Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass added her voice Tuesday to the outrage being expressed over the death of a Jewish man who was allegedly struck during dueling demonstrations in Ventura County over the Israel-Hamas war, causing him to fall to the ground and hit his head on the sidewalk.
Paul Kessler, 69, of Thousand Oaks, died as a result of injuries sustained during a Sunday altercation at pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies that were occurring simultaneously at the intersection of Westlake Boulevard and Thousand Oaks Boulevard, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which was handling the investigation.
The location is in Thousand Oaks just west of the Los Angeles County border, west of the city of Westlake Village.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff told reporters Tuesday that investigators have “not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime and this is being investigated as a homicide.” A 50-year-old Moorpark man, whose name was not released, has been identified as a suspect and has been interviewed but not arrested, Fryhoff said. The sheriff confirmed that Kessler was attending the pro-Israel rally, and the suspect was attending the pro-Palestine rally.
Fryhoff said witnesses were interviewed at the scene, but provided conflicting accounts about who the aggressor was in the encounter.
Bass issued a statement Tuesday saying that “Los Angeles refuses to harbor this hatred.”
“We mourn the death of the Jewish man who died after being injured during a protest in Thousand Oaks,” Bass said. “As details emerge and are confirmed, we stand resolute in condemnation of violence and antisemitism. This 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.”
On Monday, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Katy Yaroslavsky issued a statement saying, “We cannot turn away from this. For the fourth time this year, Los Angeles has suffered yet another major antisemitic crimel We cannot ignore the disgusting antisemitism, hate speech, and violence that has proliferated here at home. While we wait for more details, know this: violence against our community cannot be and will never be tolerated.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also issued a statement condemning the man’s death.
“We are devastated to learn of the tragic death of an elderly Jewish man who was struck in the head by a megaphone wielded by a pro-Palestinian protester in Westlake Village,” according to a statement from the organization. “Our hearts are with the family of the victim. While we wait for more information from our law enforcement partners, we remind you that this is 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.”
At about 3:20 p.m. Sunday, multiple people called the Ventura County Sheriff’s Communication Center to report that a battery had occurred at the rallies.
Responding deputies found Kessler, who was suffering from a head injury. Fryhoff said Kessler was conscious and speaking to deputies and paramedics at the scene, and remained conscious while being taken to a hospital.
Fryhoff noted that witnesses at the scene provided conflicting accounts of what occurred prior to Kessler falling to the ground. One witness, Jonathan Oswaks, contends that a pro-Palestine protester struck Kessler in the head with a megaphone, causing him to fall to the ground.
Fryhoff said the suspect in the case remained at the scene and was among those who called 911 seeking help for the injured man.
Kessler was taken to a hospital for “advanced medical treatment” but died shortly after 1 a.m. Monday, authorities said.
An autopsy was performed by the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office which “determined the cause of death to be blunt force head injury and the manner of death homicide,” according to the sheriff’s department.
Ventura County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young told reporters that Kessler had injuries to his head and facial area — including non-lethal bruising on the left side of his face that would be consistent with being struck. He said the fatal injuries appeared to have been suffered to the back of his head when he struck the ground.
Young stressed that while the death was determined to be a homicide, that doesn’t automatically indicate that a crime was committed. It only indicates that another person was a contributing factor in the death, and a criminal determination would have to be made by the District Attorney’s Office.
Fryhoff acknowledged the passions surrounding the investigation and the emotions being felt as a result of the Israel-Hamas war.
“We understand that the war in Israel and Gaza has led to an increase in hateful and threatening rhetoric, and we want to ensure the Muslim and Jewish communities that we stand with them both during this difficult time,” he said. “The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to protecting the rights and the safety of all members of our community regardless of their race, religious or ethnicity.”
Fryoff again urged anyone with information about the altercation, or anyone with video, to come forward.
Anyone who witnessed or has knowledge of the incident, or who was present at the demonstrations, was encouraged to contact Detective Stump at 805- 384-4745. Anonymous tips can be sent to Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS (8477).