Juan Jose Diaz wanted to be a cop since he was in preschool, his sister told mourners Saturday night at a vigil for the slain Los Angeles police officer.
He finally joined the force two years ago. Diaz was assigned to the Special Operations Division, which conducts investigations into department personnel.
Early Saturday morning, he was fatally shot in front of his girlfriend after he confronted a tagger while off-duty having a late-night meal at a taco stand in Lincoln Heights. Law enforcement sources told The Times authorities suspect a member of the Avenues gang opened fire. The gunman is still at large.
Here is what we know:
Q: What are colleagues and family saying about Diaz?
At the candlelight vigil, fellow officers say Diaz grew up in a tough L.A. neighborhood not far from where he was killed, where gangs were part of life and Diaz always wanted to be a cop.
Sgt. Manuel Hernandez, Diaz’s Police Academy sergeant, choked back tears as he remembered the young cadet at a vigil Saturday night in front of the LAPD headquarters.
“Juan stood out to me because ... he grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood and still managed to be a good man,” Hernandez told the crowd gathered. “He didn’t join a gang, he didn’t get in trouble and that’s because of his family, the parents and him.
“I saw him grow up … I had no doubt that he was going to be a great police officer. I even joked with him that I was sure I was going to be working for him one day.”
Diaz’s sister, Anahi Diaz, told the crowd their mother and father are devastated by the killing.
“I just want to remind everyone that these people are putting their lives out there for us,” she said. “We have to protect them as well, that’s the least we can do. They’re more than a badge, they’re human beings.”
Another sister, Sarahy Diaz, said her family was “broken” by the tragedy. She told the crowd that the LAPD had given her brother a sense of purpose.
Childhood friend Martin Gomez said Diaz “was never the jock, never the smart kid. He was the best kid. You could count on him for everything.”
Rene Rivera, childhood friend, said Diaz “loved the law enforcement. He loved it. The smile on his face, that’s a role model for me.” A sign placed at the vigil read: “Rest easy, brother. We’ll hold the line from here.”
Another friend, Eduardo, 26, who didn’t give his last name because the suspect may be a gang member, attended the vigil Saturday night at the LAPD headquarters but felt overwhelmed and had to leave.
“I don’t want to accept the fact that someone else would take a good kid’s life away like that,” he said. “They’re gonna get caught, but how is it fair that whoever did this will spend the rest of his life being fed and having people visit him. My friend here, a good person who did good for the community, won’t have that. That was taken away from us.”
Many at the vigil wore Dodgers clothing, including his sisters, because Diaz loved the team.
“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.
“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.
Q: What do we know about his killing?
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 young 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.
Sgt. Hernandez had a message for the suspect at Saturday’s vigil: “We are going to find you,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time, we are going to find you. So let’s just cut to the chase and turn yourself in.”
Times staff writers Cindy Chang, Angel Jennings and City News Service contributed to this report.