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No evidence Ruben Salazar was targeted in killing, report says

The first outside examination of sheriff's records says deputies' mistakes led to journalist Ruben Salazar's 1970 death, but insight into intent is limited because detectives didn't ask key questions.

February 19, 2011|By Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times
  • Journalist Ruben Salazar, right, meets with Robert Kennedy in 1968
Journalist Ruben Salazar, right, meets with Robert Kennedy in 1968 (Ruben Salazar Archive/…)

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies committed a series of tactical blunders that led to the 1970 slaying of journalist Ruben Salazar, but there is no evidence they intentionally targeted the newsman or had him under surveillance, according to a draft report by a civilian watchdog agency.

The report by the Office of Independent Review, scheduled to be released at a news conference Tuesday, is the first outside examination of thousands of pages of Sheriff's Department records in a killing that has been clouded by suspicion, controversy and criticism for 40 years. A draft copy of the document was obtained by The Times.

Salazar's killing became a seminal moment in the Mexican American civil rights movement. And in death, Salazar became an iconic figure, with parks, schools and even a U.S. Postal Service stamp bearing his name.

A columnist and onetime foreign correspondent for The Times, Salazar was also news director of Spanish-language KMEX-TV when he was shot in the head with a tear gas missile. A deputy fired the projectile into a bar where the newsman was taking a break while covering a riot in East Los Angeles.

The 20-page report, which provides previously unreleased details about the case, does not assign blame or wrongdoing, noting that its purpose was to review a historic incident from the perspective of modern-day policing and current department policies and procedures.

The report acknowledged that its conclusions were limited on the key issue in Salazar's slaying — whether he was a victim of a plot by authorities — because sheriff's homicide detectives at the time discounted 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 haunt the case to this day.

The Ruben Salazar Files: Documents from across the career of a newsman under surveillance

"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 says.

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 states. "That posture fueled the skeptics." The department concluded its investigation finding no wrongdoing by its deputies.

The watchdog, however, said that even by the policing standards of the 1970s, the deputy's use of the tear gas missile seemed "contrary to … [the] department training."

At the time of his death, Salazar and his KMEX crew were investigating allegations of misconduct by sheriff's deputies and Los Angeles police. The newsman had told friends that he thought he was being shadowed by authorities and feared they might do something to discredit his reporting.

In the end, the report concluded, the journalist simply may have been in the "wrong place at the wrong time" as buildings burned and deputies clashed with protesters on Whittier Boulevard after rioting exploded during a massive anti- Vietnam War rally.

The independent review was ordered by Sheriff Lee Baca in August after The Times pressed him to unseal the Salazar files. The sheriff has said he will use the report to help him decide whether to release records. He has been urged to do so by members of the Salazar family, county Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas and others.

The watchdog found that a "hashed up operation in a sea of chaos ... resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Salazar rather than a deftly designed assassination."

"Certainly through the prism of current best police practices, it cannot be disputed that the deputies who responded to the Silver Dollar Cafe on August 29, 1970, employed poor tactics and made mistakes that resulted in Mr. Salazar's death," it says.

The report does cite one intelligence document — found amid the eight boxes of poorly organized reports, memos and other records — that suggests some members of the department were not pleased with Salazar's reporting. The document, dated simply July 22, is a handwritten note from a sergeant in "Intelligence" who was asking for a copy of Salazar's press pass because it "appears that (liar) Ruben is spreading bad rumors about us in ELA," referring to East Los Angeles.

The newsman's application for his credential was attached to the note, but the report said there was no evidence to suggest that any action resulted from the request. "If Mr. Salazar was under surveillance," the report says, "either the LASD did not know, or did not maintain any record of its knowledge."

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