A sheriff’s deputy who was shot in the head in an apparently unprovoked attack at an Alhambra fast-food eatery was fighting for his life Wednesday, while a Utah man remained jailed for allegedly shooting the lawman and possibly killing a man in downtown Los Angeles.
Rhett Nelson, 30, of St. George, Utah, was taken into custody around 10:40 a.m. Tuesday by Long Beach police in the 2400 block of Granada Avenue and later turned over to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators, who arrested him.
Nelson is suspected in the shooting of off-duty Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano, who was at the counter of a Jack in the Box restaurant at 2531 W. Valley Blvd. in Alhambra around 5:45 p.m. Monday when he was shot in the back of the head in what sheriff’s officials believe was a random attack.
Los Angeles police Chief Michel Moore said Nelson is also suspected in a fatal shooting that occurred about an hour earlier in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place, between Santa Fe Avenue and Alameda Street, in the downtown area. That shooting, apparently done from inside a vehicle, left an unidentified 30-year-old man dead.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday that Solano was on life support in grave condition at County-USC Medical Center.
“Please continue to pray for our brother Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano, who continues to fight for his life in the ICU,” Villanueva wrote on Twitter Wednesday morning. “Thank you to everyone who have been sending prayers and words of support.”
The sheriff’s department on Wednesday released a booking photo of Nelson.
“Investigators believe there is a possibility suspect Rhett Nelson may have been involved in additional criminal incidents since entering California,” according to the department. “With the public’s interest in mind, the booking photo is being released in an effort to seek any possible additional victims.”
Anyone with information was urged to call the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500, or Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS.
At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener told reporters that Nelson walked into a Long Beach church around 10 a.m. Tuesday, called his father in Utah and talked about carrying out a pair of shootings.
“During that call he referred to committing murder in Southern California, obviously concerning his father,” Wegener said. “The father called (the) Long Beach Police Department to report what his son had told him. Long Beach did a reverse directory on the phone number provided by the father and responded to that church.”
Pastor Brad Paradee said when Nelson arrived at First Nazarene Church at 2280 Clark Ave., he considered him homeless.
“I was with him for one to two hours,” Paradee told the Daily News. “I gave him food and coffee, let him use my phone to call home and take a shower. He had the gun with him the whole time.”
A short time later, Nelson was seen driving away from the church, and police took him into custody him without incident after he pulled into the driveway of a home on Granada Avenue, Wegener said.
The hat and maroon shirt the gunman wore during the Jack in the Box shooting “were clearly visible in the rear seat of his car,” he said. The suspect and the vehicle — a Kia Sorento SUV — also matched the description of those involved in the shooting, according to the captain. A revolver “matching the gun used in the assault” was found inside the vehicle when a search warrant was served, Wegener said.
Nelson’s father, Bradley, issued a statement Tuesday regarding his son’s arrest.
“My wife Jean and I, along with our family, are saddened beyond words to hear of the shooting of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano, and to learn that our son Rhett is being held in connection with this horrifying and senseless attack,” Bradley Nelson said. “We are cooperating fully with authorities and will provide them with all information they request concerning Rhett and his struggles. We ask that people please pray for Deputy Solano and his family.”
There was no word on why Solano was shot or if the gunman knew he was a sheriff’s deputy. Solano, 50, was not in uniform and was not carrying a gun or badge or anything that would indicate he was a law enforcement officer, authorities said.
Solano — a 13-year department veteran described as a dedicated family man — had just dropped off his mother’s vehicle to be serviced at a Jiffy Lube near the Jack in the Box restaurant where he was shot, Villanueva said. He noted that Solano’s father had recently died, and the deputy was the sole provider for his mother.
“We’re praying for his recovery,” Villanueva said of the wounded deputy. “This is the part of this job that I don’t relish and I always dreaded this day would happen. It happened way too soon.”
Villanueva described Solano as a “kind-hearted, generous person” who was always willing to help others.
Sheriff’s officials said Nelson’s relatives in Utah had recently reported him missing, with Wegener telling reporters that the suspect had arrived in Southern California around the first week of June.
Nelson’s father posted a photo of his son on Facebook on May 30 asking for help finding him, noting he had last been seen in southern Utah in his white 2012 Kia Sorento and that he had a history of drug abuse.
“Our 30 year old son Rhett Nelson disappeared 3 days ago, taking nothing with him but his phone, leaving all his clothing and his computer behind,” Bradley Nelson wrote.
“We’ve had no contact with him, his phone is dead or off since then. He has a history of opiate abuse and has been clean for about 6 months, but we know what a terrible struggle that is. We are praying for his safe return.”
By the first week of June, Rhett had made contact with relatives and told them he was in California, Capt. Mike Giles of the St. George Police Department told the Daily News.
Moore said detectives developed a connection between the “senseless attack” on the deputy and the fatal shooting in downtown Los Angeles that occurred around 4:50 p.m. Monday.
Moore said a 30-year-old man was standing in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place “when a vehicle arrived and, according to other witnesses, an individual inside the vehicle had a brief exchange with our victim, gunfire erupted and our victim sustained at least one gunshot wound and died at the scene.”
“We are led to believe that he (Nelson) is potentially responsible. We are led to that belief on the basis of the suspect Mr. Nelson’s physical appearance, including some of his clothing, as well as the vehicle description,” Moore said.
Nelson was being without bail, according to sheriff’s inmate records.
Nelson had a misdemeanor drug conviction in Salt Lake City in December 2014, but no other criminal history.
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