(LOS ANGELES) — Authorities are calling for footage to determine what led up to a deadly altercation at an Israel-Hamas war protest in California over the weekend amid conflicting witness reports, the sheriff said.
Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish man, died from blunt-force head trauma following a confrontation with a counterprotester on Sunday, amid simultaneous pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Thousand Oaks, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said.
The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office said Kessler suffered from skull fractures and swelling and bruising of the brain and determined his death to be a homicide. Authorities have not ruled out the possibility the incident was a hate crime, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said Tuesday.
Fryhoff said deputies determined that Kessler fell backward and hit his head, though they have received conflicting witness reports from attendees of both rallies about the altercation and “who the aggressor was.”
“What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backwards isn’t crystal clear right now,” Fryhoff said during a press briefing on Tuesday, saying the investigation is “ongoing and fluid.”
Multiple people called the Ventura County Sheriff’s Communication Center to report an incident of battery at the corner of Westlake Boulevard and Thousand Oaks Boulevard on Sunday afternoon, authorities said. The intersection was where pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrations were taking place, with about 75 to 100 people total, Fryhoff said.
Among those to call 911 was the suspect in the incident — a 50-year-old Moorpark resident who was attending the pro-Palestinian demonstration, according to Fryhoff.
Authorities arriving on the scene located Kessler and noted he was bleeding from the head and mouth, the sheriff said.
He was transported to a local hospital for what authorities said was “advanced medical treatment,” but he died from his injuries early Monday, officials said.
Fryhoff said the suspect remained at the scene and was interviewed.
“The suspect was cooperative and indicated he was involved in an altercation with Mr. Kessler,” Fryhoff said.
A search warrant was executed on the suspect’s home Monday afternoon, Fryhoff said, though added no further details are being released at this time.
No arrests have been made in the case and the suspect is not being identified publicly, Fryhoff said.
Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Christopher Young said Kessler’s death was ruled a homicide because another individual was involved.
“A manner of death of homicide does not indicate that a crime has been committed,” Young said during the briefing.
Fryhoff said they are not able to see the interaction from footage they already have.
“There was clearly an interaction between the two. But what that level of interaction is is still unclear,” Fryhoff said.
The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles said in a Monday statement that it was “devastated to learn of the tragic death of an elderly Jewish man.”
“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 said.
Executive Director Hussam Ayloush of the Greater LA office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also issued a statement following the news of the man’s death.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss. 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,” he said.
The public should wait until the sheriff’s office completes its investigation before “drawing any conclusions,” he said.
“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,” he added.
ABC News’ Marilyn Heck contributed to this report.
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