SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, was denied parole Thursday by California’s governor, who said the killer remains a threat to the public and hasn’t taken responsibility for a crime that altered American history.
Kennedy, a senator from New York, was shot moments after he claimed victory in California’s pivotal Democratic Party primary. Five others were wounded during the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has cited RFK as his political hero, rejected a recommendation from a two-person panel of parole commissioners who said Sirhan, 77, should be freed.
The panel’s recommendation in August had divided the Kennedy family, with two of RFK’s sons — Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — supporting his release, and their siblings and mother vehemently opposing it.
In his decision, Newsom said the assassination was “among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Aside from causing Kennedy’s then-pregnant wife and 10 children “immeasurable suffering,” Newsom said the killing “also caused great harm to the American people.”
It “upended the 1968 presidential election, leaving millions in the United States and beyond mourning the promise of his candidacy,” Newsom wrote. “Mr. Sirhan killed Senator Kennedy during a dark season of political assassinations, just nine weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and 4½ years after the murder of Senator Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy.”
He said Sirhan still lacks insight, refuses to accept responsibility and has failed to disclaim violence committed in his name. That adds “to his current risk of inciting further political violence,” Newsom wrote.
In 1973, terrorists took 10 hostages at an embassy in Sudan, demanding the release of Sirhan and other prisoners and killing three diplomats when their demands weren’t met, he noted.
Sirhan, who will be scheduled for a new parole hearing no later than February 2023, will ask a judge to overturn Newsom’s denial, defense attorney Angela Berry said.
“We fully expect that judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that the governor got it wrong,” she said.
State law holds that inmates are supposed to be paroled unless they pose a current unreasonable public safety risk, she said, adding that “not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society.”
She said the parole process has become politicized, and Newsom “chose to overrule his own experts [on the parole board], ignoring the law.”
Parole commissioners found Sirhan suitable for release “because of his impressive extensive record of rehabilitation over the last half-century,” Berry said. “Since the mid-1980s Mr. Sirhan has consistently been found by prison psychologists and psychiatrists to not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to the public.”
During his parole hearing, the white-haired Sirhan called Kennedy the “hope of the world.” But he stopped short of taking full responsibility for a shooting he said he doesn’t recall because he was drunk.
“It pains me ... the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did, in fact, do that,” Sirhan said.
Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and six of his children hailed Newsom’s decision in a statement that called RFK a “visionary and champion of justice” whose life “was cut short by an enraged man with a small gun.”
“The political passions that motivated this inmate’s act still simmer today, and his refusal to admit the truth makes it impossible to conclude that he has overcome the evil that boiled over 53 years ago,” they wrote.
As the remnants of West Virginia’s first significant snowfall of the season melt away, a new winter weather system is expected to arrive from the west on Sunday, blanketing the entire state with at least 4 inches of wet, heavy snow.
The National Weather Service on Friday issued a Winter Storm Watch covering all of West Virginia and large portions of neighboring states advising that moderate to heavy snowfall is likely to descend in the region starting early Sunday, producing accumulations of 4 to 8 inches in the western lowlands.
In the state’s eastern mountains, accumulations could reach the 10- to 12-inch range and be accompanied by winds gusting at up to 35 miles per hour.
In the Kanawha Valley and other points west of the mountains, Sunday’s snowfall could turn to freezing rain during the afternoon before returning to all snow Sunday night and early Monday.
The Winter Storm Watch, in effect from Sunday morning to early Monday, cautioned that “travel could be very difficult to impossible” statewide during and immediately after the snowfall, making the morning commute on Monday a challenge.
Monday’s public school classes already are canceled for the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The rapid descent of wet, heavy snow could cause tree limbs to break and fall across power lines, increasing the likelihood for at least scattered outages, particularly in areas receiving the heaviest snow, according to the Weather Service.
Scattered light snow showers are possible again on Monday, with the odds projected at 50% for the Charleston area during the day, and 30% Monday night. Partly sunny skies are expected Tuesday.
Amid an unprecedented COVID-19 surge that has even infected the governor, the West Virginia Department of Education has stopped reporting the number of COVID-19 cases from outbreaks at specific K-12 schools.
Also, West Virginia University no longer is reporting the number of students or employees testing positive or in quarantine.
April Kaull, spokeswoman for the state’s largest university, wrote in an email that, “given that our testing strategy both as a university and a state has changed (as well as CDC guidance) and the significant amount of in-home testing we have going on, we thought it would potentially paint an inaccurate picture to show daily testing metrics.”
“Both ways — it could be missing positive and negative results that skew the data in ways that are not helpful,” she wrote.
As for the lack of statewide K-12 case reporting, a temporary technical issue is partly to blame, said Allison Adler. She’s the spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, to which the education department referred questions.
Adler wrote in an email that her department “transitioned to a new outbreak reporting system January 1, 2022 and the reports generated from the system are still being tweaked into a format previously used by West Virginia Department of Education to publish this data.”
She also wrote that the K-12 case data reporting method will change Jan. 24 to be more “robust” and allow her department to “monitor percent positivity by school and county.” She didn’t answer follow-up questions.
These current reductions in reporting — intended to be permanent for WVU, perhaps temporary for K-12 schools — come as the state is seeing record high numbers of new daily cases. Each week, the pandemic-high record is broken.
West Virginia never required routine COVID-19 testing in schools, so the full number of cases has been unknown.
From around the start of last school year through last month, the education department’s website had listed each school with a COVID-19 “outbreak” and how many cases had stemmed from that outbreak.
The site showed hundreds of cases in schools throughout the state. Some school outbreaks just infected a few people; some infected dozens.
Never did the site break down how many students were infected compared to employees — it reported only the total. It also never reported quarantine numbers.
Now, the site just shows whether there’s an outbreak at a school, not the extent of it.
There were outbreaks at 27 schools as of Friday evening, the site reported. Five schools are closed over a lack of staffing, it reported: Kanawha County’s Bridgeview and Kanawha City elementaries and three schools in Wetzel County.
The state had been defining an outbreak as two or more confirmed cases among students or staff from separate households within 14 days and within a single classroom or core group. That definition eventually changed, including by broadening to include simply “at least three cases within a specified core group [e.g., classroom, extracurricular activity, sports team].”
County school systems may continue to report cases on their own, if they choose.
As of Friday evening, Kanawha County, which has about 24,320 students and reports all cases, even if they’re not related to in-school spread, was reporting about 570 cases among students and staff.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, now entering its second year as a full-fledged member of the National Park Service family, is already experiencing growing pains, following a 30% increase in visitation since becoming America’s newest national park.
While the surge in visitation has benefited businesses in the Gorge’s gateway towns, it also has raised concern about overcrowding and understaffing within the park, and the adequacy of visitor amenities outside its boundaries.
Those were among issues raised Wednesday during a virtual panel discussion on the Gorge’s first year as a national park, sponsored by Adventures on the Gorge. Participants included park managers, tourism entrepreneurs and academicians, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and state Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby.
“Trail capacity will be an issue,” said Capito, who, along with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led the effort in the U.S. Senate to designate the Gorge as a national park.
Capito said the last time she visited the Gorge, it was to hike the Endless Wall Trail, where she found “it was tough to find a place to park” and the popular clifftop trail was crowded with visitors.
The senator said efforts should be made to make sure the National Park Service has enough employees at the Gorge to meet the maintenance demands of increased visitation on park trails, roads, parking areas, campgrounds and visitor centers and to protect public safety.
“I think some improvements should be made to areas in the park that get overloaded with visitors,” Capito said, adding that more emphasis should be placed on points of interest and amenities to be found at the park’s less-visited south end.
Adding land to the park “could be something to take a look at,” she said.
Legislation designating the new national park and preserve also authorized bidding on up to 3,700 acres of land to add to the preserve portion of the park, in which hunting is allowed, and to add up to 100 acres to the portion designated as a national park to accommodate parking improvements.
About 90%, or 65,165 acres, of the Park Service land in the Gorge lies in the preserve portion of the park, while the remaining 7,021 acres have been designated as a national park.
Outside the park boundaries, “local tourism capacity will also be an issue,” Capito said. “Are there enough hotel rooms, gas stations and eateries” to meet the demands of increased visitation? “The last thing we want is for people to come here and have a bad experience.”
“If you visit a traditional national park, there’s an entrance and an exit, and you get in line and go through the park and you know what to do and where to do it,” Ruby said. “Our park is very different, because there are entrances and exits all across it.”
Having a variety of routes to choose from to get to a park activity or attraction “gives our visitors a better experience,” Ruby said, “but with that come some challenges. We have to let our visitors understand what’s available and how to get there, and to be aware of our park’s boundaries.”
Leslie Reynolds, acting superintendent of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, said improvement projects taking place this year in the park include adding an array of new indoor and outdoor exhibits at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, expected to be completed in December.
While park visitation was up more than 30% during the past year, interest in the park has grown even more, she said, with visits to the park’s website up 172% and visits to the website’s Plan Your Visit page up 342% over 2020.
With the national park designation, “we’re becoming a destination park, instead of a stopover park,” she said.
Improving trails and other recreational developments in the park’s gateway communities would help disperse trail use within the park and give visitors more reasons to lengthen their stays, said Danny Twilley, assistant dean of the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University.
Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, a Fayette County outdoor adventure resort and whitewater outfitter, said that, in addition to bringing more business to the area, the national park designation “has made it possible for so many people to discover West Virginia. It’s a true blessing for the state.”
HUNTINGTON — Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader is stepping away from the fire department, but she is not stepping away from public service.
Rader, 56, will retire as chief effective Feb. 11, Mayor Steve Williams announced Friday. She will transition into a new position — director of the Mayor’s Council on Public Health and Drug Control Policy.
“I have shed tears, mourned, laughed and rejoiced with both co-workers and citizens during the past 27 years,” Rader said a city news release. “The firefighters who guard this community are dedicated first responders and true heroes. I am proud to have served with each one of them and know they will excel moving forward.
“I also can’t thank Mayor Williams enough for his support, leadership and friendship. He has been instrumental in solving decades-long challenges that have hindered both the Huntington Fire Department and the community as a whole.”
Friday was a “bittersweet” day, Rader said to reporters in Huntington Fire Station No. 1. The chief has been a firefighter for 271/2 years after being hired in August 1994.
Rader, who was sworn in as chief in March 2017 after serving as interim since December 2016, is the first woman in West Virginia to be chief of a professional fire department.
Becoming a firefighter wasn’t a career option Rader considered until she saw a woman have a heart attack in the doorway of the jewelry store where she worked as an assistant manager outside Washington, D.C.
“I felt helpless. I didn’t know how to even perform CPR, so I called 911 and waited, and the fire department showed up, thank goodness. Two young ladies with small children stopped in and did CPR, and when the fire department showed up, there was a woman there, and I didn’t know it was a choice, so I certainly didn’t want to feel helpless again.”
She began talking to firefighters she knew. Then, at the behest of her brother, she took a test for firefighters in Huntington. Rader, who grew up in nearby Ironton, decided to come home.
“We owe Chief Rader a debt of thanks for her leadership, her heart and her fortitude,” Williams said in the news release. “Fortunately, we are not saying goodbye to her. While she may be saying farewell to the fire service, she will continue to assist our efforts in the battle against substance use disorder and the ongoing public health challenges facing our city, state and nation. We aren’t done yet.”
Rader was named among the most influential people on the 2018 TIME 100 list. She is one of three local women featured in the Oscar-nominated 2017 Netflix documentary “Heroin(e)” for their work to aid Huntington after it was altered by the opioid epidemic. During testimony for the city’s and Cabell County’s opioid trial against drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson last year, Rader described carnage she saw in the community because of drug abuse.
Rader said she feels the fire department is in good hands, adding that excellent chief officers are in place. With the mayor’s guidance, she said, the HFD has been able to solve decades-long issues that have plagued the department and the city and believes those solutions will continue.
“I come to work and I try to do the best I can every day, and, hopefully, we make a difference, and I feel like that we have made a difference and will continue to make a difference ... . I’m the biggest cheerleader you can have for this department, and will continue to be, even though I will no longer be the chief.”
Moving into the director role is “a natural move” for her because of her work with the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy and on addiction issues within Huntington, she said. The decision for her to become the director was made last week.
“The world around us is changing. The epidemic is still there,” Rader said. “It’s going to be here for years, but it evolves and we need to be able to adapt to overcome what we’re dealing with.”
As for the fire chief to follow Rader, she said any advice for that person will be given in private. Rader hopes the next chief will treat people with “dignity, respect and compassion.” She is proud of the department’s work with compassion fatigue and PTSD not just for firefighters, but also for first responders in general.
“When you’re a first responder, you spend a lot of time crying, mourning with not just your co-workers but the citizens that you serve. And, you know, when there’s an emergency, the fire department is not there to fix it or make it better, we’re trying to do what we can to mitigate the situation that is there and comfort people. We try to hook them up with services that can help them from where they are. You know, we watch people lose everything they’ve worked for their whole lives in 15 minutes, and it’s devastating. So, you certainly don’t want your fire chief or department to have a bad day, because that means someone has had a horrific day.”
Williams will assemble a citizen-based search committee to assist him in the selection of a new fire chief. It will be much like the process used to hire Police Chief Karl Colder. Names of members will be announced in the near future, the city said. An interim chief will be named soon.
“The committee members will be trusted individuals who will have the capabilities of vetting fire chief candidates thoroughly and recommending finalists to me whose vision of public safety reflects the needs of our community,” Williams said in the release.
In the coming weeks, the mayor will announce more details about the mission of the Council on Public Health and Drug Control Policy.
When asked if she sees the new council as a successor to the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, Rader said it is a “natural variation.” She said the office “did a wonderful job and set the standard.” Other entities in the community aided in the office’s efforts, which the office facilitated. Now is the time to branch out and change, Rader said, as the opioid epidemic evolves and from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the area.
For the month ahead, Rader said she plans to savor her last moments at the helm of the fire department and spend time with her co-workers.
“I love this community. It’s a very warm and inviting community, and it’s been a pleasure and an honor to serve them, and I will continue to do that, even as a regular citizen or working in the new office,” Rader said. “So, I can’t think of a better community in this country ... Appalachia is home. Huntington is home.”