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Controversy still surrounds RFK assassination

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Thirty years ago, a bullet felled Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel, the last in a chain of assassinations that robbed many Americans of their political idealism and optimism.

So it's no surprise that those who were with Kennedy on that tragic night are feeling melancholy about how little has changed since June 5, 1968 - from the fragmented state of race relations to the unresolved controversy that surrounds the senator's death."Leaders like Kennedy don't just improve things themselves. They inspire others to take steps to make the nation better," said Rosey Grier, the former Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman who was in the room when Kennedy was shot. "I would imagine that racial relations would be a lot farther along the line if he lived to become president."

The man known as RFK would be 72 now.

Thirty years ago, Kennedy was at the Ambassador Hotel to claim victory in California's presidential primary. As he left through the hotel's kitchen pantry, he passed Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant enraged by Kennedy's support for Israel.

Shots were fired, and Kennedy collapsed. Sirhan ran but was wrestled to the ground by Grier and others. Kennedy died 26 hours later. Sirhan was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

If anything, recent events surrounding RFK's death have added fuel to the conspiracy theorists, who are still demanding a new government investigation into the three-decade-old crime. Through Sunday, the Coalition on Political Assassinations will convene at the Continental Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles to trade its latest theories.

Just a year ago, Sirhan himself insisted to a parole board that he did not shoot the senator but was framed. His request to be released was denied.

Adding to the controversy, a Los Angeles jury awarded a photographer $450,600 in 1996 on claims that his photos of the senator's death were mysteriously destroyed.

Scott Enyart was 15 on the night of the assassination and contends that he was standing on a pantry table taking photographs before, during and after the tragedy.

"I do think it was a great loss," said Enyart, now 45, who claims he isn't a conspiracy theorist but would like to see the crime re-examined. "This was to me the beginning of terrorism in the United States. This was the first election decided with bullets instead of ballots."

Enyart sued the city, claiming police confiscated his negatives, then lost or destroyed them. After years of litigation, state authorities notified him in January 1996 that his film had been found, misfiled in state archives.

But a city courier lost those images, claiming someone stole them from a rental car when he stopped to fix a flat tire.

Defense attorneys said Enyart was never in the pantry and that he only shot one roll, capturing little more than crowd shots - not the image of Kennedy twisting and falling, as Enyart has claimed.

One of the defense witnesses who backed Enyart's account that he was in the hotel's pantry area snapping photos of Kennedy was Ted Charach, a producer who wrote "The Second Gun" and two other documentaries about the assassination.

Charach, who said he too was in the room when Kennedy was killed, has made a career investigating Sirhan's claim that another man fired the fatal shot.

"The cover-up has grown to great dimensions," Charach said at a news conference Friday. "It's gone beyond anything I ever expected."

Sirhan's attorney also continues to insist his client is a victim of a conspiracy.

In a request for a new evidentiary hearing and trial for Sirhan, Lawrence Teeter filed a petition last year with the Court of Appeal, and now it sits before the state Supreme Court.

"Meanwhile, this historic crime remains unsolved," Teeter said. "Its true perpetrators have never been brought to justice."

Grier isn't on the conspiracy theory convention circuit. Instead, the football-player-turned-reverend commemorated the anniversary by leading a prayer in front of the Ambassador Hotel.

But Grier refused to join a group touring the now-closed hotel, a somewhat surreal journey that climaxed with Los Angeles Councilman Nate Holden speaking hopefully about racial unity in the pantry where Kennedy was slain.

Grier's message was anything but uplifting. "We still have racism, and we still have trouble relating to other folks today," he said.

Joseph Cerrell, a Los Angeles political consultant who was working in his Ambassador Hotel-based office on June 5, 1968, recently took his first tour of the building in more than a decade.

"It was a horrific night," Cerrell said, touring the ballroom near the pantry where Kennedy was assassinated. "This place hasn't changed a bit."