An elderly Jewish man dies after an altercation with pro-Palestinian protesters
Updated November 7, 2023 at 2:40 PM ET
An elderly Jewish man has died of injuries sustained in an altercation at dueling Israeli-Palestinian protests in Southern California over the weekend, which authorities have not ruled out as a hate crime.
The Ventura County Sheriff's Office says 69-year-old Paul Kessler died in an area hospital on Monday, a day after suffering a head injury during a confrontation with pro-Palestinian protesters at a busy intersection in Thousand Oaks (which is about 40 miles West of Los Angeles).
Authorities said Tuesday they have questioned and searched the home of a suspect, but have not released the suspect's identity or made any arrests in relation to the incident.
Ventura County Sherrif Jim Fryhoff said at a press conference that Kessler, who was Jewish, was at the event supporting Israel. He described the suspect as a 50-year-old resident of nearby Moorpark who was there "advocating for Palestine."
Fryhoff said officers at the scene got conflicting statements from witnesses — which included both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters — about "what the altercation was and who the aggressor was." Investigators do not yet have video that clearly shows the confrontation or the events leading up to it, he added.
"There was clearly an interaction between the two, but what that level of interaction was is still unclear," Fryhoff added.
The sheriff's office is asking anyone with knowledge of the incident to either call them or submit evidence through an anonymous tip line.
Video of the apparent aftermath of the incident circulating on social media shows a man lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and moving his arms, as two people (including a woman wearing a "Free Palestine" jacket) come to his aid.
Citing witness accounts, the sheriff's office said that "Kessler fell backwards and struck his head on the ground" during a physical altercation with one or more counter-protesters.
But there are conflicting reports about what caused that fall. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles alleged in a statementthat Kessler was "struck in the head by a megaphone wielded by a pro-Palestinian protester," which authorities could not confirm on Tuesday.
The Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office has ruled Kessler's death a homicide, caused by blunt force head injury.
Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young stressed at Tuesday's press conference that the homicide determination doesn't necessarily mean that a crime has been committed, just that the actions of a person contributed to another's death.
Kessler's lethal injuries to the back of his head — including skull fractures and brain swelling and bruising — are consistent with those sustained from a fall, Young said. He added Kessler had additional injuries that "could be consistent with a blow to the face."
Fryhoff urged people to remain "calm, peaceful and patient" as his office continues its investigation, and warned against spreading rumors or disinformation online.
Both Jewish and Muslim groups are mourning Kessler's death and cautioning people not to jump to conclusions about the events leading up to it.
The sheriff's office is also increasing patrols near Jewish and Muslim houses of worship and working with community leaders to provide support as needed, Fryhoff added.
"We understand that the war in Israel and Gaza has led to an increase in hateful and threatening rhetoric," he said. "And we want to assure the Muslim and Jewish communities that we stand with them both during this difficult time."
Authorities identified a suspect but said there could be more
Fryhoff said residents had been protesting at this intersection every weekend since Hamas militants killed and kidnapped Israeli civilians, prompting Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza.
He said some 75 to 100 people were present on Sunday, including the pro-Palestinian group and the pro-Israel counter-protesters, who had both advertised peaceful events. In fact, Fryhoff said, the chief of police had driven through the scene about 15 minutes before the altercation and noticed "no indication of impending violence."
Fryhoff said the sheriff's office got multiple calls of an assault and an unconscious male bleeding around 3:20 p.m. local time.
Responders arrived within minutes to find Kessler conscious and responsive, but bleeding from the head and mouth. Medical personnel provided aid at the scene and transported him to a nearby hospital, which listed him in critical condition. He was conscious when deputies contacted him at the hospital around 4 p.m.
Young said Kessler's condition deteriorated overnight, and he was pronounced dead just after 1 a.m. on Monday. Law enforcement launched an investigation into his death some two hours later, after being notified by the hospital.
Fryhoff says authorities identified a suspect who they know may have had an altercation with Kessler, but "that does not mean there's not others."
"We're waiting for that information to come out from our residents who were there or any other people who were present," he said. "And if they have video of that to indicate there was more than one person involved, we definitely want that information as well."
Fryhoff said the suspect was one of the people who called 911 for Kessler, and willingly stayed at the scene afterwards to answer officers' questions.
The sheriff's office obtained a search warrant for the suspect and their residence, he added. They detained the suspect at a traffic stop on Monday and held them for about an hour while officers searched their residence. Fryhoff said he could not comment on the results of the search, but reiterated that investigators have "not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime."
Religious groups mourn, contextualize and urge caution
Local religious groups issued statements of shock and sadness after Kessler's death was announced late Monday.
Many stressed that the facts are incomplete, but noted that it comes amidst a rise in tensions — and antisemitic incidents — across the U.S. in response to the Israel-Hamas war.
Hamas killed some 1,400 people during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel and continues to hold more than 240 people hostage; Israel's retaliation has killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza in the month since. Many American cities have seen demonstrations in support of both sides, as well as calls for a cease-fire.
Rabbi Michael Barclay of nearby Westlake Village wrote in a series of posts on X — the platform formerly known as Twitter — that pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been "looking for violence, shouting profanities, and stopping cars" for the last three weekends. But he praised law enforcement for proceeding with caution, and urged others to "not let this become a spark that starts an inferno."
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said Kessler's death is the fourth major antisemitic crime committed in L.A. this year. Among them: A man was charged with federal hate crimes after shooting at two Jewish men as they walked home from their synagogues in February.
The number of antisemitic incidents in the Los Angeles area had already been on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): It said earlier this year that the community reported 237 such incidents in 2022, up 30% from the year before.
The organization has also reported a dramatic national increase in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 — at least 312 as of late last month — for an increase of 388% from the same period in 2022.
The ADL said it was "heartbroken" over Kessler's death and called on law enforcement to launch a thorough investigation into the culprit and motivation.
Reports of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim incidents have also spiked since Oct. 7. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had received 774 such complaints in that same period, up from just 63 in August.
A 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was fatally stabbed — and his mother seriously injured — last month in Illinois, in an incident now being investigated as a hate crime. A 71-year-old man, who was their landlord, pleaded not guilty last week.
CAIR's Greater Los Angeles Area office — Southern California's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization — issued a statement expressing its thoughts for Kessler's family and solidarity with the Jewish community in "rejecting violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia or incitement of hatred."
Executive Director Hussam Ayloush described the loss as "tragic and shocking," and urged people to wait for the sheriff's office to finish its investigation before drawing conclusions.
"We join local Jewish leaders in calling on all individuals to refrain from jumping to conclusions, sensationalizing such a tragedy for political gains, or spreading rumors that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at an all-time high," he wrote.
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