For decades, Paul Kessler had been politically engaged — typically advocating for liberal causes — and often sharing his viewpoints in Thousand Oaks’ local newspaper through witty, strongly worded letters to the editor.
The 69-year-old most recently answered a call to help mount a counter-protest in support of Israel at a busy intersection where a pro-Palestinian group had been demonstrating regularly in recent weeks since the Israel-Hamas war had intensified and, along with it, Americans’ perspectives on the conflict.
On Sunday afternoon, Kessler carried an Israeli flag at Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards, where almost 100 people between the two dueling protests had spread around the intersection.
At some point, an altercation broke out between Kessler and one of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators — the details of which remain under investigation.
Kessler ended up on the ground, bleeding with severe head injuries, officials said, and hours later, the Jewish man was dead.
No one has been arrested, but Ventura County sheriff’s officials say an investigation into the death — considered both a homicide and a possible hate crime — is ongoing, with a known suspect.
Witnesses from both sides of the protests shared “conflicting statements” about what led to Kessler’s fatal fall and who the aggressor was, Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said at a Tuesday news conference. Deputies say Kessler fell backward during the altercation, striking his head.
“What exactly transpired prior to Mr. Kessler falling backwards isn’t crystal clear right now,” Fryhoff said.
An autopsy shows Kessler died from a blunt force head injury, and the coroner’s office ruled the manner of death a homicide, Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Christopher Young said. However, Young said the manner of death doesn’t necessarily point to criminal intent, only that the “death occurred at the hands of another person or the actions of another person contributed to the death of a person.” Medical determinations of homicide can be legally ruled self-defense or justified.
Young said Kessler suffered a fatal injury to the back of his head that was “consistent with and typical of injuries sustained from a fall.” Kessler also had “nonlethal injuries” on the left side of his face, which Young said could have been caused by a blow to the face.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said the incident was reported just after 3:20 p.m. Sunday. Deputies who arrived first found Kessler on the ground, bleeding from his mouth and head, but conscious, Fryhoff said. The Thousand Oaks resident remained conscious through testing and care at a hospital, but his condition quickly deteriorated, Young said. He was pronounced dead just after 1 a.m. Monday.
Jonathan Oswaks said he went to Sunday’s protest with Kessler. They had met a few weeks earlier when Oswaks posted a message on the website Nextdoor asking people to demonstrate in support of Israel with him. Kessler responded to the message, and this was their second protest together, he said.
Oswaks, 69, said he saw one of the pro-Palestinian protesters — who he believes is the suspect in this case — hit someone with his megaphone. Oswaks, who was across the street at the time, said he didn’t immediately realize it was Kessler who had been struck and learned later that his friend had been mortally wounded.
“I was broken when I heard,” Oswaks said while standing near a growing memorial of flowers, candles and Jewish symbols left at the intersection.
And now, he doesn’t understand why the man hasn’t been arrested.
“They had everything right there,” Oswaks said of the deputies. “The suspect was sitting right there on the curb.”
Bri Oard, a freelance journalist, was driving past the rally when she noticed ambulances and firefighters there, she said.
“I was praying in my head, hoping no violence happened,” she said.
While she did not see Kessler accosted or fall to the ground, she said, she saw paramedics loading a man onto an ambulance. She also saw two law enforcement officers pull a man from the Free Palestine rally, sit him on the curb and speak with him, she said.
The rallies have been taking place every Sunday, Oard said, but this was the first time there was any violence, as far as she knew.
Oard said she did not even realize how serious the incident was until she saw posts on social media.
Kyle Jorrey, a former editor at the Thousand Oaks Acorn, said Kessler had consistently submitted opinion pieces to the newspaper for at least two decades, many of which were published.
“An ardent Democrat, Kessler had a sharp wit and loved a good takedown,” Jorrey wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“He was passionate about political issues (liberal causes) and wasn’t afraid to let people know how he felt,” Jorrey said in a statement to The Times. “Doesn’t surprise me at all that he was out there as a counter protestor even at his age. He attended many demonstrations related to progressive causes.”
In Kessler’s neighborhood in Thousand Oaks, most residents had lowered their blinds and declined to comment.
Kessler’s death has sparked mourning and alarm in Southern California’s Jewish community, with some leaders and public officials expressing outrage.
“We demand safety. We will not tolerate violence against our community. We will do everything in our power to prevent it,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said in a statement.
The Anti-Defamation League called on law enforcement “to launch a thorough investigation to determine who is responsible.”
The Council on American–Islamic Relations released a statement saying it was “deeply saddened by this tragic and shocking loss. 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.”
“As details emerge and are confirmed, we stand resolute in condemnation of violence and antisemitism,” 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.”
Fryhoff said the suspect, identified only as a 50-year-old man from Moorpark, has been cooperative with investigators. He told authorities he was “involved in an altercation” with Kessler before the man fell and hit his head. The suspect was among those who called 911, the sheriff said.
Deputies on Monday briefly detained the man after a traffic stop in Simi Valley while investigators served a search warrant at his home. He was later released, Fryhoff said.
Fryhoff said his deputies are committed to providing safety and protecting the rights of all residents, regardless of faith or identity. He said the agency has increased patrols outside houses of worship and community centers.
The sheriff said surveillance video from a Shell gas station adjacent to where the confrontation occurred did not capture a clear view of the incident. Authorities are asking for the public to submit any video or images from that day. Fryhoff asked anyone with information to contact Det. Corey Stump at (805) 384-4745 or call Crime Stoppers anonymously at (800) 222-8477.