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Suspect arrested in death of Jewish demonstrator in California

Updated November 16, 2023 - 3:36 pm

LOS ANGELES — A college professor was arrested Thursday in connection with the death of a Jewish protester during Southern California demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas war, authorities said.

Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji, 50, will be booked into jail for investigation of involuntary manslaughter — the unintentional killing of another person, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said. The district attorney will decide whether there is enough evidence to charge him.

A man who answered the phone at a mobile number listed for Alnaji in public records said he did not want to comment. He did not give his name. A message could not be left at a number for Alnaji’s home in Moorpark north of Los Angeles, because voicemail was not set up.

Paul Kessler, 69, died early Nov. 6 at a hospital following a Nov. 5 confrontation with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator in Thousand Oaks, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles.

Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said at a subsequent news conference that deputies determined Kessler fell backward and struck his head on the ground. The pro-Palestinian demonstrator stayed at the scene and told deputies he had called 911, Fryhoff said.

County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young said at the time that an autopsy found Kessler died from head injuries consistent with a fall. Young also said Kessler had injuries that could be consistent with a blow to the face but that it was unclear what caused his fall.

Kessler’s death was ruled a homicide, but authorities said that only meant his death was caused at the hands of another and by itself was not sufficient evidence to establish probable cause for an immediate arrest of a suspect.

Authorities did not say in Thursday’s news release why an arrest was warranted. They said they were still seeking more video evidence in the case. A short video clip surfaced showing Kessler on the ground, but there haven’t been any videos released showing the actual confrontation.

In a news conference days after Kessler’s death, Fryhoff said authorities briefly detained a 50-year-old man from Moorpark and searched his home, but he was then released.

The Sheriff’s Office has said investigators 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.

Kessler was among a group of pro-Israel demonstrators who showed up at the event that was advertised as a peaceful gathering to support Palestinians. About 75 people in total were there and patrols in the area reported seeing no indication of violence 15 minutes before the altercation, officials said.

Edward Obayashi, a former San Diego police officer and special prosecutor, said he is not surprised by the arrest on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter, the lowest level charge for a death.

Additional charges, including for a hate crime, could still be considered, said Obayashi, who made one of the first arrests in the state under California’s hate crime law more than three decades ago.

“We have a very high-profile incident, obviously, given the backdrop of what’s going on in the world,” he said. “So there is a lot of pressure on the authorities. The default position is making an arrest.”

Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions are escalating in the United States as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said in a statement that it was grateful for the work of sheriff’s investigators.

“This arrest shows that violence towards our Jewish community will not be tolerated,” the federation said.

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