A Utah man accused of gunning down an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy inside an Alhambra fast-food restaurant an hour after killing a man in downtown Los Angeles pleaded not guilty Monday to double murder, attempted murder and robbery charges.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Stennis ordered Rhett McKenzie Nelson, 30, to remain jailed without bail and return to court Sept. 6 to get a date for a preliminary hearing.
Nelson allegedly shot 50-year-old Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano early in the evening of June 10 after killing 31-year-old Dmitry Alekseyevich Kolstov, an accomplished skateboarder and snowboarder from Russia. He is also facing two counts of robbery for allegedly carrying out heists at a 7-Eleven store and a Shell gas station, both in Long Beach, hours after the killings and attempting to murder a third person the same day.
Solano was at the counter of the Jack in the Box restaurant when he was shot in the head in what sheriff’s officials believe was a random attack. Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said there was 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 in the days after the shooting. “That much we do know. But the motive, the rationale from the suspect — that’s the million-dollar question.”
Kolstov was shot about an hour earlier in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place, between Santa Fe Avenue and Alameda Street. Friends told the Los Angeles Times that Kolstov was hopping off a board and with a group of other skaters when the shooter drove toward them in a Kia Sorento.
Los Angeles police Chief Michel Moore said the shooting was carried out by a gunman in a white SUV matching the description of Nelson’s 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.
The clerk of the Long Beach 7-Eleven, Jose Salem, told CBS2 that Nelson used a gun to rob the store and confessed to the killings. Salem said there were two other customers in the store when Nelson walked in and pulled out a gun, prompting him to close the cash register.
“He said, `I just killed two people right now, don’t act stupid,”’ Salem said.
The murder charges include special circumstance allegations of multiple murder and, in connection with Kolstov’s shooting, murder by firing from a motor vehicle, opening Nelson to a possible death sentence.
Following Solano’s shooting, a region-wide manhunt began, with sheriff’s officials circulating surveillance photos of the gunman and the Kia Sorento.
Nelson walked into a Long Beach church the morning after the shooting, called his father in Utah and talked about carrying out a pair of shootings in Southern California, authorities said. 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 Sorento into the driveway of a home on Granada Avenue.
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,” and a revolver “matching the gun used in the assault” was found inside the vehicle when a search warrant was served, sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said following Nelson’s arrest.
Nelson’s family in Utah reported him missing in late May and noted he has a history of opiate abuse. Nelson had a misdemeanor drug conviction in Salt Lake City in December 2014, but no other criminal history.
Following his arrest, the sheriff’s department released a booking photo of Nelson, saying investigators believe he “may have been involved in additional criminal incidents since entering California.” They asked anyone with information was urged to call the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau or Crime Stoppers.
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. Three of the crimes were in San Diego and the others were in Lemon Grove and Carlsbad.