Reversing his previous decision, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Tuesday that he was directing his staff to determine what records might be released regarding former Times columnist and KMEX-TV News Director Ruben Salazar, who was slain by a deputy in 1970.
On Monday, Baca said he was denying a request by The Times for records that might shed light on the circumstances involving the newsman’s slaying, in part because he lacked the resources to review the eight boxes of files.
The killing, which occurred during a riot after a massive anti- Vietnam war rally in East Los Angeles, left a wound that has yet to heal 40 years later and has caused many to question whether Salazar was targeted.
The Sheriff’s Department has said the slaying was a tragic accident and that the deputy was operating under emergency conditions when he fired a tear-gas missile into the Silver Dollar bar, where Salazar and a KMEX reporter were taking a break from covering the action on Aug. 29, 1970.
Baca’s decision came as the Board of Supervisors, responding to an article in The Times about the documents, ordered county attorneys to prepare a report by next week to determine whether the records are public and what the costs would be to review them.
Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff changed his mind because he wants to have all the facts before deciding whether the records will be released. “The sheriff is going to examine all the options and let the analysis of the documents go forward,” Whitmore said.
In an interview, one of Salazar’s daughters urged the department to release the records to help bring closure.
"It’s been 40 long years,” said Lisa Salazar Johnson, who was 9 when her father died. “I’d like to get an answer to why he’s not here and why I had to grow up without a father.”
She said she wanted to meet with Baca to make a personal plea for him to release the documents. Whitmore responded that “the sheriff would entertain meeting with any family member.”
Supervisor Gloria Molina, who sponsored the motion ordering the report, also said the records should be made public.
“I just find it hard to understand why there would be any legal barriers to releasing that information,” said Molina, who was at the National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War in East L.A. before it exploded into violence.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas praised Baca for deciding to conduct the review. “I want to encourage him to do everything that is reasonable to make available the insights that would shed light on this very significant historical moment,” he said.
Other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department, have previously released records to The Times. Among other details, those documents showed that an informant inside The Times passed information to the LAPD describing Salazar as a “slanted, left-wing-oriented reporter.”
A 16-day coroner’s inquest into Salazar’s killing ruled that the newsman “died at the hands of another.” The ruling outraged Mexican American activists, who said the inquest hearing officer focused on the actions of the rioters instead of investigating the circumstances involving Salazar’s slaying.
The family later won a $700,000 settlement after filing a lawsuit against the county.
To this day, key questions remain unanswered, including whether the deputy who fired the high-velocity torpedo-shaped tear-gas projectile was following department policy. The communications between deputies at the Silver Dollar Bar have also never been released. Department officials also never fully explained why Salazar’s body was allowed to remain inside the dark, smoke-filled bar for about two hours.
“It was a very, very painful time,” Molina said. “At the end of the day, in order to really heal this issue, you’re going to have to get to the bottom of it.”