Utah man pleads not guilty in slayings of deputy at Jack in the Box and Russian snowboard champ in L.A.

Rhett Nelson
Rhett Nelson, charged in the shooting death of L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano, appears in court with his defense attorney, Jenn Bartick, on Monday to enter a not guilty plea.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Utah man pleaded not guilty Monday to multiple counts of murder and robbery in connection with a rampage last month that left two men dead, including an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

Rhett McKenzie Nelson, 30, of St. George, Utah, was charged with two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and two counts of robbery after the shooting death of Deputy Joseph Solano, 50, at a fast-food restaurant in Alhambra.

Nelson, who has grown a beard in the five weeks since his last court appearance, kept his eyes down and barely spoke during a brief appearance in a downtown courtroom. His attorney, Jenn Bartick, declined to comment. Nelson is due back in court Sept. 6.


Authorities said Nelson, who has a history of drug problems, fled his family’s home in southern Utah in early June after telling his relatives he wanted to “make it on his own or die.”

He was carrying a gun at the time he drove away from his family’s home, but neither his relatives nor the St. George, Utah, Police Department thought he was a threat when he left on May 25, authorities said. Investigators in Utah did not believe his comments were suicidal, though Nelson’s family thought he’d recently suffered a drug relapse.

A portrait sits next to the casket of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano during a memorial service June 24 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Nelson called his family from Orange County on June 4. With no evidence he posed a threat to himself or others, St. George police closed their investigation.

Five days later, prosecutors say, Nelson drove up to a group of skateboarders near downtown L.A. After a brief verbal exchange, Nelson is alleged to have shot and killed 30-year-old Dmitry Koltsov, a champion Russian snowboarder who had become a beloved figure in the local skate and surf scene.

An hour later, he walked into a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in Alhambra and shot Solano in the head, according to prosecutors. The off-duty deputy, who was out running an errand for his mother, was not wearing anything to identify himself as a member of law enforcement. There is no apparent motive in either killing.


Nelson also has been charged with a pair of armed robberies in Long Beach and one count of attempted murder in connection with a shooting aimed at one of Koltsov’s friends. Police in San Diego said they also consider Nelson a suspect in several robberies there.