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'Conflicting' accounts complicate investigation into Jewish man's death after dueling California rallies

Ventura County investigators declined to classify the scuffle Sunday that led to Paul Kessler's death as a hate crime, saying they are working to piece together what led to the dispute.
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A suspect in the confrontation that led to the death of a Jewish man who was injured during dueling Israeli and Palestinian rallies in California called 911 to seek medical help for the victim and has been “cooperative," officials said Tuesday.

Authorities declined to identify the suspect or classify the incident as a hate crime, saying they are working to piece together what led to the dispute.

Paul Kessler, 69, died Monday, one day after pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies in Thousand Oaks, California, where he got into a “physical altercation” with “counter-protestor(s),” witnesses told the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Bystanders tend to Paul Kessler, lying on the pavement, after he fell and struck his head during a confrontation with protesters supporting Palestinians.
Bystanders tend to Paul Kessler, lying on the pavement, after he fell and struck his head during a confrontation with protesters supporting Palestinians.RMG

Kessler was at the rally supporting Israel, and the suspect was there supporting Palestinians, Sheriff Jim Fryhoff told reporters Tuesday.

Officials believe Kessler fell backward and hit his head on the ground during the altercation.

"What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backwards isn't crystal clear right now," Fryhoff said.

Deputies and EMS were called at around 3:20 p.m. and found Kessler on the ground, but he was conscious and able to speak, the sheriff said.

The suspect, 50, "willingly remained" at the scene and was interviewed by deputies, Fryhoff said. A search was conducted Monday at his Moorpark home, he said. He is not in custody.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there had been no arrests in the case.

The sheriff said interviews with witnesses have yielded "conflicting statements" about what happened at the rally, and who the aggressor was. He asked witnesses to come forward with photos or videos and tips regarding what happened.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said that Kessler was struck in the head by a megaphone held by a pro-Palestinian demonstrator.

“We do not have that confirmed. That is something that we’re trying to investigate,” Fryhoff said.

An autopsy determined the cause of death to be blunt force head injury and the manner of death homicide — which is defined as death at the hands of another person but doesn’t suggest wrongdoing. 

"Manner of death of homicide does not indicate a crime has been committed — that’s determined by DA’s office," Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young said.

Young said that the autopsy found injuries consistent with a fall.

Kessler had injuries to the left side of his face, but "the lethal injury was the impact to the back of the head from Mr. Kessler falling and striking his head on the ground," Young said.

The injuries to the front of the face "could be consistent with a blow to the face," Young said. The death is still under investigation.

Fryhoff, the sheriff, said investigators don’t know exactly what happened yet.

"We’re still waiting to see evidence of what occurred in that interaction, and whether or not there was a blow to the face that caused the fall, or if Mr. Kessler fell without that being the precipitating event," Fryhoff said.

Sheriff's office investigators have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime, he said.

The FBI is in communication with the sheriff’s office to determine the circumstances of Kessler’s death, a bureau spokesperson said Tuesday.

Waving an Israeli flag

Photos on social media showed Kessler before the altercation waving an Israeli flag at an intersection. Another image showed him receiving treatment on a sidewalk with his head on a bloodied homemade sign. 

Kyle Jorrey, a former editor at a local paper, the Thousand Oaks Acorn, said Kessler wrote letters to the paper “all the time.”

“What I can say is he was passionate about political issues (liberal causes) and wasn’t afraid to let people know how he felt,” he said Tuesday. 

“Doesn’t surprise me at all that he was out there as a counter protester even at his age. He attended many demonstrations related to the progressive causes. He wrote us consistently for over 20 years on subjects ranging from climate change to ‘fake news’ to the Covid vaccine and he had a sharp wit about him and didn’t pull punches,” he added.

Tensions high

The incident comes as tensions from the Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East have reverberated across the U.S. It has been a month since the surprise Hamas terrorist attack that Israel says killed 1,400 people, with 240 still held hostage in the Gaza Strip. More than 1.5 million people have been displaced in Gaza, and health officials there say more than 10,000 have been killed as Israel bombards the Palestinian enclave from the air and assaults it on the ground.

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Fryhoff said Tuesday there’ll be increased patrols around mosques, Muslim community centers as well as Jewish community centers. 

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said Kessler's death "is a blow to our region at a time when tensions continue to rise worldwide."

"We must redouble our efforts to ensure violence and hate are met with accountability and consequences," she said in a statement Tuesday. "Los Angeles refuses to harbor this hatred." 

While Kessler's injury at the dueling protests sparked a social media frenzy and drew quick condemnation from Israeli leaders who called his death an act of antisemitism, local officials have urged caution and patience as the investigation unfolds.

"We are deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss," the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement Monday. "We join local Jewish leaders in calling on all individuals to refrain from jumping to conclusions, sensationalizing such a tragedy for political gains, or spreading rumors that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at an all-time high."

In a post on X, Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha, near where the incident took place, called for patience.

"Please do not make assumptions or accusations until the police can do their job and/or we get real video," he wrote.