Mistakes by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies led to journalist Ruben Salazar’s death in a 1970, but there is no evidence they intentionally targeted the newsman or had him under surveillance, according to a report on the slaying found in files that authorities continue to withhold from public inspection.
Last week the the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a petition to compel Sheriff Lee Baca to release all public records relating to Salazar’s death.
Baca has refused to release the complete files, but in March 2011, made the records available for public inspection, initially restricted to media and academics and supervised by department employees.
MALDEF’s latest legal move was on behalf of filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, a fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the producer of a documentary on Salazar’s death that has been clouded by suspicion, controversy and criticism for four decades.
Salazar, 42, was an award-winning Los Angeles Times columnist and news director at Spanish-language KMEX-TV, who was killed Aug. 29, 1970, inside an East Los Angeles bar where he had taken a break from covering an anti-Vietnam War demonstration that had drawn an estimated 25,000 Mexican Americans from across the Southwest.
Salazar was shot in the head by a tear gas missile fired from outside the bar by one of several deputies answering a report of an armed man inside the Silver Dollar Bar and Cafe.
“Unresolved issues remain about the controversial killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by an L.A. deputy sheriff,” Rodriguez said in a statement released by MALDEF. “My documentary will address those unresolved issues, and the Sheriff’s files are vital to presenting a full account of Salazar’s life and death. We’ve tried repeatedly to gain access to the files for more than two years, and we finally felt compelled to take this legal action.”
Over the past two years the Sheriff’s Department has refused to release the documents, maintaining they’re exempt from public records requests or otherwise subject to limitations on reviewing and copying. MALDEF maintains that Baca waived exemption rights by allowing public inspection of the records.
A review of eight boxes of documents with thousands of records related to the slaying last year showed that sheriff’s deputies committed a series of tactical blunders that led to Salazar’s death.
No copies of the records were provided, and no cameras were allowed inside the viewing room.
“I’m willing to share the information, but I don’t think I can share ownership,” Baca said at the time. “In today’s world, with whatever technology is out there, I think original documents must remain original. I don’t think anybody else should be taking these documents, blacking out parts of these documents…. I’m extraordinarily aware that documents can be altered.”
A report of those records by the Office of Independent Review, a civilian watchdog group, did not assign blame or wrongdoing.
The report did acknowledge that its conclusions were limited on the key issue in Salazar’s slaying — whether he was a victim of a plot by authorities — because investigators at the time discounted theories that he had been killed intentionally.
Related story: In the shadow of Ruben Salazar
“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 said. “As a result, detectives failed to ask the kinds of questions that might have fully answered such speculation, giving rise to conspiracy theories that haunt the case to this day.”
But even by the policing standards of the 1970s, the report said, the deputy’s use of the tear gas missile seemed “contrary to … [the] department training.”
The watchdog group said it 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,” the report said, “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.”
Salazar’s friends and others have suggested he was targeted by law enforcement because his aggressive coverage of Mexican-American issues had created a growing voice for Latinos caught up in the turbulence of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
At the time of his death, Salazar and his television crew were investigating allegations of misconduct by sheriff’s deputies and Los Angeles police. He had told friends that he thought he was being followed by authorities and feared they might do something to discredit his reporting.
The report did find one intelligence document suggesting some members of law enforcement were not pleased with Salazar’s reporting. The document, dated simply July 22, presumably of 1970, is a handwritten note with the journalist’s application for press credentials from a sergeant in “Intelligence” who had requested 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 report said there was no evidence to suggest that any action resulted from the sergeant’s request.
“If Mr. Salazar was under surveillance,” the report said, “either the LASD [Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department) did not know, or did not maintain any record of its knowledge.”
Salazar’s slaying made him a cause celeb for the Chicano civil rights movement. He has been recognized with parks, schools, scholarships and even a U.S. postage stamp in his honor.
“There is no reason, in logic or law, why the Sheriff should continue to withhold information that he has already allowed to be reviewed by members of the public, related to a case that is over 40 years old,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel and lead attorney on the case. “The Sheriff should understand that the community, including law enforcement, would benefit from greater knowledge and understanding about Ruben Salazar’s tragic death.”