Report on Journalist’s 1970 Death Made Public

By EGP News Wire

A report on how crusading journalist Ruben Salazar died and how sheriff’s deputies handled the investigation was released on Tuesday, and the public will soon get limited access to eight boxes of documents related to the case.

Click on this photo to watch the press conference video.

Salazar, 42, was an award-winning Los Angeles Times reporter and news director at Spanish-language KMEX-TV on Aug. 29, 1970, when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by a deputy while he was in a bar, taking a break from covering an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in East Los Angeles that had become a riot.

Critics have alleged that deputies targeted Salazar, because of his reporting on Hispanic civil rights issues and alleged corruption in the department.

A report by the Office of Independent Review was officially released this week in Commerce, but the Los Angeles Times got a draft copy of the report and wrote about it over the weekend.

The report says deputies “employed poor tactics and made mistakes that resulted in Mr. Salazar’s death,” but that there was “no evidence” that he was targeted.

The report attributed the death and the fact that Salazar’s body lay in the Silver Dollar Cafe for more than two hours before it was recovered amid the chaos of the demonstration.

The report called it “a riotous situation in which (sheriff’s deputies) were responding to burning buildings and looting, while they were being assailed with rocks and bottles.”

“The Sheriff’s Department grossly underestimated the potential for violence … leaving LASD with too few resources to effectively deal with the (riots),” read the report.

But that didn’t excuse the actions of the deputies who fired tear gas canisters into the bar without clearing the location, according to the OIR report, which concluded “there is no complete justification for the tactical deficiencies.”

Much of the OIR report contrasted police tactics of the era with today’s training and oversight, noting that “Sheriff’s Department would handle this incident much differently today.”

“It was not an era of openness and public transparency. The Sheriff’s Department had no choice but to admit the facts of the shooting but otherwise circled the wagons around its deputies, offered few explanations and no apologies.”

Though no evidence of intent to kill Salazar was found, the OIR noted that investigators didn’t pursue that line of questioning with witnesses, which “opened the door to decades of speculation.”

But the fact that the deputy who fired the canister that killed Salazar, interviewed directly by the OIR, didn’t know him and was deployed to East L.A. at the last minute, helped to convince OIR investigators that his death was due to a “a series of tactical errors .. (which) rather definitively point to a hashed up operation in a seas of chaos … rather than deftly designed assassination.”

The department’s files on Salazar did include intelligence on those thought to be instigators of the violence that day, including the Brown Berets
and a group associated with activist Angela Davis, but OIR investigators said they were not clear why this information was compiled or for what purpose.

Sheriff Lee Baca expects to allow access to the eight boxes of documents related to the case sometime next week. About a dozen interested parties signed up to indicate their interest in the documents, Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said. The Sheriff’s Department will hold a lottery to decide who goes first.

“Some people may spend a day looking,” through the documents, Whitmore said, adding that he or other department personnel would supervise researchers. No one will be allowed to copy the documents and no cameras will be allowed.

Whitmore said the department was checking with Salazar’s family to see if they were comfortable with the public’s review of photographs from the autopsy report, which he called “pretty harsh.”

The family reviewed the documents last October. Salazar’s daughter, Stephanie Salazar Cook said she found “a jumble of accordion files, manila folders, yellow legal pads, found transcripts and photographs. When I found myself looking at my father’s autopsy photos, I was unprepared for the feelings that were unleashed.”

But Cook had urged the department to release the boxes to “historians, lawyers and other experts,” saying “it is essential that the tragic events of Saturday, August 29, 1970 at last receive the study and scrutiny they deserve.”

According to the OIR report, only five of the boxes relate directly to Salazar’s death and the majority of documents focus on the National Chicano Moratorium and March. Three boxes contain witness statements on Salazar’s death and photographic evidence, including tapes of witness interviews. One contains detectives’ reports and the autopsy findings.

Another includes the transcript of the 16-day coroner’s inquest in the case.  The remaining three boxes include information on the demonstration and other investigations related to the riots, including the death of 15-year-old boy, burned when a trash bin exploded, a man shot by a sheriff’s deputy when he allegedly drove his car at sheriff’s deputies; and the attempted murder of a deputy by rioters in Laguna Park.

Salazar’s death became a turning point in the Mexican American civil rights movement, and parks, schools and scholarships have been named after him, and a U.S. postage stamp was issued in his honor.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for the documents to be offered to an academic institution.

“I suggest that the most appropriate home for the papers is not a government office. The Salazar files will be the subject of research and inquiry for years to come, and an academic environment would be most conducive to those efforts as well as to full transparency and openness.”

The supervisor also said he believed that “many questions will forever remain unanswered,” but that “the time for blame has passed.”

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February 24, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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