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COLUMN ONE : Journalist's Death Still Clouded by Questions : Friends say Ruben Salazar, whose stories often criticized police treatment of Mexican Americans, believed he was in danger. His 1970 slaying left a lasting wound.

August 26, 1995|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shaken and nervous while picking at a plate of soft tacos, Ruben Salazar revealed his darkest fears. A leading advocate for the Mexican American community, the award-winning Times columnist and KMEX-TV news director suspected that he was being shadowed by police.

The newsman's forceful columns and television coverage had sharply criticized police actions in Los Angeles' Mexican American neighborhoods. Salazar had called the lunch meeting at an Olvera Street restaurant to put it "on the record" that he believed police might do something to discredit his reporting.

Two days later, on the eve of covering a major anti-Vietnam War rally, Salazar cleared his normally messy desk at KMEX and took his treasured hate mail off the wall. His former boss, Danny Villanueva, clearly remembers the response when he told Salazar he would see him later:

"Yeah, if I make it back," Salazar said.

The next day he was dead. On Aug. 29, 1970, while covering the National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War, the 42-year-old Salazar was killed instantly by a sheriff's tear gas projectile while he sat in an East Los Angeles bar.

Was it a coincidence that he had seemingly foreshadowed his death just days before? The three friends who lunched with him that day think not.

"He had a feeling they were going to kill him," said Philip Montez, western regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who was with Salazar at the restaurant.

All available evidence shows that Salazar's slaying was nothing more than a tragic accident. The Sheriff's Department said that its deputy did nothing wrong and was operating under riot conditions when he fired the wall-piercing missile through the curtained doorway of the Silver Dollar cafe.

The most prominent Mexican American journalist of his time, Salazar became even larger in death than in life. Parks, schools and scholarships were named in his honor. He instantly became a martyr for the Chicano civil rights movement. And he became a lasting inspiration for a generation of Latino journalists who followed in his wake.

But the killing left an open wound that has yet to heal a quarter of a century later. Even now, as activists prepare for a march today commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chicano moratorium, the questions surrounding Salazar's death still remain.

"It seemed too precise to be an accidental thing," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), who led a delegation that stormed out in protest from a coroner's inquiry into the newsman's killing. "It is still a major question mark in my mind today."

The reasons for those doubts and suspicions have become clear with the passage of time:

* The coroner's inquest failed to resolve conflicting accounts of the slaying and is widely believed by Mexican American activists to have focused more on the actions of the rioters than on the circumstances of Salazar's slaying. Four of the seven jurors in the quasi-judicial proceeding ruled that the newsman "died at the hands of another," a verdict that confused many and satisfied few.

* The district attorney decided not to file any charges against the deputy who fired the fatal projectile. The attorney for the Salazar family and many in the Mexican American community believe that manslaughter charges were warranted.

* Doubts exist about the thoroughness of a federal investigation into the slaying. Those close to Salazar say they were never aware that federal officials pursued a full-fledged investigation. The U.S. Justice Department insists that it conducted an exhaustive probe of the killing but found no grounds for criminal charges.

"Serious questions were never answered," said Mario T. Garcia, a UC Santa Barbara history professor who has authored a newly published book on Salazar. "But whether or not he was killed on purpose, it was a tragic loss of a major voice for the Mexican American community."

Hard-Hitting Reporter

When he stepped into The Times newsroom in 1959, Salazar was known as a hard-hitting, streetwise reporter, a reputation earned during his days at the El Paso Herald-Post.

At The Times, Salazar reported on a variety of issues and covered a Mexican American community that had largely been ignored by the media. In an award-winning 1963 series, he examined problems that still plague Latinos today: substandard education, high dropout rates and a lack of political power.

In 1965, Salazar became a Times correspondent in the Dominican Republic, then went to Vietnam and Mexico. In 1969, he returned to Los Angeles during a tumultuous period to report on Mexican American issues.

The Eastside had become a hotbed of protest and discontent in the four years that Salazar had been gone. Activists had begun calling themselves Chicanos instead of Mexican Americans\o7 . \f7 Thousands of students had staged walkouts at area high schools, demanding more Chicano teachers and improved facilities. Protesters, meanwhile, were decrying the disproportionate number of Chicanos dying in Vietnam.

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