40 Years Later, Questions Persist
Two Mexican cousins are killed by Los Angeles police in a case of mistaken identity. A prominent journalist is cautioned by two LAPD officers about his coverage of the shootings. A short time later, the journalist meets with staffers of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and tells them he suspects he’s being followed by police. He cleans out his wallet and clears off his office desk. Days later, he is dead. Killed by a 10-inch-long tear-gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy.
Is this the plot for a crime thriller? It could be. But it is just part of the tragic mystery surrounding Rubén Salazar. The Los Angeles Times columnist and KMEX-TV news director was killed 40 years ago under disturbing circumstances. Law enforcement officials had a chance to resolve the matter at that time, but they dropped the ball. A new generation of law enforcement officials now has a chance to set the record straight by releasing all records relating to the case. For the sake of history and transparency, they must not fumble this opportunity.
I first heard of Salazar in early 1970 when a friend mailed me a few of his columns. I was in the Army in Japan at the time. I was impressed by Salazar’s insight as he explored the often-misportrayed Chicano movement and issues involving education and justice. Following his career as a Times reporter, Salazar became the first Mexican American columnist for a major U.S. newspaper. For me, a young Mexican American during an era with few minorities in the news media, he was an inspiration. I vowed to go to Los Angeles and meet him.
On Aug. 29, 1970, I ended my military service in Oakland, Calif., and looked forward to a Times job interview. Little did I know that on that same Saturday afternoon, Salazar would be killed. Though I never got to meet him, I have continued to celebrate his journalistic work and ponder his death.
A basic question haunts me, just as it disturbs Salazar’s children and many others. Was the fatal shooting of Salazar a horrible accident that occurred under riot conditions? Or was Salazar assassinated to silence his reporting and the work of his KMEX news staff?
Salazar began writing his Times column when he left the newspaper as a reporter in January of 1970 to head up a small news staff at KMEX, one of the nation’s first Spanish-language TV stations. A few days before his death, Salazar met with a priest and two staff members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission — regional director Philip Montez and Charlie Ericksen, now publisher of Hispanic Link News Service. Salazar told them his KMEX reporting had upset law enforcement, Ericksen recalled in an interview. He wanted it “on the record” that he feared cops would try to frame him with something such as marijuana possession. Salazar’s wife, Sally, later wrote that her husband had been acting nervous and that he had emptied most of his wallet’s contents. At his office, on Aug. 28, Salazar had cleared off his desk and had taken some pictures off his walls.
An Antiwar March
Saturday Aug. 29 began with a peaceful march by an estimated 25,000 Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles. Organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, it protested the Vietnam War and the disproportionate number of Mexican Americans being drafted and dying on the battlefield. Demonstrators came from across the Southwest in a show of unity for the Chicano movement that decried inequities in schools, jobs and the criminal justice system.
After the marchers reached Laguna Park, unruly youths began to steal bottled drinks at a nearby liquor store. When deputies responded, they were pelted by rocks and the bottles. Deputies fired tear gas to clear the park. Families with children and elderly relatives fled while some young men and women continued to fling rocks. The deputies finally pushed away those resisting, often swinging their batons like baseball bats. Protest organizers later said that law enforcement had looked for any pretext to break up the event.
Almost everyone left, disappointed at the sudden end of what had been both a war protest and a cultural celebration. Some young people did not go away quietly. They responded violently, looting and burning businesses along Whittier Boulevard. Deputies and LAPD officers moved in with strength. Before it was over, property damages would exceed $1 million, dozens would be injured and hundreds arrested. Three people would die.
Salazar was covering the day’s events with his station’s news staff. KMEX reporter Guillermo Restrepo later said that Salazar had suspected they were being followed that sweaty afternoon as the two of them walked east along Whittier Boulevard. They entered the Silver Dollar bar to go to the restroom and have a beer. Its location, 22 blocks from Laguna Park, seemed far removed from the rioting at the time. Sheriff’s deputies, however, suddenly appeared outside the dingy bar. Later they said deputies had been told an armed man was inside the bar.
Deputy Thomas H. Wilson fired into the establishment using a torpedo-shaped tear-gas projectile designed to pierce wooden doors and to expel barricaded suspects. Yet, the Silver Dollar’s door was open, with only a small curtain hanging from the top. Salazar, the Sheriff’s Department said, was hit in the temple by the projectile and died. The department, then led by Sheriff Peter Pitchess, insisted that it was just an unfortunate accident.
Complaints from the Chief
In the months beforehand, LAPD Chief Ed Davis had complained to the Times’ leadership and to Salazar personally about his columns. Two officers had talked to Salazar about the KMEX reports concerning the fatal police shootings of the two unarmed Mexican nationals. The officers, Salazar wrote in his column, cautioned him that “this kind of information could be dangerous in the minds of barrio people.”
The LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department were wary of the passionate rhetoric of young Mexican American activists and their cries of “Chicano power.” But the activists’ main goal was to bring about change to educational and political conditions long neglected.
All these events unfolded during J. Edgar Hoover’s reign at the FBI and Richard Nixon’s residence in the White House. Law enforcement across the nation took harsh action against antiwar protesters and spied on what they called radical or revolutionary elements. Those circumstances fed conspiracy theories, but by themselves, they are inconclusive.
One thing is clear: Salazar was no revolutionary. He believed in the American system but, as a journalist, he saw part of his role as exposing cases of discrimination and injustice.
Los Angeles public officials had a chance to resolve questions about Salazar’s death. But instead, a rarely used procedure was ordered – a nonbinding coroner’s inquest. The televised hearings made for good theater, but they were a farce. Established rules of evidence did not apply. In addition, hearing officer Norman Pittluck asked questions about rioters’ actions and possible links between protest organizers and leftist causes, issues unrelated to Salazar’s death.
Wilson testified that he wanted to get the tear gas quickly into the bar because of the armed man or men believed inside. He aimed for the ceiling with a projectile, he said, and then fired a second round using a “duster” tear-gas canister. Another deputy later fired two additional rounds of tear gas.
‘My Director Is Still Inside’
Inconsistencies and conflicting accounts of what occurred were not resolved. Restrepo gave his reconstruction of events in a somber interview aired by KMEX in 1990. Restrepo recalled that he sat to Salazar’s left at the Silver Dollar, closer to the entrance.
When the first tear gas canister hit inside the bar, Restrepo recalled, “Ruben told me, ‘al suelo’ (‘hit the floor’). I started to get down from my chair [and] I felt something go over my head.” Restrepo said that when he crawled out the rear door, he was met by authorities aiming shotguns at his head. “I told them, ‘My director is still inside.’” He said the authorities replied: “Who cares about your director?” Restrepo said he was ordered to leave the area. Salazar’s death was not announced until hours later.
Wilson had said his first shot was with a missile-like projectile, and a coroner’s official said a projectile of that type could have caused Salazar’s fatal injuries. Restrepo, on the other hand, said Salazar was still alive after the first shot of tear gas. That’s an important inconsistency in a case filled with major conflicts of narratives.
Chicano activists cited another discrepancy: Why were patrons who were standing at the bar’s entrance (documented in a photo by La Raza magazine) ordered to step inside the bar, only to be tear-gassed moments later? Deputies denied the patrons’ account.
After 16 days of inquest hearings, four members of its jury concluded that Salazar had “died at the hands of another.” (What exactly did that mean?) Three other jurors found the death to be an accident. Those murky findings frustrated those seeking clarity.
D.A. Decides Against Trial
A week later, District Atty. Evelle Younger washed his hands of the case, saying he did not think he could win a prosecution of Wilson for involuntary manslaughter, the only charge his office had considered. However, a trial, with its clear rules of evidence, would have provided a better picture of what had happened, regardless of the trial verdict. Younger was running for state attorney general and it seems clear to me that he did not want to go against “law and order.” Younger, who died in 1989, rejected such allegations.
Sherman Block, who followed Pitchess as sheriff, scoffed at the idea that Salazar was killed intentionally. In a 1995 L.A. Times article, Block said: “If you have an intent to shoot somebody, you don’t do it with a tear-gas projectile.” Block also told Times reporter Robert J. López that he recalled inquest testimony showing that the bar’s curtain had deflected the projectile toward Salazar’s head.
The U.S. Justice Department was initially pressed by Mexican Americans to conduct a federal probe. The extent of that investigation is not clear, but officials failed to pursue any federal charges. To some activists, law enforcement’s collective non-action smelled of a cover-up, but Mexican Americans carried little political clout in 1970. Unlike today, there were no Latinos on the Los Angeles City Council or County Board of Supervisors. Nationally, Mexican Americans were dismissed as a small regional minority and were not a force.
Sometime later, Los Angeles County paid Salazar’s widow and three children $700,000 to settle a lawsuit. No amount of money, of course, could compensate for the loss of a husband and a father. When his life was cut short, Salazar was just 42.
The Journalist’s Legacy
Salazar began his journalism career in 1955 at the Herald-Post in El Paso, Texas. Because of his pioneering work at the Times and his role in Spanish-language TV, Salazar was the most important Mexican-American journalist in the 20th century. After his death, schools, parks and libraries were named in his honor. A Salazar commemorative U.S. postage stamp was issued in 2008. His role-modeling inspired Southern California journalists to form the California Chicano News Media Association, which in turn helped establish the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Even the release of all relevant documents may not provide a definitive answer to the Salazar mystery. But such action would show that today’s officials have nothing to hide about a 40-year-old case. “I don’t want to believe that Rubén was targeted,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, “but I do know that law enforcement followed a pathway that was very anti-Chicano.”
Molina said records dealing with the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the events at Laguna Park should be disclosed, too. “It was a terrible time,” she said. “The full information needs to come out for those events to be appropriately portrayed.”
Early this year, Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed a California Public Records Act request with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on behalf of filmmaker Phillip Rodríguez and himself. In March, Los Angeles Times reporter López had also requested the Salazar files. In early August, Baca balked at releasing the department’s materials. But now, he has given them to the county’s Office of Independent Review, which will prepare a report on the files.
That’s a good start. But for the sake of historical record, all of the Sheriff’s files relevant to Salazar’s death should be made public. Beyond that, all relevant, unredacted records from the District Attorney’s office, the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI and other federal Justice Department agencies should also be made public.
‘The Reality of the Day’
“Let the chips fall where they may,” Molina told me. “We have a very different Sheriff today. For those who are nervous about what would come out, I think they will have to grin and bear it because that was the reality of the day.”
Lisa Salazar Johnson, the oldest of Salazar’s three children, said: “I am urging Sheriff Baca to release those files because there are so many questions. I want to know why I had to live without a father.”
For too long, what happened on Aug. 29 has been considered only of interest in the Southwest. Filmmaker Rodriguez, whose documentaries have aired on PBS, believes the case is significant nationally, just as it has been important to resolve cases involving civil rights abuses in the South during the 1960s.
Rodriguez, a visiting fellow at the University of Southern California, is making a film on Salazar. He “I have no preconceived ideas about what led to Salazar’s death,” he said, “but I do know how profoundly painful this episode has been for many people. It’s time to give scholars and journalists access to those files.”
This sad chapter of U.S. history needs a clear resolution that only complete transparency can bring.
Editor’s note: This column was previously published on Hispanic Link News Service.