Only a few press photographers were there in the crowd of fans and family and campaign workers that swept Robert F. Kennedy off the victory podium and into the kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel in the very early hours of June 5, 1968. One of them was Boris Yaro, a 30-year-old Los Angeles Times photographer/reporter who was already off-duty, but who wanted a souvenir picture of the man he expected to be the nation’s next president.
Kennedy had just won the California presidential primary and his campaign was in the ascendant. He was being steered away from the thrilled crowd and toward a press conference through the pantry — into the range of a .22 revolver, and into the tableau that Yaro photographed in a half-dozen black and white frames of light and dark, life and death. Yaro, who recently had a small stroke, remembers with intensity those moments of being so close to Kennedy, the man whose life, like a suddenly unrealized American future, lay bleeding out across a concrete hotel floor.
What were you doing at the Ambassador that night in 1968?
Well, I had, I worked in San Gabriel [for the paper’s local edition there], so I got home. I was beat. I watched our little black and white TV set and heard Mr. Kennedy was going to win. And I said, Ah man, he’s over at the Ambassador — he’s not that far away. I wasn’t there on assignment. I was there for a picture for my wall.
I drove over there. I went down to the Ambassador ballroom and Kennedy wasn’t out on the floor yet. People were dancing, and somebody said, Here he comes! And the door to the kitchen opened up, and he walked in the pantry. Richard Drew, who went on to a wonderful career in New York at the Associated Press, was working that night for the Pasadena Star-News.
He said, Hey, Boris, I got a place. And he’s sitting on a little freezer. And I go hop up alongside him and we’re waiting [for] Kennedy to walk past to go out to the ballroom.
I put my Canon up to my eye and I watch what's happening — and nothing's going on. And I heard a voice behind me — Boris, you missed him. He was already by me before I even had a camera up. Drew had the same problem — people walking close to Kennedy and covering him up.
Then we went out to a ballroom, and I found a place to stand — third row back from the podium — and listened to the speech. As he’s winding down, [Yaro calls out] Bobby, give us a V [for victory]! Give us a V! And so he does, for about 12 seconds.
So he left the podium and I went moving back. But I wanted to get away from the crowd because I didn't want to get [the shot] covered a second time.
Finally, Kennedy stopped walking and was surrounded by a cluster of people shaking hands. I’m in the pantry and I’m trying to get a picture of his face and [him] shaking hands, and somebody set firecrackers off — CRACK CRACK CRACK!
They weren’t firecrackers. They were bullets. I got hit in the face by debris from the revolver. Yeah, I thought some damn fool was throwing firecrackers. All of a sudden, I realize — the guy’s got a gun.
You saw him, and the gun.
I’m going to show you something: He had a revolver in his hand. Play like you’re Bobby Kennedy. Take a boxer position. And Sirhan pulled the trigger and finally at one point aimed down on Kennedy’s head.
So Kennedy saw Sirhan with the gun and brought up his hands defensively?
Yeah. And Bobby was doing the boxing thing, trying to stop bullets.
How far away was he from Bobby Kennedy?
Oh, Sirhan? Closer than you and I [across a tabletop from each other]. And I was on the side of a waist-high freezer. I saw two or three people grab Sirhan; they grabbed him, and he had the revolver still in hand, and they slammed it down on the freezer countertop right in front of me.
I was about two, three feet away. I didn’t think about making a picture of that. My eye was on the revolver that was now sitting loose on the top.
And Sirhan tried to reach for it and I go, BS — I didn’t say that, but I think it — and I reached under the guy who was holding Sirhan on his left side. I reached in and grabbed [the gun].
Was he trying to get off another shot, do you think?
Yeah, he didn’t realize how many [rounds] he’d shot. I didn’t realize other people [were] hit and down on the floor.
So you got hold of the gun, but you also had a camera.
I had a camera around my neck, which is the way you’re taught to do it: Have a strap. And when I got the revolver, I brought it right in front of me. I’m holding on to the grip and the damn grip is hot from Sirhan holding on to this — nervous, or whatever.
Somebody came by and grabbed the revolver right out of my hand. I saw he had a sport coat on. I figured he was a cop and didn’t worry about it anymore.
When did you start taking pictures again?
Once the revolver was gone, I looked for where Kennedy was standing and he started to slump down. I wanted to get around the freezer. He was on the floor, his feet out in front, and [busboy Juan] Romero was coming in.
So I get three pictures, and some lady grabbed hold of my coat sleeve and said, Don't take pictures! I'm a photographer — I'm not taking pictures. And I said goddammit, lady, this is history.
The shots you got of Kennedy — did you have any idea what you had in the camera?
No. I went to the [hotel] press room and there might’ve been 10 phones — nothing. Nobody was answering the phones at the hotel [switchboard]. So I got back up into the lobby and I’m almost out the door and out of the corner of my eye, I see a phone booth. I drop a dime — hello!
Who picked up the phone at the L.A. Times?
Bill Thomas, who would go on to be the editor of the paper.
And I said, Kennedy has been shot. He said, Yeah, we know, he’s been shot in the leg. I said, No sir. I saw blood coming out of his ear.
He said, Get down here now. So I take that as gospel: I don’t think I stopped at any stoplights.
This guy had a live revolver and was pulling the trigger. I didn’t want to draw his attention. I hate myself [for that].
I didn't process my own film. I was told to go back to the darkroom to get somebody to process it. The only person in the darkroom was Bill Murphy, William S. Murphy, former Marine combat photographer.
I told him to double-develop it, because it’s pretty dark. When I went over to the Ambassador to make a picture, it was for me, not some goddamn magazine or paper or whatever. I didn’t bring a flash.
Part of the reason I didn’t bother to try [to make a picture] when Sirhan erupted from the crowd and had the gun, it was too damn dark, on the other side of the freezer. And the second reason — I freaked. I think I was afraid. This guy had a live revolver and was pulling the trigger. I didn’t want to draw his attention. I hate myself [for that].
I couldn’t do it [stop Sirhan]. I grew up with John Wayne. I’m from Iowa. Wayne is from Iowa.
You didn’t think you could have stopped the shooting?
Yeah. I was there. I saw it. I was on my feet. I wasn’t hurt.
You shouldn’t reproach yourself.
Oh, you’re wrong. I’m sorry, but I have awakened many a night trying to stop him.
In your sleep, reaching …?
Take us back to the newsroom. What happened when Bill Murphy brought your prints out of the darkroom?
He said, they’re so good. He walks up to the city desk and I fall in behind him. He said, Look —
He’s holding up your photo.
Two photos. And [the editor] said some nice thing but I don’t remember — “good picture,” or whatever. But — sorry — I went back to my darkroom and cried. I remember [reporter] Dick Main came back looking for me. He opened up the door and I told him, If you tell anybody this, I’ll hate you.
It all came home real quick.
I went home and took a shower, changed clothes, went back to work, and lo and behold, Jim Wiggins, my boss, said, Nice shot last night. OK, Sirhan lives in Pasadena. Do you want to go? I said, Yeah.
You went out to Sirhan’s house?
I went to the backyard, and there’s paper boxes about this tall, on the trash cans, and boxes full of paper and other stuff. So I pick up a notebook paper and read “RFK must die, RFK must die, RFK must die.” The son of a bitch was psyching himself up. And in the bottom of a box, empty shell casings.
Did you think he’d been target practicing?
Yep. Then [Yaro heard], What the hell are you doing down there?
You got caught by the man with the police badge!
You know, for 50 years now, there’ve been conspiracy theories about —
Bull. I’m seeing with my own eyes this bull — excuse me.
How did you feel, seeing Sirhan’s anger toward Kennedy?
He was going to be a president. and he would have been a good one. And this country would not have gone to hell in a handcart. Tricky Nixon ran the country into war, war with ourselves.
You’ve done so many extraordinary pictures over the years. Can you say you’re proud of this one? Or is it one you wish you had never taken?
I have to level with you, and I don't like it, OK? “I took X assassination photo” is not something I’m proud of.
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