Hate crime allegations have not been ruled out in the death of a Jewish man at a rally over the Israel-Hamas war in California earlier this month, the Ventura County district attorney said Friday.
Paul Kessler, 69, died from blunt-force head trauma following a confrontation with a counterprotester amid simultaneous pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 5, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said.
The Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office said Kessler suffered from skull fractures and swelling and bruising of the brain and determined his death to be a homicide.
Loay Alnaji, 50, of Moorpark, was arrested on Thursday in connection with the death and charged with involuntary manslaughter and battery causing serious bodily injury — with a special allegation on both counts that the crime inflicted great bodily harm.
His bail was set at $1 million, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. He is scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. PT on Friday.
Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said the evidence does not support the filing of a hate crime at this time “although that investigation is ongoing.”
“Simply put, looking at the statements as well as the words that accompany the act, we cannot at this time meet the elements of a hate crime,” he told reporters during a press briefing on Friday. “But nevertheless, we will continue to explore and investigate that offense as well as that special allegation.”
Nasarenko said prosecutors reviewed statements from more than 60 witnesses and gathered more than 600 pieces of evidence as part of their investigation.
“We took this case seriously and we investigated and charged it thoroughly,” he said.
“This was not an easy undertaking, given the disparate, often conflicting interpretations and statements and also the fragmentary nature of the evidence,” he said.
Nasarenko said new pieces of evidence helped lead to the filing of criminal charges. That included findings regarding the injuries to the left side of Kessler’s face and digital evidence, he said.
“We have been able to take video as well as digital photos, put them together to achieve a clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation,” Nasarenko said.
Nasarenko said prosecutors determined that the charge of involuntary manslaughter — the killing of another without malice — was appropriate because the suspect did not show up at the intersection “with the intent to kill, harm or injure.”
The suspect was attending the pro-Palestinian demonstration, according to Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff.
Fryhoff said the suspect was among several people who called 911 following the incident and had remained at the scene and was interviewed.
In the days following the incident, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said they did not yet have enough evidence to make an arrest and that conflicting eyewitness statements made it difficult to prove the suspect’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The sheriff’s office asked Thursday that anyone who drove a vehicle with video recording equipment through the area between 3 and 4 p.m. local time on Nov. 5 to submit any footage they have.
Fryhoff said Friday they are also still seeking to talk to any witnesses who have yet to come forward.