Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
October 04, 2018 05:42 PM

Juan Romero, the former hotel busboy who aided Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 assassination in Los Angeles, has died. He was 68.

On Thursday, Romero’s longtime family friend and TV anchor Rigo Chacon confirmed to the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times that Romero died at a Modesto, California, hospital on Monday following a heart attack.

“He had a heart attack several days ago and his brain went too long without oxygen,” Chacon told the Times, also recalling a conversation the pair had in June on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

“Romero was in the habit of leaving flowers at that monument each year to mark RFK’s death. In our many conversations over the years, he said he often felt we were moving further politically from what he saw as a Kennedy legacy of tolerance and compassion,” Chacon said.

Romero was 17 when he tried to help Kennedy, who was shot in the head at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, after he won the California presidential primary. Photojournalists captured the tragic and iconic moment in black and white photos which showed Romero cradling a wounded Kennedy and placing rosary beads in Kennedy’s hand. Hours later, the New York senator was pronounced dead at a hospital at age 42.

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Juan Romero
Mike Coppola/Getty

Romero was born in Mazatan in the Mexican state of Sonora and moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the U.S., when he was 10. They lived in East Los Angeles and he attended Roosevelt High School before he got a job at the Ambassador Hotel as a dishwasher and later became a busboy.

In June this year, Romero recounted Kennedy’s shooting and his death in vivid detail, and opened up about how the incident continued to haunt him for “a long 50 years.”

“I remember extending my hand as far as I could, and then I remember him shaking my hand. And as he let go, somebody shot him,” he told StoryCorps in an interview that aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

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“I kneeled down to him and I could see his lips moving, so I put my ear next to his lips and I heard him say, ‘Is everybody okay?’ I said, ‘Yes, everybody’s okay,’ ” Romero said. “I put my hand between the cold concrete and his head just to make him comfortable. I could feel a steady stream of blood coming through my fingers. I remember I had a rosary in my shirt pocket and I took it out, thinking that he would need it a lot more than me.”

He also recalled his visit to Kennedy’s grave at the Arlington National Cemetery in 2010. “I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him,” Romero shared, adding that he bought his first-ever suit for the visit. “When I wore the suit and I stood in front of his grave, I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him. I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good,” he said.

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