Ruben Salazar had clashed repeatedly with LAPD in months before slaying

Ruben Salazar sat at a long table across from a stern-faced Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis, decked out in his dress blue uniform and flanked by two top aides. ??

A Times columnist and news director for KMEX-TV, Salazar and his boss had been summoned to LAPD headquarters about a March 1970 meeting the newsman reported involving the chief and Latino journalists. Davis was angry and accused Salazar of fabricating information, recalled Joe Rank, the KMEX vice president at the time, who attended the meeting.

"I want you to retract what you said about me," Rank recalled Davis saying.

"I'm not going to do it," Salazar responded.??

"You're a liar," Davis said, according to Rank.?

"I'm not," Salazar shot back. "I have it on tape."??

The sharp exchange, described by Rank in recent interviews, offers new insight about the contentious relationship between Salazar and Los Angeles police in the months before his slaying by a sheriff's deputy on Aug. 29, 1970. ??

For 40 years, speculation and controversy have swirled around what happened at the Silver Dollar bar in East Los Angeles, where Salazar was struck by a tear-gas missile fired by the deputy during a massive riot. Through his death, Salazar became an iconic figure. Parks, schools, scholarships and a U.S. Postal Service stamp bear his name.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is considering releasing thousands of pages of official documents that could shed light on Salazar's slaying. But LAPD records obtained by The Times and interviews with Salazar's friends and colleagues show that the newsman had clashed repeatedly with the department as the Mexican American civil rights movement roiled L.A.'s Eastside.

"The system didn't like what he was reporting," said Philip Montez, 81, the Western regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at the time and a Salazar confidant.??

By 1969, the Eastside had become a caldron of protest and discontent. Mexican American activists, who had begun calling themselves Chicanos, had staged walkouts at area high schools to demand better educational opportunities. Others marched against the war in Vietnam, where Mexican Americans were dying in disproportionate numbers.

Salazar had recently returned to Los Angeles after working as a Times correspondent in Mexico City and Vietnam. In January 1970, he left the newspaper for Spanish-language KMEX, which was trying to beef up its news coverage. Salazar agreed to write a weekly column for The Times on Mexican American issues.

Within two months of Salazar's arrival at KMEX, he and his news crew were confronted by the LAPD during a protest at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. A lieutenant, the station reported, tried to block a KMEX cameraman as he filmed a boy being dragged on the ground by police for "no apparent reason," according to a transcript of the March 11, 1970, newscast that was in an LAPD file on Salazar.

Two days later, Salazar complained about the department's actions in a Times column. He also recounted a meeting between Davis and Latino reporters, quoting the chief as saying Mexico's justice system smacked of "tyranny and dictatorship."

Davis quickly wrote a letter to The Times saying that he never made the comments, records show. The department also sent out a news release accusing Salazar of fabricating a "total lie" and displaying "total irresponsibility."

"This was a personal attack on you by Salazar," an aide told Davis in a memo. The aide said he had told someone that Salazar also had tried to tell Davis how to run his department.

"The last time someone tried to tell the chief of police who to assign was during the [William] Parker Administration," the memo said. "If my memory serves me correctly, Parker tore the hide right off the back of the one who made this suggestion. I told him that you were going to do the same thing."?

Several days later, the LAPD prepared a bio on Salazar, which quoted a "reliable confidential informant (a Times employee)" who called the newsman "a slanted, left-wing-oriented reporter," the records show.

Montez said he recalled Salazar saying that several colleagues at The Times disliked his reporting. The newsman said one of them "was squealing on him," but he didn't elaborate, according Montez.

As tensions simmered, the LAPD told Rank and Salazar that Davis wanted to see them. The conversation was short and blunt, with Davis and Salazar doing the talking as everyone else listened, Rank recalled.

"They were trying to intimidate us," Rank said, adding that Salazar had stood his ground as the meeting ended. "Ruben was a tough guy."

Davis died in 2006. In a 1995 interview with The Times, he suggested that Salazar was a combative reporter who lacked objectivity. "He was not some kind of diplomat or peacemaker," Davis said. "He was obviously involved in the subject he was writing about."?

The relationship between Salazar and the department continued to deteriorate. In July 1970, KMEX crews aggressively covered the killing of two Mexican nationals by LAPD officers. That prompted police officers to visit 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."

Around the same period, Salazar and his KMEX crew launched an investigation into allegations that LAPD officers and sheriff's deputies were planting evidence on suspects and engaging in brutality on the Eastside, according to Guillermo (William) Restrepo, the reporter on the project.

Restrepo said they had interviewed residents who were allegedly victimized and had corroborated information with sources in both law enforcement agencies. "Ruben was very mad about the whole thing," Restrepo, 67, said in an interview this week. "He was offended that these things were happening."

According to Restrepo, he and Salazar were tipped off by an LAPD source that they were being followed by police and sheriff's deputies. "Apparently," Restrepo said, "they knew we were doing the investigation."?

On Aug. 26, 1970, a nervous Salazar met with Montez, Charlie Erickson and another friend at an Olvera Street restaurant. He suspected that police were following him and was worried that they might do something to discredit or interfere with his reporting, according to Montez and Erickson, who at the time was a staff member at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Asked recently for a response to the accusations, the Los Angeles Police Department declined through a spokesperson to comment. However, Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department does not believe deputies were following the reporters. Whitmore added that the county Office of Independent Review is reviewing the agency's Salazar files with "fresh eyes" and will prepare a report. "Their whole job is to report without fear, favor or prejudice," Whitmore said.

Three days after his meeting, Salazar and his KMEX crew were covering the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, which drew 20,000 to 30,000 people to a march and rally at Laguna Park in East Los Angeles. The event degenerated into chaos and rioting when deputies fired tear gas into the crowds after reports of looting.

Salazar was struck in the head by the tear-gas missile inside the bar, where he had taken a break. The Sheriff's Department has called his death a tragic accident.

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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