FIRST Witness: Bill Eppridge

 

When the gunshots that mortally wounded Sen. Robert F. Kennedy rang out in a California hotel that fateful night 44 years ago, Life magazine photographer Bill Eppridge was right behind the Democratic presidential candidate. Eppridge didn’t panic or run; instead he did what he had risked his life to do in Vietnam—he took pictures and recorded history.

“I was about 12 feet behind [Kennedy] and I heard the shots start,” Eppridge says in the living room of the New Milford home he shares with his wife, Adrienne. In his 70s, Eppridge has dark hair and a deep, penetrating stare. When he talks about his days with Kennedy he speaks slowly and deliberately, as if he’s reliving each moment.

The assassination took place at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968. The shots were fired by 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, and Eppridge himself was nearly hit by a stray bullet.

“One man [Paul Schrade], who was about four or five feet in front of me, standing directly in line with me and Sirhan, took a bullet in the head,” he says. Immediately, Eppridge began taking pictures. “One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was that JFK, when he had been shot, there were no still photographic records made of that. I thought now you’ve changed your job, you’re a historian.”

Among the photographs Eppridge took that night is the haunting image of a fallen Kennedy being cradled in the arms of Juan Romero, an Ambassador Hotel busboy who had shaken hands with the candidate just moments before. That powerful picture captured by Eppridge has become one of the enduring images of the assassination.

It was just that day that Kennedy had agreed to let Eppridge be a part of his immediate entourage for the night. Eppridge says that after making his speech, Kennedy left the hotel’s Embassy Room ballroom the same way he came into it—through the kitchen, despite the repeated protests of his lone bodyguard, William Barry. (It was only after the shooting that the Secret Service began protecting presidential candidates.)

“Barry knew the ropes and he knew that you don’t go out of a room the same way you came in,” Eppridge explains.

He had photographed Kennedy two years earlier and on the campaign trail they’d become friends, but at first Eppridge could not take time to grieve for his fallen friend. “After Frank Mankiewicz [Kennedy’s press secretary] announced that Bobby was gone, I went back to New York and met the plane there when they brought him in, photographed the funeral at St. Patrick’s, took that train ride to Washington, and then I cried,” he says.

If Kennedy hadn’t been murdered, Eppridge believes that history would have taken a vastly different course. “I don’t think people realize the significance of that assassination and what would have happened had he not been shot,” Eppridge says. He believes Kennedy would have became president instead of Republican Richard Nixon and would have ended the Vietnam War immediately—saving the lives of more than 20,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands of North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

“How many people died because of that assassination?” Eppridge asks. “That’s stuck with me, it bothers me.”

In addition to the tragic end of the Kennedy campaign, Eppridge covered many iconic moments in the 1960s for Life magazine, including the Beatles’ arrival in America in 1964 and the Woodstock music festival in 1969. In 2008, he compiled his photographs and wrote about his time with Kennedy in the book A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties.

Eppridge doesn’t subscribe to any of the many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, especially that there was a second gunman and more than eight shots fired that night.

“Somebody had supposedly taped 16 gunshots; there were not [16 shots],” he says. “I counted the number of shots and there were eight. So all this stuff about there being somebody else there shooting—no, there wasn’t.”

Besides security being light around the candidate, the campaign was very open, making Kennedy an easy target. Also, Sirhan is on record saying that he hated Kennedy because of his support of Israel.

“One plus one equals two sometimes,” Eppridge says. “I really think it was just one wacko, and a number of guys who were on that campaign have also said that, but you know, you can always be wrong. Always.”
 

FIRST Witness: Bill Eppridge

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