Report released on 1970 killing of LA journalist

Ruben Salazar
Ruben Salazar Photo courtesy cindylu/Flickr CC

For many in the Latino community, the 1970 killing of Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar had the look of a political assassination. The KMEX-TV news director and Los Angeles Times columnist was in an East Los Angeles bar, taking a break from covering an anti-war rally, when a sheriff's deputy blasted two tear gas canisters through the doorway. One hit Salazar in the head, killing him instantly.

His death transformed Salazar into a hero for those fighting for better police treatment and soured already bitter relations between the Latino community and authorities. Claims have persisted for decades that Salazar was targeted because of his reporting on police abuses.

On Tuesday, in response to media requests for documents in the case to be unsealed, officials released a report on Salazar's death and the investigation that followed. Documents from the case itself will be made public in the coming days.

While the report found no evidence supporting suspicions that Salazar was deliberately killed, it states the death was due to a series of tactical blunders that would be unacceptable by today's law enforcement standards.

"Our review also found a number of significant tactical decision-making and weapon choice errors by the responding deputies, at least viewed through the prism of modern-day policing," said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

On Aug. 29, the day he died, Salazar had been attending the National Chicano Moratorium and March organized to protest the disproportionate number of Latino deaths among military casualties in Vietnam.

The rally turned violent, and some witnesses claimed radical Latino groups from the San Fernando Valley were agitating by providing rally-goers with sticks and other weapons.

One of the deputies deployed to the area was Thomas Wilson. At about 4:30 p.m., he learned of a report that a man with a gun had been spotted going into the Silver Dollar Cafe.

Wilson positioned himself on the right side of the bar's doorway, which was only covered by a curtain, then shot two tear gas projectiles into the bar. The first one struck Salazar.

The canister was designed to be blasted through doors or windows and not shot at people. No deputies were deployed at the back of the bar, so confusion about who had been in the Silver Dollar only grew when deputies realized their tactical mistake.

The deputies did not have gas masks and were unable to immediately enter the bar to look for injured people.

The report faulted the tactics of Wilson and other deputies and said a follow-up investigation failed to ask significant questions. Deputies were not asked why they did not have gas masks, why responding units failed to communicate with each other, and why they did not secure the back door to the bar.

"Had the tactical mistakes noted in our report been avoided, the unfortunate chain of events that led to Mr. Salazar's death might have been interrupted," Gennaco said.

Investigators at the time also failed to address the persistent claim that Salazar had been targeted.

Since Salazar's death, the Sheriff's Department has transformed itself from an almost all-white police force into one that's almost 40 percent Latino, including Sheriff Lee Baca.

Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles and a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, credited the agency and Los Angeles Police Department for making strides in dealing with minority communities but said suspicion over the death of Salazar would linger.

"They can explain every small detail, but you cannot explain the coincidences," Guerra said.

Gennaco said the eight boxes of investigative documentation reviewed by his office contained scant information suggesting a conspiracy against Salazar. The only such evidence was a hand-written request by an unnamed sergeant for extra scrutiny of Salazar's Sheriff's Department press pass application because Salazar "is spreading bad rumors about us."

Salazar's death was the result of a "hashed-up operation in a sea of chaos . rather than a deftly designed operation," Gennaco said.

"If the Sheriff's Department had been intent on targeting and killing Mr. Salazar that day, one could think that they would have chosen a strategy that had a better chance of succeeding than taking a random blind shot into a darkened bar with a not particularly accurate weapon," he said.

Gennaco said he spoke by phone with Wilson as part of his review. Wilson left the department after being promoted to sergeant.

© 2011 The Associated Press.

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