ALHAMBRA (CNS) - Funeral arrangements were pending today for a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who died at a hospital from a gunshot wound to the head he suffered in an apparently unprovoked attack at an Alhambra fast- food restaurant and a Utah man remained jailed for allegedly shooting the lawman and possibly killing another man in downtown Los Angeles.
Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano, 50, who had been on life support in grave condition at County-USC Medical Center after being shot around 5:45 p.m. Monday at a Jack in the Box restaurant at 2531 W. Valley Blvd., was pronounced dead Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced at somber news conference outside the hospital.
“The entire LASD Family has been shaken by the tragic news regarding the senseless and cowardly murder of Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano,” Villanueva said in a statement Wednesday night.
Villanueva said he spent time with Solano's family at the hospital and “was able to see firsthand the tremendous impact Deputy Solano had on his family, friends and partners throughout the department.”
Villanueva went on to praise Solano for being kind-hearted and generous and a provider for his mother and example for his children.
“We are a better department because of his selfless service,” Villanueva said. “I take comfort knowing the department is compassionately tending to the needs of the Solano family. Please join me in honoring Deputy Solano's memory and keeping his family in our prayers. We appreciate the outpouring of support from everyone. Thank you.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas added in a statement early this morning: “In the face of danger and threats Deputy Solano was known to answer the call. As the details of this tragic event continue to unfold, and we learn the specifics, we will honor his life by standing together and looking out for one another, so that justice is served and his untimely passing will not be in vain.”
The suspected shooter, 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 of shooting Solano, who was at the counter of the restaurant when he was shot in the back of 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.”
Los Angeles Police Department 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.
After Villanueva announced Solano's death, 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 Juliana 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.”
Solano's body was later placed in a flag-draped coffin and taken from the hospital to the coroner's office, followed by a procession that included the sheriff, family members, deputies and other supporters.
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.
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.
Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Kent Wegener told reporters Tuesday that Nelson walked into a Long Beach church around 10 a.m. that day, called his father in Utah and talked about carrying out a pair of shootings. 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 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 Wegener.
A revolver “matching the gun used in the assault” was found inside the vehicle when a search warrant was served, Wegener said.
Nelson was being held 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.