Southern California investigators are asking for the public’s help in analyzing conflicting testimony about what led to the death of a 69-year-old Jewish man who fell and suffered fatal head trauma during protests against the war between Israel and Hamas in Thousand Oaks on Sunday, according to authorities.
The man, Paul Kessler, was engaged in a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester when he fell, but the exact cause of his fall remains unclear, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said. during a press conference on Tuesday.
“We are still waiting to see evidence of what happened during this interaction, and whether or not there was a blow to the face that caused the fall, or whether Mr. Kessler fell, unintentionally. is the triggering event,” Fryhoff said. urging people to come forward with videos, photos or accounts of the incident.
Kessler, the sheriff said, supported Israel during the protests – two of many have cropped up in cities across the United Stateseither to support Israel or to protest its retaliation for the Hamas attacks of October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people.
Israel launched a military offensive that killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, relying on sources located in the enclave controlled by Hamas.
Kessler was still conscious and responsive when sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene shortly before 3:30 p.m. Monday. He was taken to a hospital, where he was listed in critical condition, but died overnight from his injuries, Young said.
Kessler’s death is being investigated as a homicide and authorities have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime, the sheriff said.
A 50-year-old suspect cooperated with investigators and was questioned at the scene, where he told authorities he had an altercation with Kessler, according to the sheriff. The suspect said he was among the people who called 911 seeking medical help for Kessler, he said.
The suspect, who has not been publicly identified, was arrested Monday afternoon as the sheriff’s office conducted a search of his home, Fryhoff said. He was released after the search was completed and was not arrested.
Although the circumstances of Kessler’s death have been ruled a homicide, the medical designation does not mean a crime was committed, Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County’s chief medical examiner, said Tuesday.
“It’s simply a declaration that the death occurred at the hands of another person or that another person’s actions contributed to the death,” Young said, emphasizing that the prosecutor’s office will determine whether the homicide warrants criminal charges.
Leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities mourned the tragedy and condemned the violence in this context. growing fears of hate-motivated attacks reported by Jews, Muslims and Palestinians in the United States as war rages in the Middle East.
In response to the incident, the sheriff’s office increased patrols around Muslim and Jewish places of worship and community centers, Fryhoff said.
About 75 to 100 people were gathered at Sunday’s protests, organized at an intersection in Thousand Oaks by two groups identified as “Freedom for Palestine” and “We’re Pro-Israel,” Fryhoff said.
Before Kessler’s fatal fall, there had been no violent clashes during the nearly two dozen protests that have taken place across the country since the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, the sheriff said.
On Sunday around 3:20 p.m., the sheriff’s office received several calls about a possible protest-related assault at the intersection, Fryhoff said.
When deputies and medical responders arrived on scene a few minutes later, they found Kessler lying on the ground, conscious and responsive, according to the sheriff.
Video taken 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 like a woman with a Palestinian flag on her back and a man leans over him, trying to help him, the video shows.
The footage does not show the altercation that led to Kessler’s injuries.
This photo, taken Sunday, shows Paul Kessler holding an Israeli flag at the intersection where the altercation later took place.
Investigators determined that a pro-Palestinian protester had been involved in an altercation with Kessler, who fell backwards and hit his head on the ground, authorities said.
Investigators interviewed pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian witnesses at the scene who provided conflicting accounts about who the attacker was during the interaction and how the altercation occurred, according to the sheriff.
Kessler received medical aid from the Ventura County Fire Department and was 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 found that Kessler suffered injuries consistent with a fall, including skull fractures, brain swelling and bruising, as well as non-life-threatening injuries to his face, according to Young.
Local government officials, along with Jewish and Muslim community leaders, are pleading with the community to be patient as authorities investigate the incident and condemn the violence amid escalating tensions over Israel’s war and Hamas.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said in a statement Monday that it was “devastated” by the loss of Kessler and expressed sympathy for Kessler’s family, adding that its leaders were waiting for help from law enforcement more information on his death.
The federation nonetheless condemned the violence against members of the Jewish community, saying it “has no place in a civilized society” and pledging to “do everything in our power to prevent it.” .
“We demand security,” the statement said.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, of Temple Ner Simcha in nearby Westlake, said he spoke to the Thousand Oaks police chief and the Ventura County sheriff and urged people to wait for the results of the investigation .
“They’re very good men that I trust, and it’s really important to let them do their job,” Barclay told CNN. “Never again, it’s now, but at the same time, we don’t need to start a fire. »
The rabbi encouraged anyone with footage of the incident to share it with investigators.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations Greater Los Angeles office said it was “deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss.”
“We join with local Jewish leaders in calling on all individuals to refrain from jumping to conclusions, sensationalizing such a tragedy for political purposes, or spreading rumors that could unnecessarily escalate tensions that are already brewing. an unprecedented level,” the council said in a statement. statement Monday.
He continues: “While we strongly support the right to political debate, CAIR-LA and the Muslim community stand with the Jewish community in rejecting any violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or incitement to hatred. »
CNN’s Dakin Andone, Taylor Romine, Nouran Salahieh, Jillian Sykes, Stephanie Elam and Jason Kravarik contributed to this report.