Robert A. Wenke, 88, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who sought to untangle conspiracy theories as he presided over an inquiry into the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, died Aug. 14 at his home in Long Beach, Calif., from complications of pancreatic cancer.

Wenke, who in 1975 became the youngest Superior Court judge in Los Angeles County, conceived the concept of allowing the public to apply to serve on a grand jury.

He handled cases involving a long list of Hollywood celebrities, but it was the Kennedy hearings in 1975 that kept him in the news.

Sirhan Sirhan had already been convicted and sentenced for Kennedy’s death when Wenke presided over the hearings in 1975.

They examined whether it was possible a second gunman had been involved in the assassination. The panel didn’t find enough evidence to investigate further, and the case ended.

 

Egon Bahr, 93, a prominent Social Democrat whose efforts to improve West Germany’s relations with the Soviet bloc helped pave the way for German reunification 45 years after World War II, has died, the party announced Thursday.

Bahr, an architect of Ostpolitik, West Germany’s Cold War policy of rapprochement with Moscow and its client states, was active to the last in his efforts to reduce more recent East-West tensions.

He visited Moscow in July to join former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a plea for continued detente between Germany and Russia. He was a journalist and an aide to German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

 

The Rev. George M. Houser, 99, a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality who was the last living member of the inaugural Freedom Ride — the sometimes violent bus trip through the South by a racially mixed group in 1947 — died Wednesday in Santa Rosa, Calif.

A white Methodist minister, Houser was “one of the most important yet least-heralded activists of the 20th century,” the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization with which he was long involved, wrote on its website in June.

With black colleagues James Farmer and Bayard Rustin and others, Houser founded CORE in 1942.

Five years later, he and Rustin organized the first test of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred segregation on interstate transit. They sent black and white riders through the South on interstate buses.

That journey, in which Houser and Rustin both took part, prefigured the Freedom Rides of 1961 by 14 years and is now widely described as having been the first of them.

 

Frederick Payne, 104, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general who was honored for his exploits as a fighter pilot in the Pacific in World War II, died Aug. 6 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was the oldest of the surviving fighter aces.

In 1942, from behind the guns of his Grumman F4F Wildcat flying over the Pacific near Guadalcanal, Payne, downed three Japanese bombers and two Zero fighters, having already shared credit with another pilot for bringing down an enemy bomber.

He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The surviving aces were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in May in Washington. Like about half of the recipients, Payne was too frail to attend.

With Payne’s death, there are 71 surviving aces.

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