Video and digital evidence helped “establish a clear sequence of events that led to the confrontation” at simultaneous pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies in California that ended with the death of a Jewish protester and the arrest of his attacker, prosecutors said Friday.
Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said detectives had gathered over 600 pieces of evidence and reviewed over 60 witness statements in the case, which led to the arrest of Loay Alnaji, 50, of Moorpark.
Alnaji has been charged with two felonies – involuntary manslaughter and battery causing serious bodily injury – in connection with the death of 69-year-old Paul Kessler in Thousand Oaks earlier this month, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday. He made his first court appearance Friday afternoon.
Alnaji’s bail was set at $50,000 at the hearing. The suspect, who is also a citizen of Jordan, was ordered to hand over his passports.
He pleaded not guilty to both charges, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement Friday. “Alnaji also denied the special allegations that he personally inflicted great bodily injury,” the office said.
Ron Bamieh, a lawyer representing Alnaji, said the charges “came as a bit of a surprise” and called for a “peaceful and respectful approach to the criminal proceedings” in a news release published before the hearing.
Kessler died hours after falling and hitting his head during demonstrations by pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups on November 5, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
Kessler, who was rallying in support of Israel, was involved in an altercation with a pro-Palestinian protester before he fell, Sheriff Jim Fryhoff has said.
The investigation that led to Alnaji’s arrest “was not an easy undertaking, given the disparate, often conflicting interpretations and statements and also the fragmentary nature of the evidence,” district attorney Nasarenko said Friday at a news conference.
“We were able to take video as well as digital photos and put them together to establish a clear sequence of events leading up to the confrontation,” he said.
He added “new physical and forensic evidence, as well as findings regarding the injuries to the left side of Paul Kessler’s face” also contributed to the charges.
The district attorney did not specify exactly how the incident unfolded.
He said authorities had not yet ruled out a hate crime charge and the investigation into whether a hate crime was committed is still ongoing.
Alnaji’s attorney said he has video evidence showing his client was not near the victim when Kessler was fatally injured.
After the court hearing, Bamieh told CNN Kessler “got in the face of many of the protesters,” including Alnaji. He said Kessler stuck his phone in Alnaji’s face and he “brushed” it away.
“When (Kessler) fell, my client is seen on the video 6 to 8 feet away from him,” Bamieh says.
In his earlier news release, Bamieh said Alnaji has no criminal record and is “loved by all that know him.”
“He is a man of peace, who abhors violence, and believes in the truth of persuasive arguments and education, never violence,” Bamieh said in the release.
Bamieh said his client “fully cooperated with law enforcement, attempted to aid Mr. Kessler when he fell, and called 911 when he realized that Mr. Kessler was injured.”
The district attorney noted prosecutors had not filed murder charges because they had found no evidence Alnaji arrived at the event with “the intent to kill, harm or injure anyone.”
His next appearance in court is scheduled for November 29 for a status hearing. A preliminary hearing is set for December 4.
Alnaji has been placed on administrative leave from his job in the Ventura County Community College District, which includes three colleges, the district said Thursday. He works at Moorpark College, The Los Angeles Times reported, though his profile on the district’s website was not available Thursday. The district said it has been communicating with sheriff’s officials during the investigation into Kessler’s death.
“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.
Authorities ask anyone who was driving a vehicle with video recording equipment in the area where the protests were taking place to reach out to detectives or submit evidence.
Crisis in the Middle East stokes intense rallies in the US
The demonstrations in Thousand Oaks were among the many in cities across the US supporting or denouncing Israel’s military response to the October 7 mass slaughter and kidnappings by Hamas.
Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched a gruesome terror attack on Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapping about 200 hostages. It marked the single deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust and coincided with rising reports of antisemitism in the US and other countries.
Israel responded by launching airstrikes on Gaza which it says target Hamas but have also destroyed civilian infrastructure and killed thousands. The death toll and humanitarian crisis among Palestinian civilians continue to escalate, as Israel’s attacks have destroyed homes and schools, decimated access to water and electricity and severed access to lifesaving care.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawing from sources in Hamas-controlled territory. A UNICEF spokesperson said figures from the Hamas-controlled health ministry have historically matched those from the international children’s humanitarian agency.
In California, Kessler’s death has devastated the local Jewish community and spurred safety concerns against the backdrop of rising reports of antisemitic incidents. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a 316% increase in antisemitic incidents in the month after October 7 compared to the same period last year.
What happened the day Kessler died
The simultaneous rallies where the incident took place were held by two groups identified as “Freedom for Palestine” and “We are Pro-Israel,” the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said. Authorities estimated between 75 and 100 people were present.
Around 3:20 p.m. November 5, the sheriff’s office received multiple calls about a possible assault related to the protests at an intersection, Fryhoff has said.
When deputies and medical responders arrived at the scene minutes later, they found Kessler lying on the ground, conscious and responsive, the sheriff said.
Investigators determined a pro-Palestinian protester had been involved in an altercation with Kessler, who at some point fell backward and hit his head on the ground, authorities said.
Investigators interviewed pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian witnesses at the scene, who gave contradicting accounts of who the aggressor was and how the altercation occurred, the sheriff said.
A 50-year-old suspect was also interviewed at the scene, where he told deputies he had been involved in an altercation with Kessler, Fryhoff said. His home was searched by investigators the next day, the sheriff said. Authorities did not immediately say whether that suspect was Alnaji.
Kessler was hospitalized in critical condition before dying from his injuries. An autopsy determined his cause of death to be blunt force head trauma, according to Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County’s chief medical examiner.
The autopsy also revealed Kessler suffered injuries consistent with a fall, including skull fractures, brain swelling and bruising, and nonlethal injuries to his face.
The district attorney described Kessler as a father of one who had been married for 43 years. He worked in medical sales for “a number of decades” and also taught sales and marketing.
“We want to continue to remember and honor Paul Kessler, and the tragic loss of life that has occurred,” Nasarenko said.
CNN’s Stephanie Elam and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Alnaji’s plea. He pleaded not guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of battery causing serious bodily injury, both felonies.