A 69-year-old Jewish man died after suffering a head injury Sunday following an “interaction” with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator during dueling rallies in Southern California, the Ventura County Sheriff said Tuesday, adding authorities had not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime.
The death of the man, identified by law enforcement as Paul Kessler, has been ruled a homicide, authorities said. The 50-year-old suspect was detained but later released and has not been arrested, Ventura County Sheriff James Fryhoff said in a news conference, and Kessler’s death remains under investigation.
Witnesses say Kessler was “involved in a physical altercation” with at least one counterprotester while pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies were being held in Thousand Oaks, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Monday.
“There was clearly an interaction between the two, but what that level of interaction is, is still unclear,” Fryhoff said, asking members of the public who witnessed the incident or had footage to contact authorities.
Kessler, the sheriff said, was supporting Israel at the demonstrations – two among the many that have sprung up in cities across the US, either in support of Israel or to protest its retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks, which killed more than 1,400 people.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military offensive a month ago, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah said Monday, drawing from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Israeli airstrikes have hit schools, refugee camps and ambulances.
What happened prior to Kessler’s head injury is unclear, Fryhoff said Tuesday, pointing to conflicting accounts from pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian witnesses.
“My contention is that 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.
One video filmed at the scene and shared online 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.
The suspect, who has not been publicly identified, was interviewed at the scene, Fryhoff said. He was cooperative and told authorities he was involved in the altercation with Kessler, Fyhoff said. The suspect also said he was among the people who called 911 so Kessler could receive medical attention.
Kessler was still conscious and responsive when Ventura County Sheriff deputies arrived on the scene shortly before 3:30 p.m. Monday, Fryhoff said. Kessler was given medical aid by the Ventura County Fire Department and taken to the hospital, where he was listed in critical condition, the sheriff said.
It was just before 3 a.m. Monday that the hospital informed the sheriff’s office Kessler had died, Fryhoff said.
Late Monday afternoon, detectives conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle driven by the suspect and he was detained during the execution of a search warrant at his home. He was later released, Fryhoff said.
The autopsy revealed Kessler suffered non-lethal injuries on the left side of his face and injuries to the back of his head, which were “consistent with and typical of injuries sustained from a fall,” Dr. Christopher Young, the chief medical examiner for Ventura County, told reporters.
He also suffered internal injuries consistent with a fall, like skull fractures and swelling and bruising of the brain, Young said.
The cause of death was determined to be blunt force head trauma and the manner of death a homicide, Young said. The latter, he noted, is a medical determination meaning the death occurred at the hands of another person, and it does not mean a crime has been committed.
“This is a determination that is made by the district attorney’s office,” Young said.
Community awaits results of investigation
Sunday’s simultaneous protests were held by two groups identified as “Freedom for Palestine” and “We are Pro-Israel,” Fryhoff said. Authorities estimated between 75 and 100 people were present between both groups.
Two other protests have been held at the same Thousand Oaks intersection prior to Sunday, the sheriff said. Twenty-one have been held across the county since October 7. Sunday’s protests were the only to have a violent encounter, he said.
In the meantime, local leaders have urged the community – a little under 40 miles from Los Angeles – to wait for the conclusion of the investigation while denouncing any violence amid rising tensions stemming from the war between Israel and Hamas.
“As details emerge and are confirmed, we stand resolute in condemnation of violence and antisemitism,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement Tuesday. “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. Los Angeles refuses to harbor this hatred.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in a statement Monday 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.
While authorities have yet to definitively link Kessler’s death to antisemitism, it occurred amid a reported spike in antisemitic incidents, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting a nearly 400% increase in the days after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate panel last week that antisemitism was a threat reaching “historic levels” in the United States.
The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is “deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss,” it said in a statement, adding its “thoughts are with the family and the Jewish community during this difficult time.”
“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,” the council’s statement continued. “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.”
A rabbi at Temple Ner Simcha, a nearby Westlake Village temple, spoke with law enforcement about Kessler’s death and also is encouraging community members to wait for the results of the investigation, he said.
Rabbi Michael Barclay spoke with the Thousand Oaks police chief and the Ventura County sheriff and was told there are conflicting reports of what happened in the Sunday altercation, he told CNN.
“These are really good men I trust, and it’s really important to let them do their job,” Barclay said. “’Never again’ is now, but at the same time we don’t need to make a fire.”
He encouraged anyone with video of the incident to share it with police.
The corner where Kessler was injured often has demonstrations, Barclay said, adding he has been telling his congregation to avoid the area when one is planned after hearing reports of issues with counterprotesters and antisemitic hate speech.
CNN’s Jillian Sykes, Stephanie Elam and Jason Kravarik contributed to this report.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com