An elderly Jewish man who was attending a pro-Israel rally died after a violent confrontation by pro-Palestinian protestors in Thousand Oaks, California, according to a statement from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
Paul Kessler, 69, died at a hospital on Monday, a day after he was struck during competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations near Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards in the suburb northwest of Los Angeles, authorities said.
Witnesses said Kessler faced a “physical altercation” with one or more counter-protesters. He was knocked backward and struck his head on the ground, according to a statement from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
At a press conference Tuesday, Sheriff James Fryhoff said witnesses provided conflicting statements as to who the aggressor was, and what exactly happened prior to Kessler falling, and striking his head on the ground is not crystal clear.
The altercation is still under investigation, but some media outlets reported that one of the protesters struck Kessler before he fell.
Fryhoff said investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the act was a hate crime, and it is being investigated as a homicide. No arrests have been made, but one suspect was identified, and detained while a search warrant on his home was completed. The suspect was later released and has not been publicly identified.
Dr. Christopher Young, chief examiner for the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office told the press conference the autopsy performed on Monday found Kessler’s injuries to the back of his head were consistent and typical of with injuries sustained from a fall.
“The cause of death has been certified as blunt force head trauma, and the manner of death is homicide,” Young said. “The manner of death is a medical-legal determination. A manner of death of homicide does not indicate that a crime has been committed. This is a determination that is made by the District Attorney’s Office.”
“When a manner of death by homicide is made, it is simply stating the death occurred at the hands of another person, or the actions of another person contributed to the death of a person,” he explained.
While taking questions from the press, Young said the lethal injury was to the back of the head from Kessler falling and striking his head on the ground.
He also informed the press that even though the case was still under investigation, there were injuries to the front of Kessler’s face that could be consistent with “a blow to the face.”
Investigators are asking anyone with information or video of the incident to contact the sheriff’s office at (805) 384-4745. Anonymous tips can be submitted to Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477. Video and photographs can also be anonymously submitted here.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles wrote in a post on X Monday that a pro-Palestinian protester struck Kessler on the head with a megaphone and described the incident as the “fourth major antisemitic crime committed in Los Angeles this year alone.”
“Violence against our people has no place in civilized society. We demand safety. We will not tolerate violence against our community. We will do everything in our power to prevent it,” the federation wrote.
— Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (@JFedLA) November 7, 2023
Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, near Thousand Oaks, urged people to avoid jumping to conclusions about what happened.
“I just got off the phone with the Chief of Police,” he posted on X. “They have conflicting reports of what happened, and they did interview the suspect that is identified in social media at the event. They have no video.”
He said police are being cautious before making accusations. “We need to do the same, and not let this become a spark that starts an inferno,” he wrote.
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also issued a statement calling Kessler’s death a “tragic and shocking loss.”
“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,” the statement said.