A Utah man accused of fatally shooting an off-duty sheriff’s deputy inside an Alhambra fast-food restaurant and gunning down another man in downtown Los Angeles was charged Thursday with two counts of murder and loved ones and supporters of the fallen deputy later held a vigil at the shooting scene.
Rhett McKenzie Nelson, 30, was also charged with two counts of robbery for allegedly carrying out heists at a 7-Eleven store and a Shell gas station, both in Long Beach, on Monday night, hours after the killings. Nelson was also charged with attempted murder of a third person the same day, although details of that count were not immediately available.
The murder charges include special circumstance allegations of multiple murder and murder by firing from a motor vehicle, opening him to a possible death sentence. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty.
Nelson appeared in court Thursday afternoon, and Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan ordered the St. George, Utah, resident to remain jailed without bail while awaiting arraignment July 22 at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse.
A candlelight vigil was held Thursday evening in memory of Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano at the Jack in the Box in Alhambra where he was shot.
The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union representing deputies, is collecting donations on behalf of Solano’s family. Donations can be made to the ALADS CARES program at 2 Cupania Circle, Monterey Park, CA, 91755.
Nelson, whose family in Utah reported him missing in late May and noted he has a history of opiate abuse, is accused of shooting Solano, 50, at 5:45 p.m. Monday at the Jack in the Box restaurant at 2531 W. Valley Blvd. in Alhambra. Solano died Wednesday afternoon at County-USC Medical Center, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
Solano was at the counter of the restaurant when he was shot in the head in what sheriff’s officials believe was a random attack. Villanueva said Wednesday there’s still no indication the shooter knew that Solano — who was off-duty and not in uniform — was a sheriff’s deputy.
“The deputy was alerted in the restaurant that someone was following him, and that’s when he turned to confront (the person), and that’s when the shooting happened,” Villanueva said. “That much we do know. But the motive, the rationale from the suspect — that’s the million-dollar question.”
Nelson is also accused of killing 31-year-old Dmitry Alekseyevich Kolstov about an hour earlier in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place, between Santa Fe Avenue and Alameda Street, in downtown Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said the shooting was carried out by a gunman in a white SUV matching the description of Nelson’s Kia Sorento, which was also spotted at the scene of Solano’s shooting. Moore said the victim was standing in the area when the SUV pulled up and there was some type of verbal exchange, ending with the shooting.
Following Solano’s shooting, a region-wide manhunt began, with sheriff’s officials circulating surveillance photos of the gunman and the Kia Sorento. The manhunt ended around 10:40 a.m. Tuesday, when Nelson was detained by Long Beach police in the 2400 block of Granada Avenue. He was later turned over to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators, who arrested him.
Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said 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 in Southern California. His father called Long Beach police to report what his son had said.
A short time later, Nelson was seen driving away from the church, and police took him into custody him without incident after he pulled the Kia Sorento 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. A revolver “matching the gun used in the assault” was found inside the vehicle when a search warrant was served, Wegener said.
Following his arrest, the sheriff’s department on Wednesday released a booking photo of Nelson, saying investigators believe he “may have been involved in additional criminal incidents since entering California. 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.
Police in San Diego said Nelson is being investigated as a possible suspect in four armed robberies — and one attempted armed robbery — at convenience stores in San Diego County between Friday and Sunday. Three of the crimes were in San Diego and the others were in Lemon Grove and Carlsbad.
Nelson had a misdemeanor drug conviction in Salt Lake City in December 2014, but no other criminal history.
After Villanueva announced Solano’s death Wednesday, the deputy’s grief-stricken son, Matthew Solano, thanked people for their prayers.
“Thank you to everyone that has had my dad in their prayers. Unfortunately, we have lost him,” he said, fighting back tears. “He was a really good dad, so I just want to thank all the law enforcement agencies that have been a part of this. Continue to pray for him and my family please. Thank you.”
Solano’s long-time girlfriend, Julianna Loza, expressed her appreciation for the support shown to the deputy’s loved ones.
“We would like to thank everyone that supported us during this senseless tragedy … every participating law enforcement agency for the outpouring of support, every doctor, nurse, paramedic, first responders, the gentleman at Jack in the Box in Alhambra who called 911 when he saw this senseless act occur.
“… Although the outcome was not what we wished it to be, we have solace knowing he is in a better place now.”
Solano’s stepdaughter, Jessica Jimenez, said Solano had been in her life for more than 11 years and was not only a father figure but her best friend.
“All I ask is just don’t forget about him,” she said. “He was a hard-working man and was loved by many. He would want us to continue his legacy and never forget him.”
Villanueva, who was sworn in as sheriff in December, said losing a deputy was an eventuality he dreaded and it happened sooner than he expected.
Solano “confronted a threat not knowing what it was, and in a split second, he lost his life,” the sheriff said.
“And that’s what it is in law enforcement. On a good day, we can do heroic things and save lives and avoid death, and other times something as innocent as going to a fast-food restaurant can be end of the watch for our hero, Deputy Solano,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva noted that Solano’s father had recently died, and the deputy was the sole provider for his mother. Solano, a 13-year sheriff’s department veteran, had 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.
On Wednesday night, Solano’s flag-draped coffin was taken from the hospital to the coroner’s office, followed by a procession that included Villanueva, family members, deputies and other supporters.