The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said it is “investigating the incident and has not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime"
Authorities in California are investigating the death of a Jewish man on Monday as a homicide and a possible hate crime after he was injured during protests over the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
In a press statement, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said a 69-year-old man, identified as Paul Kessler, was involved in a “physical altercation” at a site in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where people had been rallying at pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinan demonstrations on Sunday afternoon.
During the altercation, which witnesses claim was with counter-protesters, Kessler fell backwards and struck his head on the ground, authorities said. Kessler was taken to an area hospital, where he died on Monday. According to the sheriff’s office, Kessler was a “pro-Israeli protester.”
“An autopsy was performed on November 6th and the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death to be blunt force head injury and the manner of death homicide,” the statement reads.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Ventura County Sheriff James Fryhoff identified the suspect as a 50-year-old man who was "advocating for Palestine," and was one of many who called 911 reporting the incident. A search warrant was executed at the suspect's home but he has not been arrested, Fryhoff said.
Dr. Christopher Young, Chief Medical Examiner for Ventura County, said at the press conference that while the manner of death is homicide it does not mean a crime has been committed, noting that kind of decision is made by prosecutors.
Fryhoff added that what happened prior to Kessler's fall remains unclear and that witnesses who spoke with authorities at the scene provided conflicting statements, noting they were a mixture of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
According to NBC News, video taken at the scene and shared on social media shows what appears to be Kessler lying on the ground as a woman with a Palestinian flag on her back and a man lean over him, seemingly trying to help.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said in the press statement it is “investigating the incident and has not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime.” The agency added that the incident appears to be isolated and not part of a large effort.
At the press conference, Fryhoff asked the public to refrain from spreading rumors as that can hinder the investigation and "cause panic in our community." He also urged the public to come forward with any footage from the demonstrations that may help investigators figure out what led to Kessler's injuries.
Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Thousand Oaks urged others to be cautious before making assumptions about what happened while authorities continue to investigate.
“Please do not make assumptions or accusations until the police can do their job and/or we get real video,” he wrote in a Monday post on X (formerly Twitter.) “ALL postings otherwise are not accurate at this time. It is not being handled by Los Angeles law enforcement; and the police here are clear.”
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called Kessler’s death a “tragic and shocking loss” in a statement issued on 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,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA, said in the statement.
“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 continued.
Kessler's death came amid a surge of protests throughout the U.S. and the Middle East following a series of surprise terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7 by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,400 Israelis and the kidnapping of more than 240 as hostages, CNN reports, citing Israeli officials.
In retaliation, Israel declared war on Hamas — which controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza — and indicated that a long military campaign to defeat its leaders is on the horizon, PEOPLE previously reported.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement posted to X (formerly Twitter) in early October that Israel is “putting a complete siege on Gaza,” adding that the escalation meant “no electricity, no food, no water, no gas” for the area.
As of Monday, at least 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack, according to CNN, which cited the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Anyone who witnessed or has knowledge of the incident involving Kessler, or who was present at the demonstration is encouraged to contact Detective Stump at (805) 384-4745. Those who wish to remain anonymous can contact CrimeStoppers at 800-222-TIPS (8477).
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