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25 Years After a Hero’s Death, Questions Linger

As the 25th anniversary of Ruben Salazar’s death approaches, there’s a question that has never been answered.

Was he the victim of a tragic accident? Or was he, as some maintain, assassinated by forces intent on silencing him? After all, he was the best-known and most influential Latino journalist of his time. His columns in The Times helped explain the growing Mexican American population and its aspirations not only to L.A. readers, but also to ourselves.

I don’t know the answer, but I do wonder why in the time since Salazar’s death on Aug. 29, 1970, no one has sought to put the issue to rest.

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Salazar was a major topic of discussion for the 1,300 Latino journalists who gathered in El Paso last week for the annual convention of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists. The group recently named a scholarship for Salazar as a testament to his legacy as a true Mexican American hero.

His two daughters, Lisa and Stephanie, who were very young when he died, supported the journalism group’s efforts by attending the convention in El Paso, Salazar’s adopted hometown.

But the touchy subject of how he died was never far from the minds of the convention-goers. When more than 80 people crowded into a smallish meeting room for the panel, “Ruben Salazar: The Myth and the Man,” it was clear that the passage of 25 years has done little to quell the controversy surrounding his death.

Salazar, a Times columnist and news director at KMEX-TV, was covering an anti-Vietnam War march in East L.A. when trouble broke out at Laguna Park on Whittier Boulevard, where the protest ended. Looting and sporadic violence trailed eastward on Whittier as sheriff’s deputies rushed to the scene to quell the disturbances. Salazar and another reporter, Guillermo Restrepo, were inside the Silver Dollar Cafe having a beer when deputies arrived.

Believing troublemakers were barricaded inside the bar, Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Wilson fired a tear-gas projectile inside that struck Salazar in the head, killing him instantly. Restrepo was not injured in the incident, but two others died in the rioting, which injured 60 others and caused more than $1 million in damage to property.

A coroner’s inquest concluded that Salazar’s death was accidental. Four years after he died, the county paid Salazar’s widow and three children at least $700,000 without admitting any wrongdoing. The deputy who fired into the bar was never prosecuted but resigned from the Sheriff’s Department and moved away from L.A.

For some, that was the end of the Salazar story.

At the El Paso convention, however, the doubters raised their nagging suspicions anew. Charlie Erickson, the founder of Hispanic Link, a Latino news service that publishes a weekly newsletter, told journalists at the Salazar panel that Salazar told him a week before he died that he was under surveillance and was being followed by undercover law enforcement officers. Such a declaration proves, Erickson said, that someone was out to get Salazar.

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“I think he was the victim of a political assassination,” said Erickson, who at the time of Salazar’s death was a staff member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Another panel participant, Steve Weingarten, who as a free-lance journalist investigated Salazar’s death, said the FBI was spying on the newsman. The FBI, Weingarten said, has more than 400 pages of documents on Salazar, dating to at least 1965, when the government monitored his dispatches for The Times from Vietnam.

The FBI has yet to release most of those documents despite legal requests filed by Weingarten, The Times and others. “What’s the national [security] interest 25 years after he died?” Weingarten wondered.

Good question. Since recent revelations that the FBI also spied on United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, it certainly came as no surprise to many in the audience that federal agents also spied on Salazar. But why? Did the FBI fear Salazar?

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And how was it that sheriff’s deputies suddenly appeared at the Silver Dollar, others in the audience wondered. Who tipped off the cops? What were they doing there? No rioters or snipers were ever found inside the bar.

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Some here at The Times say it’s a futile effort to dredge up the past. “Salazar’s a hero to your people,” one executive told me. “Let’s keep it that way.”

True, but I keep thinking he shouldn’t have died so young--at age 42--so long ago. He inspired me and a whole generation of Latinos to become journalists. I just can’t let that part of our past--my past--rest without knowing the truth. It’s time to find out.

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And from what I heard in El Paso, I’m not the only one who feels that way.


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