THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Southern California authorities investigating the death of a Jewish man following a fight with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator over the Israel-Hamas war haven’t determined whether a crime occurred and on Tuesday asked for the public’s help to unravel what happened.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said deputies determined that Paul Kessler, 69, who died early Monday at a hospital, had fallen backward and struck his head on the ground at a pro-Palestinian demonstration Sunday afternoon in Thousands Oaks, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles.
The pro-Palestinian demonstrator stayed at the scene and told deputies he had called 911, Fryhoff said.
Fryhoff said investigators were getting conflicting information from witnesses on both sides about what took place before the fall and had not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime. No arrests have been made, and officials were asking for people to provide video footage if they have any.
“What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backward isn’t crystal clear right now,” Fryoff said, adding that it’s also unclear how many people were involved.
He cautioned people to not jump to conclusions, and “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.”
Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions are escalating in the United States as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war. Last month a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed 26 times by his landlord in what authorities have said was in response to escalating right-wing rhetoric on the conflict.
Kessler was among a group of pro-Israel demonstrators who showed up at the event that was advertised as a peaceful gathering to support Palestinians, Fryhoff said. About 75 people in total were there and authorities patrolling the area saw no indication of violence 15 minutes before the confrontation, Fryhoff said.
Deputies found Kessler bleeding from the head and mouth and he was conscious as he was transported to the hospital, Fryhoff said. A pro-Palestinian demonstrator stayed to tell deputies he had been involved in the fight with Kessler and had called 911 after he fell, Fryhoff said.
The pro-Palestinian protester is 50 years old and resides in the nearby city of Moorpark, Fryhoff said, adding that officials were not releasing his name at this time. He was detained briefly for questioning and authorities have searched his home.
Ventura County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young said at the news conference Tuesday that an autopsy found Kessler died from a blunt force head trauma, and that the injuries were consistent with a fall. Kessler also had injuries that “could be consistent” with a blow to the face, but it’s unclear what caused his fall, Young said.
Kessler was injured on the left side of his face and back of his head. He had skull fractures and swelling and bruising of the brain, Young said. Kessler’s death has been listed as a homicide, a medical determination that does not indicate a crime was committed, Young said.
The sheriff was asked if a megaphone was used to strike Kessler.
“I’ve heard that, and I think the medical examiner has said the injuries on the face could have been caused by a megaphone,” Fryoff said. “But I don’t have the information of what he had on him at the time.”
Additional patrols have been assigned to synagogues and mosques in the area, he said.
Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, near Thousand Oaks, also urged people to wait for investigators to determine what happened, writing on X, formerly Twitter to “not let this become a spark that starts an inferno.”
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations 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.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.