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Suspect arrested in death of Jewish protester in Southern California

A makeshift memorial marks the scene of a confrontation on Nov. 5. that lead to the death of 69-year-old Pro-Israel demonstrator Paul Kessler.
Richard Vogel
A makeshift memorial marks the scene of a confrontation on Nov. 5. that lead to the death of 69-year-old Pro-Israel demonstrator Paul Kessler.

Updated November 17, 2023 at 7:32 PM ET

Law enforcement in Southern California on Thursday arrested a suspect in the death of a Jewish man killed during dueling Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian rallies earlier this month.

In a Thursday statement, Ventura County Sheriff's Office said it had arrested and was booking 50-year-old Loay Abdelfattah Alnaji on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter, which is the killing of another without malice. Later in the day, the Ventura County District Attorney announced a second charge: battery causing serious bodily injury. Both are felonies.

In court Friday afternoon, Alnaji pled not guilty to both charges. Prosecutors requested a bail of $1 million. It was set at $50,000.

Alnaji is suspected of causing the death of Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish man attending a Pro-Israel rally on the afternoon of Nov. 5.

At a press conference on Friday, Ventura County officials provided more details about the charges and status of the investigation. District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said that his office had reviewed over 600 pieces of evidence and statements from more than 60 eyewitnesses and had seen no indication that the defendant arrived at the protest "with the intent to kill, harm or injure anyone."

Instead, Nasarenko said, what's alleged by the charging documents is that Alnaji killed another with criminal negligence, "specifically, reckless conduct that carried with it a high risk of death or great bodily injury, and that a reasonable person would have expected and appreciated this risk."

Additionally, he said prosecutors had not yet ruled out a hate crime. He said they did not at this time have "the elements of a hate crime satisfied." Nasarenko said the investigation was still ongoing.

Earlier comments from the Sheriff's Office indicate Kessler was attending a Pro-Israel rally at the same location as a suspect they had yet to identify was attending a Pro-Palestinian rally. Some sort of altercation took place between the two, they said.

The county medical examiner determined Kessler died of blunt force head trauma consistent with a fall and has ruled the death a homicide.

Authorities said at a press conference last week that witnesses have given conflicting accounts of the altercation — a sentiment they reiterated at Friday's press conference.

On Friday, Nasarenko said new physical and forensic evidence had come forward, "as well as findings regarding the injuries to the left side of Paul Kessler's face." He did not specify what those findings were.

He said they continue to seek information from the public including videos, photos and statements.

On Thursday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles issued a statement in response to the arrest saying the law enforcement action "shows that violence toward our Jewish community will not be tolerated."

After the incident, the Greater L.A. Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement saying it stands with the Jewish community in rejecting any and all violence.

Tensions at Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian rallies have been high around the country, especially when they've taken place near each other. The Ventura County Sheriff's Office says the Nov. 5 incident is the only one in the county at which violence has occurred.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.