L.A. County Sheriff releases files on slain journalist Ruben Salazar

1970 photo of LA Co. Sheriff deputy Tom Wilson recreating tear gas projectile shot he fired that killed journalist Ruben Salazar.
1970 photo of LA Co. Sheriff deputy Tom Wilson recreating tear gas projectile shot he fired that killed journalist Ruben Salazar.

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The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has settled a suit with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after that agency turned over copies of its investigative files in the 1970 killing of L.A. Times columnist Ruben Salazar. The long-sought documents shed a little more light on the case, but the principal mystery remains.

Ruben Salazar had become the most accomplished Mexican American in mainstream news. A central figure of the Chicano movement, he wrote a series of columns on the growing unrest among Southern California’s Mexican Americans.

“The Chicano is finally realizing that there’s nothing exceptionally great about being white or certainly nothing wrong about being white. That this illusion in this country that white is best must go,” Salazar told a television interviewer in May, 1970.

Three months later, Salazar died after deputy Tom Wilson fired a tear gas projectile into an East LA bar. The deputy's stated reason: to calm a crowd of anti-war demonstrators who had turned violent. Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez and many others have have questioned what really happened that night.

“This is a re-creation of the shooting, this is deputy Wilson in his street clothes, re-enacting for investigators how he may have fired that shot that killed Salazar,” Rodriguez said as he displayed a color photo on his computer. He’s making a documentary about the journalist. The photo is one of thousands of documents he received from the L.A. Sheriff’s Department recently with the help of MALDEF. The records also include coroner’s photos, names of informants and descriptions of people and groups under police surveillance.

Rodriguez said the new documents helped him track down and interview a police informant present at the August 29th protest.  He’s also interviewed Wilson.

LA County Sheriff Lee Baca had initially denied access to the records. Baca allowed limited, supervised viewing to reporters earlier this year but forbade any electronic reproduction. He said he feared they would be altered. MALDEF sued on behalf of Rodriguez. The filmmaker said the absence of facts and documents have shrouded Salazar’s death in largely inaccurate myth.

“I think this is one of the most important stories that has remained on the margins and that has been characterized as a regional or an ethnic story and it’s a fantastic American story,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is still reviewing the records. He expects dozens more documents from the Sheriff’s department. So far, he said, he hasn’t found evidence that anyone intentionally killed Ruben Salazar.