The young off-duty officer was eating with friends near a Lincoln Heights taco stand after midnight Saturday when he saw someone tagging a wall.
He called out for the person to stop, setting off a chain of events that left Los Angeles Police Department officers mourning the death of one of their own while simultaneously trying to find his killer.
According to law enforcement sources, a group of young men approached Officer Juan Jose Diaz sometime after the tagging exchange and began threatening the 24-year-old, his girlfriend and her two brothers. One of the men lifted his shirt to reveal a handgun.
Diaz and his group tried to hurry to their car and drive away to avoid a violent confrontation, a source said. As they got into the vehicle, the gunman opened fire, fatally wounding Diaz and injuring one of his girlfriend’s brothers.
A witness flagged down an LAPD motorcycle officer, who found the two men with gunshot wounds about 1 a.m. at Avenue 26 and Humboldt Street, police said. Diaz was pronounced dead; his girlfriend’s brother was taken to a hospital for treatment. With just two years on the force, Diaz was most recently assigned to the Professional Standards Bureau.
The gunman claimed allegiance to the Avenues, a once-powerful gang that has lost its grip on the neighborhood in the last decade, and said Diaz and his group were in its territory, the law enforcement source said. Patrol cars swarmed the scene after the shooting and blocked off streets as detectives launched an investigation focusing on gang members and associates. No one has been arrested in Saturday’s attack.
A van carrying Diaz’s body drove in a procession from the crime scene to the coroner’s office about a mile away on Mission Road, where it was met by an impromptu honor guard of law enforcement officers lining the street. Officers saluted the van, which was escorted by several LAPD patrol cars, as it drove by. By Saturday afternoon, about a dozen of Diaz’s loved ones gathered somberly for lunch on the lawn outside his home. They declined to speak with a reporter.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said Diaz’s slaying is “a shocking reminder of the dangers that LAPD officers face every moment they wear the badge” and offered condolences to his family and friends.
“They are experiencing a loss that no one should have to suffer, under circumstances that outrage us all,” Garcetti said in a statement. “My promise is that we will hold them close, stand with them every step of the way — and never tire until we find and prosecute the vicious criminals responsible for this horrific tragedy.”
Police Chief Michel Moore was out of the country on vacation when Diaz was killed, but in a tweet asked “for our community’s support in finding his killer.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom also issued a statement, saying “as a state, we must do more to stop these senseless acts that continue to take lives. We owe it to 24-year-old Officer Diaz and all Californians.”
Dozens of officers and supporters turned out for a candlelight vigil Saturday night for Diaz in front of the LAPD headquarters on 1st Street, across from City Hall, in downtown L.A.
“Tonight we gathered to honor a man who dedicated himself to our city—A man whose passion was LA,” the LAPD tweeted. “There were hugs & tears—but we held our heads high as we paid tribute to his dedication to something greater than himself. Tonight our HQ Facility is proud to have Juan front & center.”
Police did not release any information about those involved in the officer’s slaying. Investigators were talking to multiple witnesses and gathering evidence from the scene, including video from neighborhood surveillance cameras.
The Avenues gang has long called Lincoln Heights and other parts of Northeast L.A. its territory. It took root in the 1950s, deriving its name from the avenues that cross Figueroa Street, and gained national attention in 1995, when several members opened fire on a car that made a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley, killing 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen. The girl became a national symbol of random violence.
While its grasp in the area has declined significantly over the last decade as crime has decreased, the gang remains influential. The gang has been known to have strong ties to the Mexican Mafia, a dominant force in California prisons.
The Avenues were involved in several serious crimes from 1995 to 2001, authorities said, including shooting a 15-year-old boy riding a bike, kicking open the door of a 21-year-old man’s home and fatally shooting him in the head and knocking a woman off her bike and threatening her husband with a box cutter.
The Avenues were also responsible for a series of deadly attacks on African Americans in the 1990s and early 2000s. Federal prosecutors alleged the goal was to push African Americans out of the predominantly Latino community.
The gang was also linked to the slaying of a sheriff’s deputy in 2008, when the neighborhood was known as a gang hot spot. In that case, a group of gang members mistook the deputy for a member of a rival gang.
Juan Abel Escalante, who had three young children and was described as having overcome the odds of growing up in a gang-plagued neighborhood, was gunned down outside his parents’ Cypress Park home as he prepared to go to work at Men’s Central Jail, where he guarded some of the county’s most dangerous inmates. He was adjusting a child’s car seat in a vehicle when he was shot in the back of the head.
But residents said Saturday that the neighborhood has since transformed.
Around the time of Escalante’s killing, in 2008 and 2009, federal indictments sent more than 140 Avenues gang members to prison. A combination of gang injunctions, police investigations and residents more willing to report crime tempered the gang’s grip in the area.
The industrial district now houses movie and dance studios, a Muay Thai gym and food prep kitchens. A sprawling apartment complex near Saturday’s crime scene is home to seniors and families with young children.
Residents said they feel safe walking at night, when Avenue 26 is transformed into an outdoor food market where taco stands line the street with cumbia music and hip-hop playing.
Peter, who declined to give his last name due to the nature of the crime, said he visited the taco stand twice Friday night — once for himself and again for his nephew. He said he saw security and felt safe.
Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this story.