Suspect Interviewed in Case of Jewish Man Who Died After California Protest

Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish man, died on Monday after succumbing to injuries he sustained the day prior during an altercation over the Israel-Hamas war in Thousand Oaks, California. Authorities have confirmed they are investigating the incident as a homicide and possible hate crime, and said they’ve twice made contact with a suspect — once on the scene, and again during a traffic stop for a vehicle search.

During a press conference Tuesday morning, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said he wanted to be “as transparent as possible” about the deadly incident but would not risk compromising the department’s ongoing investigation. He said officers had responded Sunday to a call about “a possible assault and an unconscious male who was bleeding” at a busy intersection in Thousand Oaks, and come upon a group of 75 to 100 demonstrators comprising pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions. Kessler, bleeding from the mouth and back of the head, was “conscious and responsive.” He was transported to a hospital, where he died early on Monday morning.

A subsequent autopsy determined that Kessler had died of “blunt force head trauma,” said Dr. Christopher Young, Chief Medical Examiner of Ventura County, at Tuesday’s press conference. He noted that the injuries to the back of Kessler’s head, including “skull fractures, swelling of the brain, and bruising to the brain” are “consistent with and typical of injuries sustained from a fall,” indicating that this was likely the blunt trauma that led to Kessler’s death. The autopsy also “demonstrated non-lethal injuries to the left side of Mr. Kessler’s face,” Young said, though did not mention what might have caused these.

Young noted that while the manner of death was ruled a homicide, this “does not indicate that a crime has been committed,” only that “the actions of another person contributed to the death.” Any criminal charge of homicide would be decided by the district attorney’s office, he clarified.

Witnesses at the scene told investigators that prior to his injury, Kessler, who was present to advocate for Israel, had been involved in some kind of altercation with a pro-Palestine protester, said Sheriff Fryhoff, though there were conflicting accounts of exactly what kind of interaction transpired. All he could say for certain is that witness accounts agreed Kessler had fallen and struck the back of his head on the ground. “Those who may be in possession of video footage or photographs of this incident,” he said, can anonymously share this material with law enforcement by contacting the organization Crime Stoppers.

Fryhoff declined to reveal the identity of the suspect, who has yet to be publicly named, but confirmed that he is a 50-year-old resident of Moorpark, California. The suspect had remained on the scene until deputies arrived, Fryhoff said, and willingly spoke to them. “The suspect was cooperative and indicated he was involved in an altercation with Mr. Kessler,” Fryhoff said. “The suspect further stated that he was one of the reporting parties who called 911 requesting medical attention for Mr. Kessler.”

Monday afternoon, following Kessler’s death, “detectives obtained a search warrant for the suspect and the suspect’s residence,” Fryhoff said. They stopped a vehicle driven by the suspect in Simi Valley and detained him for over an hour while completing the search warrant, then released him. At the same time, detectives searched his home. Fryhoff could not comment on the results of either search. Across social media, some have claimed without evidence that Kessler fell when he was struck with a megaphone. But when responding to a reporter’s question as to whether a megaphone was recovered, he said, “I don’t have information on that.”

Fryhoff urged calm and patience, with more updates to come. “We also ask that you refrain from spreading rumors, or spreading misinformation on social media or other platforms as that can not only hinder our investigation, but it can cause unnecessary panic in our community,” he said.

On Monday night, mourners placed flowers and lit candles near where the altercation happened.

Tensions over the Israel-Hamas war have been mounting in streets across the nation and world, as well as in the political realm, where calls for a change in course regarding Gaza have been made by young activists to President Biden and a massive cease-fire protest took place over the weekend in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, MAGA are fighting amongst themselves over their positioning on the conflict.

Fryhoff acknowledged that investigators “have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime” in the case of Kessler’s death. But he noted that protests of the kind he attended require no permits, as they are a “First Amendment-protected activity.” This was the third such demonstration at that particular intersection, which he said is a popular choice for its heavy traffic. “We’ve had 21 protests countywide since October 7,” Fryhoff said. “This was the only one so far that has had some type of violent encounter at all.”

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