Southern California investigators are appealing to the public for assistance as they attempt to reconcile conflicting witness accounts surrounding the death of a 69-year-old Jewish man, Paul Kessler. Kessler suffered a fatal head injury after falling during the Israel-Hamas war protests in Thousand Oaks on Sunday.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff, during a Tuesday news conference, announced that Kessler’s death is being investigated as a homicide, and the possibility of a hate crime has not been ruled out. A 50-year-old man, who was detained and cooperated with investigators, has not been arrested.
According to Fryhoff, Kessler was involved in a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester when he fell. However, the exact circumstances leading to the fall remain unclear. “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. He urged individuals with video footage, photos, or accounts of the incident to come forward.
Kessler was participating in the demonstrations in support of Israel. These protests are among many that have erupted across the U.S., either backing Israel or protesting its retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks, which resulted in over 1,400 fatalities.
Israel’s military offensive has reportedly led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people in Gaza, as per the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, citing sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene shortly before 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Kessler was still conscious and responsive. He was transported to a hospital, listed in critical condition, but succumbed to his injuries overnight.
A Suspect Cooperates in Kessler’s Homicide Investigation
A 50-year-old suspect has been cooperative with investigators, according to the sheriff. He was interviewed at the scene where he stated that he had been in an altercation with Kessler. The suspect also claimed to be one of the individuals who called 911 requesting medical help for Kessler.
The suspect, whose identity has not been publicly disclosed, was detained on Monday afternoon as the sheriff’s office conducted a search of his home. He was released after the search was completed and has not been arrested.
Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County’s chief medical examiner, clarified on Tuesday that although Kessler’s death has been ruled a homicide, it does not necessarily imply a crime has been committed. “It’s simply stating that the death occurred at the hands of another person or the actions of another person contributed to the death,” Young said. The district attorney’s office will determine whether the homicide warrants criminal charges.
The tragedy has been mourned by both Jewish and Muslim community leaders, who have condemned violence amid rising fears of hate-motivated attacks reported by Jews, Muslims, and Palestinians in the US as war rages in the Middle East.
Rabbi Moshe Bryski informed CNN on Wednesday that Kessler’s widow, Cheryl, was “in a state of shock” after his death. Her son, daughter-in-law, and close friends were with her. Bryski, a rabbi at Chabad of the Conejo in Agoura Hills, conveyed the support of the Jewish community worldwide to Cheryl.
Rabbi Ari Averbach, who leads Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, where Kessler was a member, described Kessler as a peaceful individual. “Just a few days ago he was a normal retiree living in a quiet neighborhood… He wasn’t going protest to protest to get in people’s faces. This isn’t who he was,” Averbach said.
“Averbach said the Kesslers joined his synagogue in the 1990s.
“Our community is devastated, our community is confused, and our community is worried. We’re trying to figure out how we move forward from here,” he said.
A vigil for Kessler was planned for Wednesday evening at Temple Etz Chaim.
In response to the incident, the sheriff’s office has increased patrols around both Muslim and Jewish houses of worship and community centers, Fryhoff said.
What we know about the altercation
About 75 to 100 people were gathered during Sunday’s protests, which were held at an intersection in Thousand Oaks by two groups identified as “Freedom for Palestine” and “We are Pro-Israel,” Fryhoff said.
Before Kessler’s fatal fall, there had been no violent encounters during the nearly two dozen protests that have been held across the county since Hamas raided Israel on October 7, the sheriff said.
At about 3:20 p.m. on Sunday, the sheriff’s office received multiple calls about a possible assault related to the protests at the intersection, Fryhoff said.
When deputies and medical responders arrived at the scene minutes later, they found Kessler lying on the ground, conscious and responsive, according to the sheriff.
One video filmed at the scene shows Kessler lying on his back on the sidewalk, with blood on his face and on the ground. He places his hands on his head as a woman with a Palestinian flag on her back and a man lean over him, trying to help, the video shows.
The footage does not show the altercation that led to Kessler’s injuries.
Investigators determined that a pro-Palestinian protester had been involved in an altercation with Kessler, who at some point fell backward and hit his head on the ground, authorities said.
Investigators interviewed pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian witnesses at the scene who provided contradicting accounts of who the aggressor was in the interaction and how the altercation occurred, according to the sheriff.
Kessler was given medical aid by Ventura County Fire Department responders and taken to a hospital, where he was listed in critical condition, according to the sheriff.
His condition continued to deteriorate until he was pronounced dead shortly after 1 a.m., the medical examiner said.
An autopsy was performed and Kessler’s cause of death was determined to be blunt force head trauma, according to the medical examiner.
The autopsy also revealed Kessler suffered injuries consistent with a fall, including skull fractures, brain swelling and bruising, and non-lethal injuries to his face, according to Young.
Community leaders denounce violence
Local government officials, as well as Jewish and Muslim community leaders, are imploring the community to be patient as authorities investigate the incident and condemning violence amid escalating tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said in a statement Monday that it is “devastated” by Kessler’s loss and expressed its sympathy for Kessler’s family, adding that its leaders were waiting for more information about his death from law enforcement.
Still, the federation condemned violence against members of the Jewish community, saying it “has no place in civilized society” and vowing to “do everything in our power to prevent it.”
“We demand safety,” the statement said.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, of neighboring Westlake Village’s Temple Ner Simcha, said he has spoken to the Thousand Oaks police chief and the Ventura County sheriff and urged people to wait for the investigation results.
“These are really good men I trust, and it’s really important to let them do their job,” Barclay told CNN. “’Never again’ is now, but at the same time we don’t need to make a fire.”
The rabbi encouraged anyone with footage of the incident to share it with investigators.”
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) has expressed deep sorrow over a recent tragic event. The council has urged individuals to avoid jumping to conclusions or using the tragedy for political gains, which could potentially escalate already high tensions.
In a statement released on Monday, the council emphasized the importance of refraining from spreading rumors or sensationalizing the incident. They highlighted that such actions could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already at an all-time high.
The statement further read, “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.”
This stance by CAIR-LA demonstrates a commitment to unity and peace, rejecting all forms of violence and hatred, including antisemitism and Islamophobia. They have joined local Jewish leaders in calling for calm and restraint during this challenging time. The council’s message underscores the importance of unity and mutual respect among different communities, particularly in times of crisis.