An elderly man died of his injuries after an altercation at dueling rallies over the Israel-Hamas conflict in Southern California on Sunday, and authorities said they have not ruled it out as a hate crime.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office identified the man as 69-year-old Paul Kessler. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles described him as “an elderly Jewish man” and claimed he was struck in the head by a pro-Palestinian demonstrator with a megaphone.
The sheriff’s office said the incident happened at around 3:20 p.m. at the intersection of Westlake and Thousand Oaks Boulevards in Thousand Oaks, which is west of Los Angeles. There were 75 to 100 people demonstrating at the location at that time.
Deputies found Kessler bleeding from his head and mouth when they arrived at the scene. Witnesses said he had been in a physical altercation with counterprotesters and fell backward and struck his head on the ground.
"We want to be as transparent as possible but understand this is an active investigation," said Capt. Dean Worthy with the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff’s office said Kessler was transported to a local hospital for treatment but succumbed to his injuries the next day.
The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled his death a homicide by blunt force head injury and said Kessler also suffered a nonfatal injury to the side of the face, possibly from a blow of some kind, but there's no video evidence yet to support that conclusion.
During a news conference Tuesday morning, authorities said a 50-year-old suspect was identified at the scene and was "willingly interviewed by deputies." The suspect was one of the people at the scene who called 911 requesting medical attention for Kessler, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said.
According to Fryhoff, deputies got conflicting statements from witnesses at the scene about who the aggressor in the altercation was and what exactly happened before Kessler fell to the ground.
"It's clear that there was interaction between the two but we don't know what. That's why we're asking for videos," said Fryhoff.
Monday afternoon, authorities obtained a search warrant for the suspect's residence and detained him in a traffic stop before releasing him again once the search of his home was completed, Fryhoff said.
Deputies said they are actively investigating the man's death as a homicide.
"Violence against our people has no place in civilized society," the Jewish Federation said in a statement on its social media. "We demand safety. We will not tolerate violence against our community. We will do everything in our power to prevent it."
The Greater Los Angeles area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) denounced the alleged attack and expressed their support for the Jewish community in a statement on their website Tuesday.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss,” CAIR-LA said. “While we strongly support the right of political debate, CAIR-LA and the Muslim community stand with the Jewish community in rejecting any and all violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or incitement of hatred.”
Currently there's a makeshift memorial to Kessler at the intersection where the incident occurred.
Meanwhile, law enforcement is stepping up security at area mosques and synagogues while asking for patience from the community.
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