LA police release suspect in pro-Israel demonstrator’s death after questioning

Police chief says ‘not crystal clear’ what happened before Paul Kessler suffered fatal blow to head, after local federation said pro-Palestinian protester struck him with megaphone

File - Paul Kessler protests in solidarity with Israel outside Los Angeles on November 5, 2023. (Courtesy; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
File - Paul Kessler protests in solidarity with Israel outside Los Angeles on November 5, 2023. (Courtesy; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Police briefly detained the suspect in the death of a Jewish man in the Los Angeles area but released him after questioning and have not made any arrests in the case, local officials said on Tuesday.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles issued a statement Monday saying that the yet-to-be-named suspect, a pro-Palestinian protester, had struck 69-year-old Paul Kessler in the head with a megaphone during an altercation at dueling rallies on the Israel-Hamas war on Sunday. Kessler succumbed to his wounds on Monday morning.

Officials from Ventura County, where the altercation unfolded, refrained from making the same determination declared by the local Jewish federation, saying that there’s not yet enough evidence to do so.

They said Kessler sustained non-lethal injuries to the left side of his face but that it was the blow he took to the head when he fell to the ground that caused the injury that led to his death hours later.

“What exactly transpired prior to Mr Kessler falling backward isn’t crystal clear right now,” said Ventura County sheriff James Fryhoff.

Nonetheless, Kessler’s death “is being investigated as a homicide,” and investigators have not yet ruled out the possibility of a hate crime, Fryhoff said.

Ventura chief medical examiner Chris Young clarified that “a manner of death being a homicide does not indicate that a crime has been committed,” rather that the death was the result of another person’s actions.

Fryhoff said police still do not know what unfolded before Kessler fell to the ground and were seeking more information from the public, adding that the facial injuries could have been caused by a megaphone but that this has not been confirmed.

“Witnesses provided conflicting statements about the altercation and who the aggressor was,” Fryhoff said. “Some of the witnesses were pro-Palestine, while others were pro-Israel.”

The suspect “willingly remained at the scene,” and told police he was among those who phoned 911 for medical assistance, according to Fryhoff.

Chief of Police Jeremy Paris, left, joined by Chief Medical Examiner Ventura Dr. Christopher Young, center, as Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff takes questions at a news conference at the Ventura Sheriff’s East County Station in Thousand Oaks, Calif. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The suspect was detained at a traffic stop later that day while his home was searched, and questioned again.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass on Tuesday called Kessler’s death “a blow to our region at a time when tensions continue to rise worldwide.”

“As details emerge and are confirmed, we stand resolute in condemnation of violence and antisemitism,” she said.

Fryhoff said patrols would be stepped up around local mosques and synagogues.

A makeshift shrine is placed at the scene of a Sunday confrontation that led to the death of pro-Israel demonstrator Paul Kessler, November 7, 2023, in Thousand Oaks, California. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Mom says Cornell student who threatened Jews had mental health struggles

Separately Tuesday, the mother of a Cornell University student accused of making online threats against Jewish people on campus said he had mental health struggles and posted an apology soon after the posts.

Patrick Dai, 21, faces a federal charge of posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications after authorities say he made threatening comments on an online Greek Life forum late last month. The anonymous postings included threats to shoot and stab Jewish people on the upstate New York campus, rattling students and prompting police to increase security.

Dai admitted that he posted the threatening messages in an interview with law enforcement authorities, according to the federal complaint.

Dai’s mother, Bing Liu, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that she believes the threats were partly triggered by medication he was taking to treat depression and anxiety. She also shared an apology posting she said was given to her by Dai’s defense lawyers after they received evidence collected in the case.

The anonymous post, first reported on by the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, apologizes to the Cornell community for “divisive statements.” The post says no amount of depression, loneliness or isolation is an excuse for terroristic threats.

“Shameful, calling for violence against people because of a cruel war a thousand miles away,” reads the post made hours after the online threats. “Even more shameful because there is no excuse for the targeting of innocent civilians, much less my classmates.”

FILE – A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on the Ivy League school’s campus in Ithaca, New York, on Jan. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)

Liu said prosecutors and the FBI should have shared the apology so the public would have a fuller picture of the incident.

“The public… should know the whole story,” said Liu, who described her son as a kind and helpful person who was working to improve his mental health.

An email seeking verification and information about the posting was sent to Dai’s federal public defender. The FBI and federal prosecutors said they had no comment.

Dai had earlier taken three semesters off. He was prescribed an anti-depressant this year, but Dai had complained that the medication was not effective. The family from the Rochester suburb of Pittsford planned to meet with a therapist to consider a change, according to his mother.

Liu said she had been taking Dai home for weekends because of his depression and that he was home the weekend the threats went online. She returned Dai to Cornell on the morning of Oct. 30.

Dai was taken into custody the next day and suspended from Cornell. He was being held in an upstate New York jail as he awaited a bail hearing Thursday.

Liu said she worries about his mental health.

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