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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

It's not common at all for a journalist in Los Angeles working on a politically sensitive story to be shot dead by a law enforcement officer, under mysterious circumstances.

In fact, it's almost unheard of. But that's what happened 40 years ago Sunday along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.

And questions about how and why it happened still linger.

They could also be easily answered, by the release of some yellowed files from a different era.

Ruben Salazar isn't a name that's found in every Los Angeles history book. You could live here a long time and not be familiar with his name, unless you live in East LA or work in the media. Or for the Los Angeles County sheriff's department.

A sheriff's deputy fired the tear-gas projectile that struck Salazar in the temple and killed him on August 29, 1970.

Salazar was inside a bar called the Silver Dollar Café. And there have always been doubts out in the community about why a tear-gas missile was fired through the bar's open door.

The day had been chaotic, to be sure. It was the day of the first National Chicano Moratorium March to protest the Vietnam War.

The march had drawn about 25,000 protesters, but had gone peacefully until some troublemakers at the end threw rocks and bottles at deputies.

When the deputies responded with tear gas and clubs, rioting broke out along Whittier Boulevard.

Salazar was out covering the action for KMEX, the Spanish-language TV station where he was the news director, after a solid career as a reporter, war correspondent and columnist for the L.A. Times.

His killing was called an unfortunate accident by the sheriff at the time. A coroner's inquest ruled that Salazar died at the hands of another, but the DA declined to prosecute the deputy or to look any further into the circumstances.

It's those circumstances that have gnawed at Salazar's family and some in the community.

Frank Sotomayor, a journalist who followed Salazar at the Times and now teaches at USC, writes in a post at LA Observed.com that Salazar had been warned by cops to back off on his coverage of two controversial killings. The victims were shot by LAPD officers.

He told staffers at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that he was being followed, and he gave his Rolodex of news sources to a colleague.

Days later he was killed, despite the Silver Dollar bar being away from the main rioting.

Organizations, including the Times, have called on Sheriff Lee Baca to release sealed files on the Salazar case. He initially refused to even consider it, but friendly persuasion from county Supervisor Gloria Molina apparently got Baca to begin screening the files.

Sotomayor says it's time for the sheriff to stop hiding what's in the boxes. The Times has editorialized in favor of letting the public see whatever is in the files.

Molina agrees. She was at the march in 1970, and she says it's a different sheriff's department now.

If you have a comment on the Salazar case, go to KCRW.com/laobserved and tell us what you think.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.


Banner image: Postage stamp honoring Ruben Salazar, from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429), Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

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