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Man arrested and charged in death of Jewish protester in California after confrontation over Israel-Hamas war


By Cindy Von Quednow and Joe Sutton, CNN

(CNN) — A man has been charged in connection with the death of Paul Kessler, a Jewish protester who fell and hit his head during a confrontation at dueling rallies over the Israel-Hamas War this month in Southern California, officials in Ventura County said Thursday.

Loay Alnaji, 50, of Moorpark, was arrested Thursday morning in connection with Kessler’s death, the county sheriff’s office said. Alnaji was then charged with involuntary manslaughter and battery causing serious bodily injury – both felonies – the county district attorney’s office said.

A news conference with District Attorney Erik Nasarenko and Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff is scheduled for Friday morning. Alnaji is scheduled to make a court appearance Friday afternoon, according to inmate information on the sheriff’s office’s website.

Alnaji’s bail is set at $1 million, the sheriff’s office said. CNN working to determine if Alnaji has legal representation.

Kessler, 69, died after suffering a head injury following an interaction with a pro-Palestinian protester during a pair of simultaneous demonstrations held by pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups on November 5 in Thousand Oaks, according to the sheriff’s office.

Witnesses said Kessler, who was supporting Israel at the demonstrations, was “involved in a physical altercation” with at least one counterprotester while the rallies were being held, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said in an earlier news release.

It is unclear what interaction Kessler and Alnaji had before the incident.

“Though an arrest has been made, we continue to encourage community members who may have information about this criminal investigation and have yet to come forward,” the sheriff’s office said Thursday.

Anyone who was driving a vehicle with video recording equipment in the area where the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests were being held is being asked to reach out to detectives or submit evidence.

Alnaji has been placed on administrative leave from his job at a community college, the Ventura County Community College District said in an emailed release Thursday. Alnaji works at Moorpark College, the Los Angeles Times reported, though his profile on the district’s website was not available Thursday. The college district has been communicating with sheriff’s officials during the investigation into Kessler’s death, the district said.

The dueling rallies were among the many protests that have sprung up in cities across the United States, either in support of Israel or to protest its retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attacks, which killed more than 1,200 people.

More than 11,200 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military offensive a month ago, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah said Tuesday, drawing from sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Israeli airstrikes have hit schoolsrefugee camps and ambulances.

Details surrounding altercation remain unclear

The simultaneous protests where the incident took place were held by two groups identified as “Freedom for Palestine” and “We are Pro-Israel,” according to the sheriff’s office. Authorities estimated between 75 and 100 people were present between both groups.

What happened prior to Kessler’s head injury is unclear due to conflicting accounts from pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian witnesses, Ventura County Sheriff James Fryhoff said in an earlier news release.

One video filmed at the scene and shared online shows Kessler lying on his back on the sidewalk, with blood on his face and on the ground. He places his hands on his head as a woman with a Palestinian flag on her back and a man lean over him, trying to help, the video shows. The footage does not show the altercation that led to Kessler’s injuries.

A suspect was interviewed at the scene, Fryhoff said in the release. He was cooperative and told authorities he was involved in the altercation with Kessler, Fryhoff said. The suspect also said he was among the people who called 911 so Kessler could receive medical attention.

Kessler was still conscious and responsive when Ventura County Sheriff deputies arrived on the scene, according to Fryhoff. Kessler was given medical aid by the Ventura County Fire Department and taken to the hospital, where he was listed in critical condition, the sheriff said.

It was just before 3 a.m. on November 6 that the hospital informed the sheriff’s office Kessler had died, Fryhoff said.

Later that day, detectives conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle driven by the suspect and he was detained during the execution of a search warrant at his home. It is unclear if the suspect interviewed at the scene and detained on November 6 was Alnaji.

An autopsy revealed Kessler suffered non-lethal injuries on the left side of his face and injuries to the back of his head, which were “consistent with and typical of injuries sustained from a fall,” Dr. Christopher Young, the chief medical examiner for Ventura County, told reporters. He also suffered internal injuries consistent with a fall, like skull fractures and swelling and bruising of the brain, Young said.

The cause of death was determined to be blunt force head trauma and the manner of death a homicide, Young said. The latter, he noted, is a medical determination meaning the death occurred at the hands of another person, and it does not mean a crime has been committed.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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