activism, Reuther biographer Nelson Lichtenstein wrote in “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit” (1995).
During the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Mr. Schrade met John Kennedy’s brother Robert and struck up a friendship — which was rekindled more than a decade later as RFK made his presidential run. Mr. Schrade had returned to California as the UAW’s liaison with farmworkers and other groups, including the antiwar movement.
After the RFK assassination, Mr. Schrade clashed with top UAW officials over his strong opposition to the Vietnam War. Reuther’s successor, Leonard Woodcock, pushed Mr. Schrade from the union’s executive board in 1972.
The biographer Lichtenstein said Mr. Schrade’s contributions to building union ties with labor activists and others beyond the Rust Belt are often overlooked.
“I’ve never been invited to a UAW convention,” Mr. Schrade said in 2018.
His wife of 46 years, Monica Weil, died in 2019. Survivors include a sister.
At the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which closed in 1989, a company owned by Donald Trump sought to build a luxury hotel and commercial complex — with some plans describing a gold-hued tower reaching more than 120 stories. The Los Angeles Unified School District also sought the bulk of the nearly 24-acre site.
Mr. Schrade threw his support behind the schools in a long legal fight in the 1990s that ended with Trump Wilshire Associates bowing out.
The campus of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools was built. The library is named in Mr. Schrade’s honor. It stands on the site of the hotel pantry, where the shots were fired in 1968.


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