'Conflicting reports' received in death of Jewish man who died after confrontation with protesters

Tuesday, November 7, 2023
New details released in Jewish man's death in Thousand Oaks
New details have been released in the death of a Jewish man who authorities said died after a confrontation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at a rally in Thousand Oaks.

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (KABC) -- New details have been released in the death of a Jewish man who authorities said died after a confrontation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at a rally in Thousand Oaks.

Paul Kessler, 69, died as a result of injuries he sustained at the event Sunday, according to the Ventura County Sheriff's Office. There were two competing rallies near Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards in favor of the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the current conflict, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said there were about 75 to 100 people there between both groups.

It is believed Kessler was involved in an altercation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators when he was injured. He then fell and hit his head on the ground, authorities said. He was found bleeding from his head and his mouth.

"It is our understanding that Mr. Kessler, a U.S. citizen who practices the Jewish faith, was at the event supporting Israel," said Fryhoff.

The nature of the altercation remains under investigation but some reports indicate that before he fell, Kessler was struck in the head with a megaphone by an individual with the pro-Palestinian event. Investigators have not confirmed that information.

Dr. Christopher Young, the Chief Medical Examiner for Ventura County, said Kessler's injuries were consistent with a fall, saying he had a skull fracture plus bruising and swelling to the brain.

"The injuries on the left side of the face were non-lethal and the lethal injury was the impact to the back of the head from Mr. Kessler falling and striking his head on the ground," said Young.

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.

Kessler remained conscious and responsive while he was transported to the hospital and on Sunday afternoon when deputies met him there. He was pronounced deceased on Monday.

According to Fryhoff, the suspect in the case was detained following a traffic stop Monday in Simi Valley. His name was not released during Tuesday's news conference and was described only as a 50-year-old man from Moorpark.

Fryhoff said he was at the demonstration advocating for Palestine.

"[The suspect] willingly remained at the scene and was interviewed by deputies," said Fryhoff. "The suspect was cooperative and indicated that he was involved in an altercation with Mr. Kessler. The suspect further stated that he was one of the reporting parties who called 911 requesting medical attention for Mr. Kessler."

A search warrant was also obtained for the home of the suspect but Fryhoff did not disclose details of that investigation. The suspect has since been released and no arrests have been made in the case.

"I cannot comment on the results of that search warrant as the investigation is ongoing," he said. "Investigators have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime and this is being investigated as a homicide."

Video from the scene showed paramedics attending to Kessler on the ground. A witness who did not want to be identified said a heated confrontation occurred before Kessler was fatally injured.

"They were both on an even ground, and they were yelling at each other, and then the man brought his megaphone up and hit Paul, and Paul went down," the witness said.

Witnesses said members of the pro-Palestinian group came over and begin antagonizing the other group when it suddenly turned violent. The man whom witnesses identified as the suspect is seen in video of the aftermath giving deputies his version of what happened.

However, authorities said witnesses have had conflicting reports of what unfolded and who the aggressor was. Investigators said they're not yet crystal clear on how the incident unfolded and are asking anyone who was at Sunday's demonstration for any videos or photos showing what happened.

"I can just tell you the information we're getting is conflicting with one another," said Fryhoff. "There was clearly an interaction between the two but what that level of interaction is is still unclear."

"We understand that the war in Israel and Gaza has led to an increase in hateful and threatening rhetoric and we want to assure the Muslim and Jewish communities that we stand with them both during this difficult time."

Jonathan Oswaks, who attended the rally with Kessler, spoke out at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, saying the suspect confronted him first and then went to Kessler. He claims he saw the suspect hit Kessler with a megaphone.

"I see a punch ... the reason I know that I could see the punch is because there was the white megaphone flying through the air," said Oswaks.

Jonathan Oswaks, who attended the rally with Paul Kessler, spoke out at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, saying the suspect confronted him first and then went to Kessler.

Mayor Karen 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.''

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.

City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.