THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (KABC) -- Ventura County authorities said Friday they have not ruled out that a hate crime was committed in the death of a pro-Israel demonstrator following a confrontation with a college professor, whose lawyer says video footage will clear his client.
During a Friday morning news conference, Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said that both charges have special allegations that Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, personally inflicted "great bodily injury" on Paul Kessler, 69, during a confrontation at an event that started as a pro-Palestinian demonstration.
"Our task was to search for the truth, and to achieve clarity in this case, and that is what we have done," he said.
Nasarenko said after taking 60 witness statements and reviewing 600 pieces of evidence, which included numerous videos, they determined the charges were appropriate.
"We received no evidence, no statements, no information whatsoever, that the defendant arrived at that intersection with the intent to kill, harm or injure anyone," said Nasarenko.
He said they also have not received any information that would allow hate crime charges.
"We have not ruled out a hate crime," said Nasarenko. "The investigation into an alleged hate crime is ongoing. There are still search warrants that remain outstanding to returns of which we are awaiting, but at this moment in time, we do not have the elements of a hate crime satisfied, thus we cannot charge it in this criminal document."
"What we are looking for in particular is whether or not the acts, the impact, the force, was accompanied by specific hate speech, specific statements or words, that demonstrate an antipathy, a hatred, toward a specific group. We don't have that at this point."
According to authorities, Kessler died as a result of injuries he sustained at the Nov. 5 event.
Alnaji pleaded not guilty Friday to the charges, each of which is accompanied by a special allegation that he personally inflicted great bodily injury, which means he could be eligible for prison if convicted.
There were two competing rallies that day near Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards in favor of the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the current conflict, according to the Sheriff's Office.
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.
Alnaji's lawyer, Ron Bamieh, said his client did not cause Kessler to fall and was several feet away from him when that happened. He said that before the fall, Kessler was yelling profanities at Alnaji and shoving his phone in his face. Alnaji may have struck at the phone with a megaphone and unintentionally hit Kessler in the face, Bamieh said.
Alnaji then walked away from Kessler, who fell moments later, Bamieh said, adding that video footage shows that.
"Why he fell, I don't know," Bamieh said. "I just know my client didn't push him down. When I saw the video, I felt that my client is going to be fine. He's not even close to him."
Bamieh said his concern is the case is being influenced by "more passions than logic."
Authorities have said Kessler had non-fatal injuries to the left side of his face, but they have not specified what caused them or the fall.
They gave no details Friday as to what took place before the fall.
"In filing these charges we relied on new physical and forensic evidence as well as findings regarding the injuries to the left side of Paul Kessler's face," Nasarenko said.
"We were able to take video as well as digital footage, put it together and establish a clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation," he said. "These new pieces of evidence, as well as the technology that we utilized, has permitted our office to file these criminal charges."
Authorities said Alnaji stayed when Kessler was injured and told deputies he had called 911. Before his arrest he had been briefly detained for questioning and his home was searched.
Alnaji, a professor of computer science at Moorpark College, has raised money for orphans and safe water wells in the Middle East and believes the war in Gaza is unjust and that the killing of innocent people cannot be justified on either side of the war, his lawyer said.
"He is a man of peace, who abhors violence, and believes in the truth of persuasive arguments and education, never violence," his lawyer said in a statement.
Last week, Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said the suspect in the case was detained following a traffic stop in Simi Valley. His name wasn't released at the time. Fryhoff said he was at the demonstration advocating pro-Palestinian views.
"[The suspect] willingly remained at the scene and was interviewed by deputies," said Fryhoff during a news conference last week. "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."
Fryhoff said investigators had received conflicting information from witnesses on both sides about what took place, impairing witness credibility and making it difficult to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Investigators said though an arrest has been made, they urge people to come forward with any information. They're also asking people who may have been in the area driving a vehicle equipped with video recording equipment, like Teslas, to come forward.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles released a statement, commending the work of authorities.
This arrest shows that violence towards our Jewish community will not be tolerated.ByJewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
"We are grateful for the swift work of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in response to the tragic death of Mr. Paul Kessler. This arrest shows that violence towards our Jewish community will not be tolerated. We will continue to monitor the case to help ensure justice is served. Our heartfelt condolences continue to be with the family of Paul Kessler and may his memory forever be a blessing."
Rabbi Michael Barclay is urging the Jewish community to approach the case with sensitivity and believes this isn't a time to celebrate.
"This morning, I got all these texts, 'Yay!' ... I sent an email. This is nothing to 'yay' about," he said. "A man is dead, another man is going to be in prison. There is no good in this. It is horrible."
This is nothing to 'yay' about.ByRabbi Michael Barclay
Nasarenko said he and Fryhoff spoke to Kessler's family, who is asking for privacy during this time.
According to the DA, Kessler was married for 43 years and leaves behind one son. He worked in medical sales for decades and taught sales and marketing classes at a number of satellite college campuses.
He was also a pilot.
"We want to continue to remember and honor Paul Kessler and the tragic loss of life that has occurred," said Nasarenko.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.