By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – A suspect in the death of a Jewish man who fell and hit his head during dual pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests in California had called 911 to report the fall and waited at the scene and answered investigators’ questions, authorities said on Tuesday.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said at a press conference that the unnamed person, the only suspect so far, has not been arrested. Investigators are seeking video and photos from the public to help them learn what caused Paul Kessler, 69, to fall and hit his head during Sunday protests in Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles (65 km) west of Los Angeles.
“What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backward isn’t crystal clear right now,” Fryhoff said.
Kessler’s death has been ruled a homicide by medical examiners, with the cause of death listed as blunt force trauma to his head. Officials emphasized that a death being ruled a homicide means that another person was involved, but does not indicate if anything criminal took place.
Authorities have not ruled out that other people were involved.
Kessler was conscious when taken to the hospital and spoke with investigators while there, the sheriff said. He declined to say what Kessler told officers.
Witnesses have provided conflicting accounts about who was the aggressor in the incident, the sheriff said. The medical examiners office said Kessler had non-lethal injuries to the left side of his face, which could indicate he was hit before falling, but that it was not certain that was the case.
U.S. officials and civil rights groups have warned of increased threats against Jews, Muslims and Arab Americans following the Oct. 7 attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in which Israel says 1,400 were killed and more than 240 taken hostage, and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, where Palestinian health authorities say more than 10,000 people have been killed.
Fryhoff said his deputies have increased patrols around mosques and synagogues because of Kessler’s death.
Last month, an Illinois man was charged with hate crimes for stabbing a 6-year-old Muslim boy to death and wounding his mother in an attack that officials said targeted them for their religion in a response to the war.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles identified the victim at Sunday’s protest as a Jewish man and said the incident was the fourth act of antisemitic violence in the Los Angeles area this year, and the second since Oct. 7.
The dual protests in Thousand Oaks on Sunday drew about 100 people from each side, Fryhoff said, and no other incidents were reported. Law enforcement occasionally drove by the scene of the protest prior to Kessler’s fall and saw nothing that alarmed them, he added.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, the leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, citing conversations with local government officials, earlier said a pro-Palestinian protester had struck the victim on the head with a megaphone. Fryhoff said he could not confirm that took place, but that it was possible.
The Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, expressed grief on Monday over what it called a “tragic and shocking loss,” while also asking people to “refrain from jumping to conclusions” or “sensationalizing such a tragedy for political gains.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in California; editing by Donna Bryson and Bill Berkrot)