Busboy who held dying RFK reveals his final moments

Juan Romero was a teenage Mexican immigrant working as a hotel busboy 50 years ago when he was thrust into one of the seminal moments of the decade.

Mr Romero had just stopped to shake the hand of Robert F Kennedy on the night of his victory in the California presidential primary on June 5, 1968 when a gunman shot the New York senator in the head.

Mr Romero held a wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator’s bleeding head from hitting the cold floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen. 

For almost a half-century, the 67-year-old blamed himself, wondering if he could have done more and often asked, “what if Kennedy hadn’t stopped for that brief moment to shake my hand?”.

The torment ate at Mr Romero so much he fled Los Angeles and resettled in seclusion in Wyoming.

On Saturday, nearly 50 years after that tragic early morning, the 67-year-old doesn’t bear the same guilt, thanks in part to the support of RFK fans who say the former busboy was an example of the type of people Kennedy sought to help in making racial equality and civil rights a cornerstone of his life’s work.

Robert F Kennedy campaigning in Indiana. Source: Getty Images

 Mr Romero grants few interviews but recently made himself available for the Netflix documentary Bobby Kennedy for President, StoryCorps and others to talk about the hope RFK inspired that remains with him 50 years later. 

Born in the small town of Mazatan, Mexico, Mr Romero moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the United States as a 10-year-old.

The family lived in poor East Los Angeles and he attended Roosevelt High School the year that Chicano students started organising walkouts to protest discrimination against Mexican-American students.

Mr Romero got a job at the Ambassador Hotel as a dishwasher and later a busboy.

Juan Romero holds Robert F Kennedy as he dies. Source: AAP

 Then came the day Mr Romero met Kennedy. The day before the California primary, Kennedy and his aides ordered room service at the Ambassador Hotel.

Mr Romero was on duty and came into the room with a group of other busboys. He saw Kennedy toward the back — one hand held a curtain and the other gripped a phone. Kennedy put down the phone and waved Mr Romero to come forward.

“All I remember was that I kept staring at him with my mouth open,” Mr Romero said.

Kennedy grabbed Mr Romero’s hand with both hands and said, “thank you”. 

“I will never forget the handshake and the look … looking right at you with those piercing eyes that said, ‘I’m one of you. We’re good,'” Mr Romero said.

“He wasn’t looking at my skin, he wasn’t looking at my age … he was looking at me as an American.”

Mr Romero still feels guilt over the death of Kennedy. Source: AAP

 The busboy walked out of Kennedy’s room with complete happiness. Nothing would stop him from pursuing his dreams, Mr Romero felt.  

“Now, they call it swagger,” he said.

“I had no doubt that I had just met the next president of the United States.” 

The next day, voters went to the polls. In some East Los Angeles precincts, polls closed early, not because of irregularities but because everyone had voted. Kennedy won on the strength of Mexican-American and black voters. 

In the Embassy Room, Kennedy thanked supporters, including United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta.

After his victory speech, Huerta tried to usher Kennedy to another room where mariachis were waiting to play for the victorious candidate. Kennedy walked downstairs and decided to go through a hotel kitchen and meet with reporters waiting on the other side.

In the kitchen, Kennedy raced through and waved to kitchen staff. Then, he saw Mr Romero. Did he remember him from the day before? Mr Romero stuck out his hand and Kennedy stopped to shake it. During that brief pause, a man ran toward Kennedy and opened fire.  

Several men, including Olympic gold medallist Rafer Johnson and Los Angeles Rams football player Roosevelt Grier, jumped on the gunman. 

Mr Romero ran to Kennedy. News photographers captured pictures of him next to the bloodied Kennedy — images that would be seen all over the world.

“Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked.

Before Kennedy lost consciousness he said, “everything will be OK”.

His wife Ethel Kennedy — at the time pregnant with their 11th child — ran to her injured husband and pushed Mr Romero away. Mr Romero turned and saw a group of men punching the gunman.

“I felt my hand making a fist to join in,” Mr Romero said.

“Then I thought, what’s the point?” 

The next day, Robert F Kennedy, the man who had excited Latino, black, poor and anti-Vietnam War voters, was dead at the age of 42. 

Mr Romero, after 50 years, has accepted his place in history, even though he wished no one knew his name. 

“People often say I was at the right place at the right time.” Mr Romero said.

“No, the right place at the right time would have been me … taking that bullet.”