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A witness is still suspicious about Ruben Salazar’s death

Raul Ruiz was sitting on a curb on Whittier Boulevard, drinking a soda after a hard day’s work shooting photographs of a rally against the Vietnam War. Suddenly, a group of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies approached the bar across the street.

He snapped a few pictures and watched as the deputies fired tear-gas canisters through the bar’s open front door. Then, after 15 minutes or so, the deputies made him leave. Hours later, Ruiz learned that Ruben Salazar, the best-known Mexican American journalist in L.A., had been killed inside the bar.

“We’ve got to develop this film because I have a feeling I’ve got the shooting,” he told his colleagues at La Raza, the magazine he helped run. In the darkroom, an image soon took form — a sheriff’s deputy pointing his weapon at an open doorway in which several people gathered.

In death, Salazar was lauded as a fallen spokesman for Chicano rights. Some suspected he’d been assassinated. Ruiz’s photographs gave the public its only glimpse of how Salazar died on that day in 1970, and they’ve become iconic images of L.A. history.

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But for 40 years, Ruiz has been trying to sort out all the things his camera lens could not capture.

“To this day, I have not accepted the fact that Ruben was killed by a tear-gas projectile,” Ruiz said, referring to the Sheriff’s Department’s official explanation for how Salazar died.

When I met Ruiz at a Boyle Heights restaurant last week, he arrived with a 3-inch-thick manuscript he’s written on the case. It summarizes all the publicly available evidence — much of it from a controversial coroner’s inquest conducted in 1970 — and the results of his own work tracking down and interviewing witnesses.

Ruiz, now 70, went on to get a doctorate from Harvard. He’s never tried to get his Salazar work published — for the simple reason that it can’t be finished until he gets access to all the public records in the case. They’ve been kept from the public — and from historians and Salazar’s family — all these years.

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“We’ve been waiting for the sheriff’s records,” he told me.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would release the documents — but only to the media. The decision followed a study of the documents conducted by the Sheriff’s Department’s Office of Independent Review.

The Times received a draft version of the report and published it on the Web Sunday. It lists, among other contents in the department files, statements from 61 witnesses, and a box filled with reel-to-reel tapes and “photographic evidence.”

“All of that is incredibly important stuff,” Ruiz told me. “No one has ever seen or heard any of that before.”

There seemed to be little reason why Baca should continue to keep all that evidence under lock and key. After all, as the draft report states, the department long ago paid a settlement to the Salazar family.

There are many important reasons for making everything about the case public.

According to the report, Sheriff’s Department documents include memorandums on the department’s preparation for the East L.A. march and rally — a seminal moment in L.A. history that is known as the Chicano Moratorium. It’s the subject of numerous academic studies, and releasing the records to the general public would allow for a more accurate and complete understanding of that history.

According to the new report’s account of Salazar’s death, deputies fired tear gas into the bar but didn’t enter it. They allowed Salazar’s body to lie there for more than two hours, until calls from Salazar’s employer, KMEX-TV, led them to go back inside.

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The report strongly criticizes the Sheriff’s Department’s actions on that day, saying “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.”

But it finds no evidence of a plot to assassinate Salazar.

Ruiz says he won’t be convinced until he sees the evidence himself. I understand his skepticism.

The late 1960s and early ‘70s were, after all, a time of revolt and paranoia across America. A variety of federal, state and local agencies actively engaged in spying on student, peace and civil rights groups.

Salazar himself cooperated with the FBI after a 1967 reporting trip to Cuba, according to documents obtained by The Times. He spoke confidentially with agents about Stokely Carmichael’s activities in that country. Those same records show FBI agents sometimes monitored Salazar.

He’d written columns for The Times and done reports on KMEX critical of the Los Angeles Police Department. And shortly before his death, he told friends he believed that police were following him.

And yet, for all the taint of conspiracy surrounding the case, everything we know about what happened that day points not to a police plot but to a messy series of poor decisions.

Deputies had dispersed the crowd gathered at a park a mile away. Ruiz said he walked east on Whittier Boulevard, returning along the route the march had taken earlier that day. Salazar had done the same thing. “I think he was just a few minutes ahead of me,” Ruiz said.

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Many deputies, local residents and marchers were gathered at the corner of La Verne Avenue and Whittier Boulevard. The atmosphere was relaxed, Ruiz told me, with “deputies and Chicanos” in line together at a hamburger stand just a hundred feet or so from the bar.

The mood changed quickly when an unnamed man in a red vest stepped forward to say he’d seen someone enter the bar with a gun.

Ruiz said he heard deputies order the bar’s patrons back inside. Then he saw a deputy, later identified by the department as Thomas Wilson, launch a 9-inch projectile into the building from outside.

Days later, at Salazar’s funeral, Ruiz saw the newsman’s body in an open casket. He did not, Ruiz said, look like a man whose head had been nearly taken apart by a tear-gas shell.

“There have to be death scene photographs,” Ruiz said. “But we haven’t been allowed to see them.”

If and when Ruiz and other members of the public see those photographs and the other evidence in the Sheriff’s Department’s possession, 40 years of doubts could finally be put to rest. In 1970, police officials in this city could act as if they were accountable to no one. Releasing the Salazar files to everyone would make it clear those days are gone forever.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


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