COLUMN ONE : Journalist’s Death Still Clouded by Questions : Friends say Ruben Salazar, whose stories often criticized police treatment of Mexican Americans, believed he was in danger. His 1970 slaying left a lasting wound.
Shaken and nervous while picking at a plate of soft tacos, Ruben Salazar revealed his darkest fears. A leading advocate for the Mexican American community, the award-winning Times columnist and KMEX-TV news director suspected that he was being shadowed by police.
The newsman’s forceful columns and television coverage had sharply criticized police actions in Los Angeles’ Mexican American neighborhoods. Salazar had called the lunch meeting at an Olvera Street restaurant to put it “on the record” that he believed police might do something to discredit his reporting.
Two days later, on the eve of covering a major anti-Vietnam War rally, Salazar cleared his normally messy desk at KMEX and took his treasured hate mail off the wall. His former boss, Danny Villanueva, clearly remembers the response when he told Salazar he would see him later:
“Yeah, if I make it back,” Salazar said.
The next day he was dead. On Aug. 29, 1970, while covering the National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War, the 42-year-old Salazar was killed instantly by a sheriff’s tear gas projectile while he sat in an East Los Angeles bar.
Was it a coincidence that he had seemingly foreshadowed his death just days before? The three friends who lunched with him that day think not.
“He had a feeling they were going to kill him,” said Philip Montez, western regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who was with Salazar at the restaurant.
All available evidence shows that Salazar’s slaying was nothing more than a tragic accident. The Sheriff’s Department said that its deputy did nothing wrong and was operating under riot conditions when he fired the wall-piercing missile through the curtained doorway of the Silver Dollar cafe.
The most prominent Mexican American journalist of his time, Salazar became even larger in death than in life. Parks, schools and scholarships were named in his honor. He instantly became a martyr for the Chicano civil rights movement. And he became a lasting inspiration for a generation of Latino journalists who followed in his wake.
But the killing left an open wound that has yet to heal a quarter of a century later. Even now, as activists prepare for a march today commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chicano moratorium, the questions surrounding Salazar’s death still remain.
“It seemed too precise to be an accidental thing,” said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), who led a delegation that stormed out in protest from a coroner’s inquiry into the newsman’s killing. “It is still a major question mark in my mind today.”
The reasons for those doubts and suspicions have become clear with the passage of time:
* The coroner’s inquest failed to resolve conflicting accounts of the slaying and is widely believed by Mexican American activists to have focused more on the actions of the rioters than on the circumstances of Salazar’s slaying. Four of the seven jurors in the quasi-judicial proceeding ruled that the newsman “died at the hands of another,” a verdict that confused many and satisfied few.
* The district attorney decided not to file any charges against the deputy who fired the fatal projectile. The attorney for the Salazar family and many in the Mexican American community believe that manslaughter charges were warranted.
* Doubts exist about the thoroughness of a federal investigation into the slaying. Those close to Salazar say they were never aware that federal officials pursued a full-fledged investigation. The U.S. Justice Department insists that it conducted an exhaustive probe of the killing but found no grounds for criminal charges.
“Serious questions were never answered,” said Mario T. Garcia, a UC Santa Barbara history professor who has authored a newly published book on Salazar. “But whether or not he was killed on purpose, it was a tragic loss of a major voice for the Mexican American community.”
When he stepped into The Times newsroom in 1959, Salazar was known as a hard-hitting, streetwise reporter, a reputation earned during his days at the El Paso Herald-Post.
At The Times, Salazar reported on a variety of issues and covered a Mexican American community that had largely been ignored by the media. In an award-winning 1963 series, he examined problems that still plague Latinos today: substandard education, high dropout rates and a lack of political power.
In 1965, Salazar became a Times correspondent in the Dominican Republic, then went to Vietnam and Mexico. In 1969, he returned to Los Angeles during a tumultuous period to report on Mexican American issues.
The Eastside had become a hotbed of protest and discontent in the four years that Salazar had been gone. Activists had begun calling themselves Chicanos instead of Mexican Americans . Thousands of students had staged walkouts at area high schools, demanding more Chicano teachers and improved facilities. Protesters, meanwhile, were decrying the disproportionate number of Chicanos dying in Vietnam.
Salazar covered many of those events, but he apparently felt an urge to do more. In January, 1970, he left The Times to become news director for the Spanish-language television station KMEX.
“Ruben was restless,” recalled former KMEX general manager Villanueva, now a Los Angeles businessman. “He wanted to do more to reach out to the city’s Spanish-speaking community.”
Bill Thomas, then Times city editor, asked Salazar to write a weekly column on Chicano affairs. In the little more than six months he spent as a columnist, Salazar changed from a journalist reporting the news to a commentator advocating on behalf of Mexican Americans. His columns explained the frustrations, triumphs and shortcomings of the Chicano community.
“His best work as a journalist, in my opinion, is that he described us for others,” said Felix Gutierrez, a Lincoln Heights native who is now vice president of the Freedom Forum media foundation. "[But] in describing us for others, he defined us for ourselves.”
At KMEX, according to his colleagues there, Salazar did some of his most hard-hitting reporting on law enforcement.
In July, 1970, Salazar assigned KMEX crews to aggressively cover the killing of two Mexican nationals by Los Angeles Police Department officers. Concerned about the coverage, police visited Salazar at the station.
“They warned me about the ‘impact’ the interviews would have on the department’s image,” Salazar wrote in a July 24, 1970, Times column. “Besides, they said, this kind of information could be dangerous in the minds of barrio people.”
About the same time, Salazar and KMEX reporters had begun a major investigation into widespread allegations that police and sheriff’s deputies had beaten residents and planted evidence when making arrests, according to William Restrepo, who was a KMEX reporter working on the story.
“We had [information] that we thought was going to be very explosive,” Restrepo, now a news director at a Miami radio station, said in an interview. Villanueva also said he knew that Salazar was gathering information on the police but added that he was not aware of the specifics.
While working on the story, Restrepo said, they were tipped off by a source that LAPD officers had found out about the project. “We kind of figured we were in hot water,” Restrepo said. He explained that he and Salazar feared that they might be followed or that police might do something to discredit them, such as plant drugs in their cars.
Ed Davis, the LAPD chief at the time, denied that his officers on the Eastside were engaged in brutality or planted evidence. He also said he was not aware of police following Salazar, though he acknowledged that it could have been done without permission by “some low-level officer.”
“I’m positive he wasn’t [being officially followed] because no one ever came to me in an intelligence briefing saying Salazar is up to this or the other thing,” Davis said in an interview last week.
The LAPD did have a file on Salazar that contained copies of some of his articles and transcripts of two KMEX broadcasts, police records show. The file also contains a half-page biography on the journalist that quotes a “reliable confidential informant (a Times employee) [who] states Salazar, in his opinion, is a slanted, left-wing-oriented reporter.”
Then-Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess declined through a spokesman at the Sheriff’s Relief Assn. to be interviewed. But Sheriff Sherman Block, who commanded the detective division at the time, said relations with East Los Angeles residents were good and that he was not aware of any surveillance against Salazar.
“I think I would have been familiar with something like that,” Block said, adding that he had never heard of Salazar until after he was killed.
In the weeks leading up to the Chicano Moratorium, according to his friends and family, Salazar not only believed that he was being followed, but he seemed to act as if he expected something to happen to him.
“Ruben had changed in those last few weeks,” Sally Salazar, who died two years ago, wrote of her husband in a column on the 10th anniversary of his death. “Whenever he left the house, he made a special point of telling me exactly where he was going to be--something he had never done before.”
About 10 days before the march, Salazar called the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “He said he just wanted it on the record that the police were after him, tailing him,” said then-commission staffer Charlie Ericksen, now a Washington journalist.
Ericksen set up a lunch meeting the following Wednesday at La Luz Del Dia restaurant on Olvera Street. Joining Salazar that afternoon on Aug. 26, 1970, were commission official Montez, Ericksen and a Catholic priest, Henry J. Casso.
“I realized that Ruben was scared,” recalled Montez. “I had never seen him as upset as he was.”
According to the men at the meeting, Salazar said the police were claiming that his reporting was inflaming emotions in the Mexican American community. “He also thoroughly mentioned how he was constantly looking over his shoulder,” said Casso, who has since left the priesthood and now lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
Ericksen said he remembers that they joked that police would try to shoot the newsman.
“What’s the worst they can do? Plant some dope in your car,” Montez said he told Salazar as they left the restaurant. “Just watch where you go.”
Thomas said he remembers Salazar mentioning something about being followed by police but added that the columnist did not appear too concerned. “I do remember some kind of talk about that, but it was not forcibly put,” said Thomas, who was The Times’ editor from 1971 to 1989.
It was not unusual, Thomas noted, for reporters on the police beat to have such concerns. “Everyone who wrote about cops and got critical in those days was looking over his shoulder,” he said.
On the eve of the Chicano Moratorium, Villanueva said, Salazar was acting “unusual.”
He cleaned up his messy desk. Pinned on the wall were hate letters, which Villanueva said Salazar displayed as his “badge that he was getting to people.” He took them down.
Salazar also kept asking if Laguna Park, where the rally would be held after the march, was in the city or in county territory. “He seemed concerned,” Villanueva said, “about whose jurisdiction it was: the police or the sheriff’s.”
Riots, Tear Gas, Death
On Aug. 29, 1970, Salazar, Restrepo and cameraman Octavio Gomez met at 7 a.m. at the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station next to Belvedere Park.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people from across the nation had arrived for the high point of the Chicano civil rights movement that had been building for more than two years. The men, women and children marched down Whittier Boulevard and flooded the grassy area at Laguna Park (later renamed Ruben Salazar Park).
As the multitudes sprawled on the grass that hot, smoggy day, the rally began. While folk dancers performed on a stage, deputies were hit by rocks and bottles when they responded to reports of looting at a nearby liquor store.
Sheriff’s commanders ordered helmeted, baton-wielding officers to clear the park--which rally leaders later charged was an overreaction. Tear gas canisters, their white smoke trailing in the air, were fired into the crowd. Many fled in panic. Some stayed and battled deputies. Others ran down Whittier Boulevard, smashing store windows and setting fires in the street.
It was the biggest, bloodiest riot in Los Angeles since Watts five years earlier. More than $1 million in property was destroyed, dozens of people were injured and arrested. Three people would ultimately die.
Salazar and his crew furiously covered the action, working their way east along Whittier Boulevard over a period of several hours. “When we were walking down Whittier Boulevard, Ruben said we were being followed,” recalled former KMEX reporter Restrepo. “I turned around and I saw a lot of deputies.”
With the officers trailing them on foot, Restrepo said, he and Salazar went into the Silver Dollar Cafe to use the bathroom. Afterward, they decided to grab a quick beer.
What happened next has been the subject of dispute for a quarter of a century. The following scenario is based on interviews and testimony given at the Salazar inquest:
About 5 p.m., according to the Sheriff’s Department, a man in the area told deputies there were two men with guns who had entered the Silver Dollar bar, at 4945 Whitter Blvd. That report turned out to be inaccurate.
Deputies swooped down on the small, one-story building and said they shouted several orders for the occupants to come out. But 12 people who were inside the bar later testified that they never heard any such commands.
Raul Ruiz, then co-editor of a Chicano magazine called La Raza, was sitting across the street from the bar with a colleague and took a series of photographs as deputies surrounded the bar. He, too, said deputies never shouted any orders to leave.
The deputies, weapons in hand, poked through the curtained doorway of the bar, according to Ruiz, now a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge.
One of Ruiz’s photos shows what he and five other witnesses testified happened next: A shotgun-wielding deputy pointed his weapon at four men--one with his hands in the air--ordering them into the bar as they gathered outside the door moments before the gas was fired. The deputies later said that they could not remember seeing the men and denied forcing anyone into the bar.
But the four men, as well as a fifth person not in the photo, later testified that they were ordered at gunpoint into the bar, only to be gassed after obeying the command.
When the occupants failed to leave the building, according to Deputy Thomas H. Wilson, he fired two projectiles from the sidewalk as he moved rapidly from side to side in front of the curtained doorway. Wilson, who was three to five feet from the doorway when he fired, testified that he could not see people inside the bar because the curtain was closed. And he later said he had never heard of Salazar until after the killing.
The first shot--a 10-inch torpedo-shaped missile designed to pierce plywood--struck Salazar in the left temple as he and Restrepo sat at the bar.
“We didn’t even have a chance to start the beer when the first gas canister came in,” Restrepo said in an interview.
Minutes after Wilson’s two shots, a patrol car with four deputies drove up. One of the deputies, who later testified he was unaware that gas had already been used, got out of the car, got on one knee and fired two additional tear gas rounds into the building.
The choking smoke quickly filled the tiny bar, Restrepo said, as he and others crawled on their hands and knees out the back door. Outside, Restrepo said, he saw his shirt splattered with blood, which he figured was Salazar’s.
“I told [deputies] I wanted to go back to the bar because my boss was still there, but they didn’t let me go back,” he recalled. “They took me to the corner about a block away and left me there.”
For about two hours, Salazar’s body lay in the dark, smoke-filled bar. Deputies later said they did not go inside because they did not have gas masks. Finally, about 7 p.m., his body was removed.
Within days of the killing, accusations were swirling that Salazar had been murdered.
KMEX-TV, citing conflicting accounts of the slaying, asked the FBI to investigate. Then-Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and 20 of his colleagues wrote a letter to the Justice Department calling for an “impartial” probe to “reduce the increasing suspicions and atmosphere of distrust surrounding [Salazar’s] death.”
It was in that environment that the coroner’s office decided to conduct its inquest. Held in a hearing room in the Downtown Hall of Records, the 16-day event became a media spectacle, with all seven Los Angeles television stations rotating unprecedented live color coverage.
An inquest is intended to disclose facts to help attorneys for official agencies and the family of the deceased determine further action. In many ways, the rules governing the proceeding resulted in the unfulfilled expectations that still haunt critics of the Salazar inquest.
An inquest verdict expresses no blame and is not binding on any other legal action. Unlike a court trial, normal rules of evidence do not apply, and the hearing officer controlling the inquest has wide latitude in allowing hearsay, opinion and non-responsive answers.
Much of the testimony was criticized as irrelevant by Mexican American activists, who walked out of the inquest on several occasions. The testimony, they charged, was intended to portray Latinos as people needing to be policed or bent on insurrection.
The seven-member panel was shown a graphic film featuring sights and sounds of rocks and bottles hurled at deputies at Laguna Park. On another occasion, when Ruiz was questioned about his photos, hearing officer Norman Pittluck inquired about a placard carried by a marcher that said “Viva Che,” referring to Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.
“Is he Mr. [Fidel] Castro’s man?” Pittluck asked.
The inquest did uncover that Wilson shot the fatal projectile. The deputy testified that he fired quickly toward the ceiling of the bar to flush out armed men who he thought were inside. The deputy also said he did not know whether he had the fatal missile loaded in his gun or a less-lethal cardboard canister.
“I [just] wanted to get something inside,” Wilson said, “and I wanted to get it inside quick.”
It was never determined whether Wilson was following department procedure when he shot the high-velocity Federal Flite-Rite projectile. It bore the manufacturer’s warning: “For driving out barricaded persons. Not to be used against crowds.”
The Sheriff’s Department said its training manual for tear gas operations was “classified” and refused to submit it as evidence. Pittluck twice refused to subpoena it.
The Times recently requested the manual, but a department spokesman said it was disposed of years ago because use of the Flite-Rite was discontinued shortly after Salazar’s death.
After hearing 61 witnesses offer confusing, sometimes conflicting testimony, four of the seven jurors ruled that Salazar “died at the hands of another,” while the other three concluded that his killing was an accident. No one was certain what the majority verdict meant because it was not defined by the state law governing inquests.
The next week, then-Dist. Atty. Evelle J. Younger announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Wilson. He said that only one charge was ever considered--involuntary manslaughter. But if there was negligence, Younger said, it was not “aggravated, culpable, gross or reckless,” which would have been necessary to prove manslaughter.
Younger, who was running for state attorney general, was accused at the time by Chicano activists of not filing charges because he did not want to alienate the law enforcement community and its supporters. Younger, who died in 1989, denied the accusations.
After Younger’s decision, Pitchess said that “there was absolutely no misconduct on the part of the deputies involved or the procedures they followed.”
With that, the county closed its case.
But attorney Douglas Dalton, who represented Salazar’s widow and three children, filed a lawsuit against the county and won a $700,000 settlement for the family. “This should never have happened,” said then-Supervisor Ernest E. Debs. “A deputy sheriff used a gun against all regulations of the department and fired blindly through a door.”
Dalton said in a recent interview that he thought manslaughter charges against Wilson would have been warranted. Wilson later retired from the force and could not be reached for comment.
Despite the persistent calls for a federal probe, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles had no intention of investigating Salazar’s killing, according to an Oct. 20, 1970, memo from the FBI office in Los Angeles to the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
“For the information of the bureau, Robert L. Meyer, [U.S. attorney], Los Angeles, California, orally indicated to agents of this office on 10/19/70 that he has no intention of taking action regarding Salazar’s death,” the memo stated. “However, to offset any possible criticism of his office he is requesting FBI to investigate the cause of the riot.”
The Justice Department said Friday that it did conduct an exhaustive investigation and decided in March, 1971, that there “was insufficient evidence to permit the filing of criminal charges.” A spokesman said he did not know if a public announcement on the closing of the case was made at that time. Montez, the Civil Rights Commission official, and Roybal, the longtime congressman, say they knew of no such federal investigation.
Montez, Ericksen and Casso, the three men who lunched with Salazar three days before his death, to this day maintain that his killing was no accident. They said they only realized later how serious the situation was.
“I’m one of those people who still firmly believe that Ruben was a victim of a political assassination,” Ericksen recently told a group of journalists at a forum on Salazar’s legacy.
That view is also shared by Ruiz, the photographer outside the Silver Dollar, and Restrepo, who sat next to Salazar inside the bar.
But Sheriff Block strongly disagrees, saying he recalls testimony at the inquest showing how the bar’s curtain deflected the projectile toward Salazar’s head. “If you have an intent to shoot somebody,” he said last week, “you don’t do it with a tear gas projectile.”
Today, many in the Latino community still feel that a new, more thorough investigation is needed to help write the final chapter on the slain newsman.
But with many of the key people dead, the doubts, suspicions and questions will probably live on.
“When you start putting all those things together, it’s an amazing series of circumstances,” Villanueva says of Salazar’s behavior in those final days and the events leading to his death. “I guess I’ll go to my grave wondering.”