A reporter's seek for solutions to Ruben Salazar's dying – Los Angeles Instances
T.The fax machine beeped and screeched as it sent a two-page document to the FBI. I was a low-level reporter for the Los Angeles Times, working at a news bureau on Exposition Boulevard in South LA seeking answers to questions the newspaper should have asked decades ago after the death of one of its own.
Without the knowledge of my editors and with no certainty of what I might be dredging, I faxed a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI looking for clues to a significant but neglected chapter in Los Angeles history: the sheriff's killing Deputy, Los Angeles Times columnist and KMEX TV news director Ruben Salazar.
The Times looks back on the legacy of the Chicano moratorium in 1970.
On August 29, 1970, at least 20,000 demonstrators marched through east Los Angeles to protest the disproportionate number of Mexican-American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.
The Chicano National Moratorium on the Vietnam War began peacefully, but that afternoon a minor disruption sparked skirmishes between protesters and law enforcement agencies. By the end of the day, hundreds were arrested and the pioneering Latino journalist Ruben Salazar was dead.
In the Mexican-American community, Salazar would be held as a martyr and his death has been compared to the killings of the Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In many ways, the ugly events of that day hobbled the Chicano Power movement, leaving the protesters disaffected, angry, and powerless. And yet. Protesters who became leaders in politics, business and the arts remember how that chaotic day 50 years ago stepped up their commitment to promoting civil rights. The Chicano moratorium, said a former protester, "was a catalytic moment."
This letter, which I sent to the FBI on June 14, 1994, took me on a journey that continues to this day. It caused me to investigate and question law enforcement actions in the months leading up to Salazar's assassination, as well as trying to uncover new details related to his death during a tumultuous anti-Vietnam war and civil rights protests in east Los Angeles – a hot one , smogy afternoon – now 50 years ago.
The more I delved into the past, the more I began to question the historical role of The Times in the assassination of a seminal journalist who opened the city's eyes to the hopes and frustrations of its long-overlooked Mexican-American community , not thoroughly examined.
I also questioned my role as a Chicano journalist, who was hired at a time – similar to now – when the Los Angeles Times came under fire for its newsroom not reflecting the ethnic and racial diversity of the communities it covered.
Salazar was a pioneer whose award-winning journalism opened the door to a generation of Latino reporters like me. I felt an obligation to draw attention to a grave injustice. Most of all, I hoped to spread news that could shed light on a murder that remains a source of speculation and suspicion to this day.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
"Over the years, history kept pulling me back …"
Did Salazar kill nothing more than a tragic accident caused by a MP operating in "riot" conditions, as law enforcement officials claim? Or should Salazar, as some of his closest friends and activists believe, silence his heavy-hitting coverage of police operations in the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles?
Over the years history kept pulling me back as I tried to answer those questions, and eventually I came to my own conclusions about what happened that day on August 29, 1970, when the sheriff deputies on the Silver Dollar Bar & Cafe crashed.
Early code switcher
In death, Salazar became a mythical symbol for a movement and the people he covered as a journalist. In reality, he was a complicated character, a skilled code switcher who could easily navigate between the White and Latin American worlds.
Colleagues from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, where Salazar headed the Petaluma bureau in 1956, told me how he exposed secret government meetings and looked for restaurants serving menudo, the famous Mexican red chilli stew, tripe and hominy. After joining The Times, Salazar lived with his family in Orange County, the land of Richard Nixon and the right-wing John Birch Society.
Salazar became a foreign correspondent, one of the Los Angeles Times' most prestigious assignments. He covered a US military invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, covered the Vietnam War at a time of increasing US involvement, and became head of the newspaper's Mexico office.
Salazar in front of the old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City. He was the office manager of the newspaper in Mexico City. (Los Angeles times)
In January 1969, Salazar returned to Los Angeles to cover a Mexican-American community that had changed dramatically. The civil rights movement had swept the barrios of the southwest, where activists had started calling themselves Chicanos. Encouraged by cultural pride, Chicano protesters spoke out against generations of racism and discrimination, inferior educational opportunities, abuse of law enforcement agencies and the war in Vietnam, where Latinos died in large numbers.
A year after returning to Los Angeles, Salazar left The Times to become news director for Spanish-language KMEX TV. But he agreed to write a weekly column for the newspaper that focuses on the Mexican-American community.
His columns were a radical departure from the simple news articles he wrote as a reporter. In his first column, he made an apologetic statement as to why Chicanos refused to be told by whites that speaking Spanish was a problem. "Chicanos will tell you that their culture is older than that of the pilgrims and that in America, Spanish was spoken before English," Salazar wrote. "The" problem "is not with them, but with the Anglos who do not speak Spanish."
Salazar understood the power of television to reach large audiences in a growing Spanish-speaking community. Each week, his hour-long news program "Noticiero 34" drew nearly 300,000 viewers, making it one of the most watched local news programs. "The reason is undoubtedly a newfound pride of the second largest minority in the country in the Spanish language," he wrote in one of his columns.
Death at the silver dollar
At KMEX, Salazar's small news crew aggressively covered mounting tensions between Chicano activists and the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Concerned about the coverage, the police visited Salazar at the station and warned that it was damaging the LAPD's reputation. "Also, they said, this type of information could be dangerous in the minds of the Barrio people," wrote Salazar in a July 24, 1970 column.
On Saturday morning, August 29, 1970, Salazar met KMEX cameraman Octavio Gomez and reporter Guillermo Restrepo near Belvedere Park in east Los Angeles, where crowds were gathering for the Chicano national moratorium on the Vietnam War.
Marchers of the National Chicano Moratorium in East LA in 1970. (Los Angeles Times)
As the summer sun burned through a smoggy haze, at least 20,000 men, women and children marched nearly three miles to a rally in Laguna Park (later renamed Ruben F. Salazar Park). They sang "Chicano Power!" and raised banners – "Houston", "Denver", "Albuquerque" – proclaim the distant places from which they had traveled for the historic gathering.
It was the culmination of a burgeoning movement and, at the time, one of the largest civil rights marches in Los Angeles history. However, the rally exploded in violence after sheriff MPs responded to reports of theft at a liquor store near Laguna Park. MPs decided to evacuate the peaceful gathering and shoot tear gas canisters into the crowd spreading on the grass as helmeted officers charged forward with batons.
Protesters fought the police and clouds of dark smoke rose in the air as buildings on Whittier Boulevard were set on fire. Salazar and Restrepo worked their way east, stopped at the Silver Dollar Cafe to use the bathroom, and then decided to have a quick beer.
Meanwhile, sheriff MPs were responding to a report from two gunmen in the bar that was later found to be false. MPs fired several tear gas projectiles through the curtain door, including a 10-inch torpedo-shaped missile designed to tear through plywood in barricade situations. It hit 42-year-old Salazar in the head and killed him as he sat at the bar next to Restrepo, who was crawling through a back door while suffocating smoke filled the small room.
Interior of the Silver Dollar Bar & Cafe in east Los Angeles where Times columnist Ruben Salazar was found dead on August 29, 1970. (Frank Q. Brown / Los Angeles Times)
Find the crack
On a hot summer day in El Paso in 1995, I was sitting in a conference room full of reporters at the National Assn. the Hispanic Journalists Convention. Four panelists praised the groundbreaking work of Salazar, who grew up in the Texas border town and cut his teeth as a young reporter at the El Paso Herald-Post.
A year had passed since I sent my letter to the FBI. My request for recordings was being processed and it was unclear how long it would take. I had sent similar requests to the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department, but I was told that they didn't have the records I was looking for.
The Los Angeles Times wanted to publish something material on the 25th anniversary of Salazar's assassination, which was only two months away, and it was my job to get it done. But when the El Paso panel ended, I had no story. Until a respected journalist spoke.
Charlie Ericksen, easily recognizable with his glasses and beard, got up from his chair and looked at the panelists. "I am one of those who still firmly believe that Ruben was the victim of a political assassination," he said flatly.
Ericksen, a founder of Washington-based news service Hispanic Link, who began his career as a copy boy with the Los Angeles Mirror, had helped start the careers of many Latino reporters. Without elaborating, he told the congregation that Salazar believed the police were after him. I scribbled in my reporter's notebook. I had a head start on hunting.
As I later found out, Ericksen and Salazar were close friends. Ericksen and two other friends – a Catholic priest and the director of the LA office of the US Civil Rights Commission – met the journalist in a restaurant on Olvera Street three days before his death. In separate interviews, the three men described Salazar as shaken, concerned that he was being followed by the police. He feared the police would do something to discredit his coverage, they recalled.
Her memories were convincing. Salazar was a seasoned journalist who covered fighting overseas. Early in his career he pretended to be drunk and was arrested by El Paso police. The trick enabled him to expose wrongdoing in the city's notorious prison. Obviously he wasn't a man who was easily scared.
Restrepo, the former KMEX reporter, said he and Salazar are investigating allegations that police and Los Angeles sheriff MPs planted evidence against some suspects and beat others. The two journalists had been informed: The authorities knew about their investigation.
"We were in hot water," Restrepo told me.
I landed another promising lead. A year earlier, the LAPD had responded to my request for records, saying the Counter Terrorism Division had no record of Salazar. That was true, but through my reporting I learned that an intelligence file on Salazar had been drawn up for former boss Ed Davis. It was buried in city archives.
I went to the cavernous warehouse that holds tens of thousands of boxes of historical city records. The LAPD file revealed a bitter rift between Salazar and Davis. The boss had accused Salazar of reporting a "total lie" about comments he made at a meeting with Latino journalists. Davis asked Salazar to apologize – which the journalist refused, saying his report was correct.
"I am one of those people who are still firmly convinced that Ruben was the victim of a political assassination."
Charlie Ericksen, founder of Hispanic Link
Ruben Salazar during his tenure as News Director of the Spanish language television channel KMEX in Los Angeles. (PBS)
The file, which contained transcripts of KMEX news and photocopies of Times articles, revealed a troubling detail: a “reliable confidential informant” from the newspaper had leaked information about Salazar to the LAPD. Police were told that Salazar was a "weird, left-wing reporter". I have never confirmed the name of this informant, but I knew from my reporting that Salazar did not trust some of his colleagues.
I contacted Davis, who criticized Salazar, saying he lacked objectivity and was "not a diplomat or a peacemaker". The former boss said in a 1995 interview that he didn't know the police were tracking the journalists, but he admitted that it might have happened. "If he had been monitored, it might have been unauthorized by a junior officer," said Davis, who died in 2006.
On August 26, 1995, the Los Angeles Times published my 3,200 word article on Salazar. It was a solid story, with details that the newspaper hadn't covered before. Even so, I had found no conclusive evidence that law enforcement was pursuing Salazar or that he was in the tavern when the deadly projectile was fired. It contained new details but found no conclusive evidence.
I hoped the FBI documents I was waiting for would provide new clues.
Tourists strolled past brightly colored piñatas, intricately woven scarves, and other handicrafts at La Luz del Dia restaurant on Olvera Street in late June 2010 when I was sitting with a colleague, the Times columnist at the time, Héctor Tobar.
It was the same restaurant where a shaken Salazar met his three friends and told them he suspected the police were after him. We were there to meet with a powerful Los Angeles County officer who may be able to help us uncover new information about Salazar's murder.
After 15 years, my search for records had largely resulted in disappointment after disappointment. US Justice Department documents were of little help. A request to the CIA sparked a cryptic response: Agency officials could neither confirm nor deny the existence of records on Salazar as such information was classified.
The biggest setback, however, came from the FBI. Eventually, more than five years after requesting documents, I received over 200 pages of documents. Some parts have been edited for national security reasons. The record did not provide any new information about the circumstances of Salazar's murder.
I had reached the end of Meldestrasse – until a tip withdrew.
In early 2010, I learned from a source that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had more than half a dozen boxes of files on Salazar and the Chicano moratorium. I was not notified of the existence of these records when I submitted my original application to the department in 1994.
I sent a new California Public Records Act request to the Sheriff's Department to review the files. On March 10th, then sheriff Lee Baca declined my request.
Hoping to avoid a fight over the records, I met the department's media liaison on March 18 and told them it was in everyone's interest to open the secret files. He stated that Baca was considering his rejection of my request and "was inclined to publish the records".
I hadn't received a record response from Baca when Tobar and I had lunch with a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at Olvera Street restaurant.
The five superiors on the board had significant influence over Baca as they controlled the budget of his department. During a confidential conversation, Tobar and I played questions. However, we made it clear that the files should be unsealed and that any support from regulators would be in the public interest.
In death he became more radical than in life.
Ruben Salazar: The Manufacturing of myth
In early July, Tobar wrote a column on Salazar and asked the sheriff's department to open the files. He said this could help heal the wounds of a 40 year old case.
Baca refused my request again on August 9th. At that point, I knew the best strategy was to keep this story on the news. Over the next three weeks, I produced five articles and a news video. The newspaper published a strong editorial saying it was time to end decades of obfuscation.
The day after my first article was published, the Board of Supervisors ordered the county counsel to prepare a report on whether the files should be made public. Around the same time, the Mexican-American Legal Protection and Education Fund was working with a documentary filmmaker to urge the sheriff's department to release the files.
On August 19, I met a source on a downtown street corner where I was given a large envelope containing a copy of the District Attorney's confidential report to the Board of Supervisors. I ran back to the newsroom to write a story. The county lawyers had concluded that state law should make some of the records public.
Lopez contemplates a painting by former Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar and a copy of his last story, published August 28, 1970, the day before his death, and on display in the Ruben Salazar Memorial Hall in Cal State LA . (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Baca had turned the files over to the Office of Independent Review, a civil surveillance agency set up to oversee the department. Over the next six months, the office reviewed the records and took the unprecedented step of investigating a 40-year-old case. The office announced that it would prepare a public report on its findings.
I received a copy from my source a few days before the report was published and wrote a cover story which was published on February 19, 2011. The report said MPs made a number of tactical mistakes that led to Salazar's assassination, but none found evidence that he was targeted or monitored. The report acknowledged that its findings on whether or not Salazar was targeted were limited, as that line of inquiry was not followed by homicide detectors assigned to the case.
In early March 2011, the sheriff's department finally opened the eight filing boxes for reporters to check. I scanned the voluminous records. They contained interesting revelations, including details of how law enforcement was monitored for community groups involved in the Chicano moratorium.
However, the files did not contain any new information to answer the questions I examined more than 15 years ago.
Role of time
I never wanted to be pigeonholed for writing stories that were solely Latino-themed. But this was a story about a Los Angeles Times journalist who was killed. It crossed simplistic boundaries.
When I first got the idea to send a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI, I was sure someone in the paper had already done so. Nobody had.
I've spent years asking questions and reporting facts that the Los Angeles Times should have asked and uncovered in the weeks and months after Salazar's murder. When I got involved, the trail was cold. People's memories were faded and important records could have been lost or destroyed.
After Salazar's assassination, the Times largely covered groundbreaking events in the case – including a 16-day coroner's investigation, an investigative process that focused more on the riots and less on the circumstances surrounding Salazar's death. An investigative piece was also produced questioning the use of the deadly projectile. But for the death of one of its own, the newspaper should have launched a crusade to find additional new evidence and hold people and authorities accountable.
Ruben Salazar, top center, with his Los Angeles Times reporters. (Los Angeles times)
Had the newspaper looked accurate enough it could have found out important details, including the fact that the federal prosecutor had convened a large jury to investigate Salazar's murder. I learned about the 1995 grand jury from Jerris Leonard, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The Catholic priest who met Salazar on Olvera Street told me he had testified before the panel. The federal investigation was tacitly closed in March 1971 with no charges brought against the MP who fired the deadly projectile. This is evident from the U.S. Department of Justice records that I received.
Bill Thomas was running local coverage for the Los Angeles Times when Salazar was killed and later became the newspaper's editor. In a 1995 interview, he insisted that his reporters cover her thoroughly. "I don't know how you could have been more aggressive than us," Thomas said to me. He passed away in 2014.
A former senior Times editor offered a different narrative.
Frank del Olmo was highly regarded and the first Latino to appear in the Los Angeles Times masthead. Hired in 1970, he was mentored by Salazar and became a columnist and co-editor. He died in 2004 after suffering an apparent heart attack in the newsroom.
"They just wanted to get this done as soon as possible."
Frank del Olmo, former Times Editor
Del Olmo was on the Salazar Panel at the 1995 El Paso Journalism Conference, where he acknowledged that he and other Los Angeles Times reporters were "never really allowed" to fully investigate the journalist's murder. He said the murder created an emotionally difficult situation and that, according to a transcript of the panel discussion, Thomas was not satisfied with starting extensive coverage.
"The level of comfort wasn't there – so that his reporters could find out what happened, we slid the ball right between our legs," said Del Olmo. "So we have a certain responsibility."
Salazar's death, Del Olmo told journalists in the room, was "a painful problem" for his colleagues in the newsroom.
"They just wanted to get this done as soon as possible."
History has repeated itself in the past few months.
I was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 1992 as part of a great experiment called "City Times," a section created for neighborhoods historically neglected by the newspaper – the "hole in the donut," as the editors called the area .
At the time, the newspaper was criticized for not doing enough to hire color journalists. It had largely failed to recognize the social and economic forces that sparked the civil uprising that exploded in April 1992 after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers who brutally beat Rodney G. King, an unarmed black man. City Times was a zoned news division that was launched in September 1992 in response to criticism. It was closed in August 1995.
Today the Los Angeles Times is under fire again for not hiring and promoting color reporters. The subject became public during coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles and across the country following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
When I saw the news of the protests, I saw cops fire tear gas bullets at reporters who were doing their job and thought of Salazar. But there are important differences between then and now.
For one, our ability to fully understand what happened to Salazar during a monumental chapter in LA history is limited without real-time video. There were black and white photos of MPs carrying arms for the silver dollar and there were conflicting eyewitness accounts. However, there was no real-time video footage.
Imagine the king beating camcorder footage of LAPD officers brandishing their batons without George Hollidays. Imagine Floyd's graphic killing without Darnella Frazier's cell phone footage capturing a pivotal moment in the history of racial relations and police violence in America.
Partly because of the technological constraints of the early 1970s, we have evidence that enables us to draw our own conclusions about the tragic assassination of Ruben Salazar.
My conclusion? When the sheriff's MPs descended on the silver dollar 50 years ago, they did not think about whether their actions would result in injury or death. They didn't care who was in that bar.
This incident would not have played out the same way in a white neighborhood. But that was East Los Angeles, a Mexican-American barrio. The sheriff's deputies were never held accountable for their actions.
In the end, Salazar died of the type of law enforcement abuse he sought to expose.
Lopez was part of the team of Los Angeles Times reporters who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.