The Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review Tuesday issued its report on the death of journalist Ruben Salazar, who was killed 40 years ago when a sheriff's deputy fired a tear gas canister into an East L.A. bar during anti-war demonstrations. It said there is no evidence that law enforcement targeted Salazar. Salazar’s daughter said the report doesn’t go far enough.
The report is the first independent review of long-secret L.A. County Sheriff’s Department documents on the 1970 death of Ruben Salazar, a respected Los Angeles Times columnist, Spanish-language TV news director and sharp critic of the way police treated Latinos at the time.
Salazar died when a sheriff’s deputy fired a tear gas missile into a dark bar during a protest over the disproportionate number of Latinos fighting in the Vietnam War. The missile hit him in the head. Salazar was 42.
At the time, the sheriff said deputies were responding in the midst of rioting to reports of an armed man inside the bar. But many people have long wondered whether police targeted Salazar.
“The evidence found in the homicide report does not support a theory that Mr. Salazar was targeted, followed and intentionally killed that day," said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney of L.A. County’s Office of Independent Review.
Gennaco said that if the Sheriff’s Department had been intent on killing Salazar that day, it 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.”
In his report, Gennaco quoted witnesses who said they never heard deputies who claimed they ordered everyone to leave the Silver Dollar Café where Salazar sat at the bar. The report also faults Deputy Joseph Wilson for firing a high-powered tear gas missile into the bar.
“The series of tactical errors detailed in the report rather definitely point to a hashed up operation in a sea of chaos that resulted in the death of Mr. Salazar – rather than a deathly designed operation."
For 40 years, the Sheriff’s Department has stood by the contention by then-Sheriff Peter Pitchess that Deputy Wilson did nothing wrong.
Salazar's daughter Stephanie Cook welcomed the new report.
"I cried because finally there was something that was legitimately put out there that said there was wrong action by the Sheriff's Department," she said.
Only recently, the sheriff allowed Cook to see the documents. She said many unanswered questions remain about her father’s death. She’d like to know why L.A. County never convened a grand jury to look into it.
Cook, who is 49 and lives in Hawaii, also still wonders whether police targeted her father.
"I can’t say definitively either way. There’s no smoking gun from what I saw in the documents," she said. "But it is kind of odd that out of the 20,000 or so participants that day that only three people died and my father was one of them."
Gennaco of the Office of Independent Review conceded he was limited to examining the boxes the Sheriff’s Department presented to him. He also acknowledged that the FBI had monitored Ruben Salazar’s work, and that L.A.’s police chief and sheriff didn’t like his sharp criticism of them.
“The FBI and others had intelligence units that were specifically designed to follow people – people who were believed to be agitators," he said. "I think that fact certainly colors this episode.”
For many Latinos, Salazar’s death still stirs anger and frustration. Documentary filmmaker Philip Rodriquez is producing a film on Ruben Salazar.
“This was a prominent American journalist who was gunned down by law enforcement amidst a civil rights riot," he said. "I think if this story was about an African-American group or a Jewish-American reporter, we would have had a lot more transparency about this a long time ago.”
Rodriquez, who is producing a documentary on Salazar, attended the news conference at which the Office of Independent Review released its report.
The eight boxes of documents related to Salazar’s death and the demonstration where he died sat on a platform – still out of reach to the public. Sheriff Lee Baca, who was a young sergeant when Salazar was killed, has promised to make them available soon.