Crime & Justice

Report: Journalist died due to deputies' mistakes

Newspaper columnist Ruben Salazar in 1970. Photo Courtesy of UCLA Library's Digital Collection, Changing Times: Los Angeles in Photographs, 1920-1990
Newspaper columnist Ruben Salazar in 1970. Photo Courtesy of UCLA Library's Digital Collection, Changing Times: Los Angeles in Photographs, 1920-1990
UCLA Library

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies didn't target a Los Angeles Times journalist who was shot in the head with a tear gas missile 41 years ago, but made mistakes that led to his death, according to a draft report by a civilian watchdog agency.

Ruben Salazar, a former Times columnist and KMEX-TV news director, became a key figure in the Mexican-American civil rights movement after his death during an anti-Vietnam War rally, with parks, schools and even a U.S. Postal Service stamp named for him.

The 20-page report from the Office of Independent Review was obtained by the Times and detailed in a Sunday story. It was the first outside examination of sheriff's records of the hotly disputed killing.

The independent review was ordered by Sheriff Lee Baca in August after the newspaper pressed him to unseal the Salazar files. The report was scheduled to be released Tuesday.

It found deputies used poor tactics at the rally where Salazar died in 1970, and that the department's stonewalling afterward fueled skepticism. Salazar was in a bar when a deputy fired the missile, hitting and killing him at age 42.

The Times said the report, which provided unreleased details about the case, did not assign blame or wrongdoing. Its goal was to review a historic incident from the perspective of modern-day policing and current department policies and procedures.

The report noted that its conclusions were limited on the key issue in Salazar's death - whether he was a victim of a plot by authorities - because detectives at the time refused to consider theories that the newsman was killed intentionally. As a result, they failed to ask questions that might have prevented the speculation and conspiracy theories that still overshadow the case.

"The failure to focus on any aspects of the incident beyond the immediate question of how Mr. Salazar died and the lack of any subsequent internal review by the department, however, left many questions unanswered and opened the door for decades of speculation about what the department may have been trying to hide," the report said.

The sheriff's department "circled the wagons around its deputies, offered few explanations and no apologies" in the aftermath of Salazar's death, the report stated. "That posture fueled the skeptics."

The department had concluded its investigation finding no wrongdoing by its deputies.

Even by the policing standards of the 1970s, the deputy's use of the tear gas missile seemed "contrary to . (the) department training," the report found.

In the weeks before he was killed, Salazar was investigating allegations of misconduct by Los Angeles police and sheriff's deputies. The journalist had told friends that he thought he was being followed by authorities and feared they might do something to discredit his reporting.

In the end, the watchdog concluded, Salazar simply may have been in the "wrong place at the wrong time" as deputies clashed with protesters on Whittier Boulevard after riots broke out during an explosive anti-war rally.

Stephanie Salazar Cook, the newsman's daughter, said Sunday that "the report ultimately asks more questions than it answers." She called on Baca to publicly release all records related to her father's case "so that they can be reviewed at length by historians, lawyers and other experts."

Information from: Los Angeles Times.

© 2011 The Associated Press.