An off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer out with his girlfriend at a Lincoln Heights taco stand was found fatally shot early Saturday morning, police and a law enforcement source said.
The officer, identified as 24-year-old Juan Jose Diaz, was one of two people found with gunshot wounds by a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer who was flagged down by a witness about 1 a.m. at Avenue 26 and Humboldt Street, police said. Diaz was assigned to the Special Operations Division, which conducts investigations into department personnel, and had been on the force for about two years.
According to the law enforcement source, the young officer was eating at the taco stand with his girlfriend and her two brothers when a group of young men approached them and began making threats.
One of the men lifted his shirt to reveal a handgun. Diaz, his girlfriend and her brothers tried to get into their car and drive away to avoid a violent confrontation, the source said.
As they got into the car, the gunman opened fire, fatally wounding Diaz and injuring one of his girlfriend’s brothers, said the source. It was unclear if Diaz was armed, but police said there was no exchange of gunfire.
During the confrontation, the gunman claimed allegiance to a gang and said Diaz and his group were in its territory, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to the source, the gunman said he was a member of the Avenues gang. Police are focusing their investigation on members and associates of the gang.
LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala said the injured brother was taken to a hospital for treatment.
She said all available personnel were being assigned to the case. “They are committed to doing a thorough, fair investigation that will lead us on the road to justice for what has occurred today,” Girmala said at a news conference at the scene.
Streets remained closed in the area as investigators continued to collect evidence.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a van carrying Diaz’s body drove in a procession from the crime scene to the L.A. County 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.
“The senseless murder of Officer Juan Diaz is a shocking reminder of the dangers that LAPD officers face every moment they wear the badge, and the absolute courage and selflessness with which they uphold the oath each day,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement Saturday morning.
He offered condolences to Diaz’s family and friends.
“They are experiencing a loss that no one should have to suffer, under circumstances that outrage us all. 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,” Garcetti said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that the killing “is a painful reminder of the gun violence that exists within our country.”
“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,” he said.
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.”
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva also tweeted about the shooting.
“My sincere condolences go out to the LAPD family for the tragic death of one of their officers,” he said. “We are here to support our brothers and sisters of LAPDHQ in any way we can. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends.”
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.”
The Avenues gang has long called Lincoln Heights and other parts of Northeast L.A. its territory. It took root in the 1950s and derives its name from the avenues that cross Figueroa Street.
While its influence has declined significantly over the last decade as crime has gone down, the gang remains an influence. The gang has been known to have strong ties to the Mexican Mafia, known as La Eme, which is a dominant force in California prisons.
The Avenues were responsible for a series of deadly attacks on African Americans in the area 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 shot to death 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. 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 has tempered the gang’s influence in the last decade.
The industrial district now houses movie and dance studios, a Muay Thai gym and food prep kitchens. A sprawling apartment complex near the crime scene is home to seniors and families with young children.
Residents said they feel safe walking their dogs after midnight. At night, Avenue 26 is transformed into an outdoor food market where taco stands line the street with cumbia music and hip-hop playing. The crowd can be chaotic, but it’s always safe, they said.
So it was a surprise to some to hear helicopters hovering overhead and see dozens of cops behind yellow caution tape.
“This is out of the blue,” said a 28-year-old woman who asked not to be identified.