Capping a six-day manhunt, three suspects were taken into custody Friday in connection with the fatal shooting of an off-duty Los Angeles police officer at a taco stand in Lincoln Heights.
The suspects were arrested in Riverside, Murrieta and Temecula in connection with the slaying of Officer Juan Jose Diaz on Saturday.
Late Friday, the LAPD identified the three — two men and a woman — as Francisco Talamantes, 23; Cristian Facundo, 20; and Ashlynn Smith, 18. All three are residents of Temecula and were arrested on suspicion of murder with a gang allegation, police said. They are being held without bail.
“Today’s and this morning’s operations represent significant steps on the road to justice for [Officer] Juan Diaz, the others who were with him that night and his entire family,” said LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala. “Everything is fresh. Interviews and such have not taken place.”
Investigators had been working nonstop but finally got a break this week when they learned the identity of the alleged triggerman.
Using surveillance by plainclothes detectives and intelligence, Robbery-Homicide Division detectives were able to track the location of those believed to be involved in the shooting, Los Angeles Police Department sources said. The department’s Special Investigation Section, a unit known for its advanced surveillance techniques, had the suspects under watch for at least a couple of days as detectives put together evidence tying them to the killing, the sources said.
SWAT teams and Metropolitan Division officers were then brought in to help take the suspects into custody Friday morning.
“We appreciate the relentless effort our detectives and officers put in to finding these killers,” the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union of rank-and-file LAPD officers, said in a statement. “We urge Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to prosecute these cop killers to the fullest extent of the law, including seeking the death penalty. We continue to pray for and support Officer Diaz’s family during this time of grief.”
Girmala praised the courage of those who provided information to detectives.
“We want to thank the community,” Girmala said.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, at a graduation ceremony Friday, told police recruits and their relatives: “This last week reminded us of what family means. We lost one of our best. He went out there for two short years.”
Law enforcement sources say Diaz confronted a tagger near the taco stand. The tagger left the scene but later returned with a group of young men 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, who was off duty, 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.
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. The suspects taken into custody were Avenues gang members, according to a source familiar with the arrests.
The Avenues gang, named for the avenues that cross Figueroa Street, has a long, ugly history dating to at least the 1950s, when it was linked to many shootouts and killings. It is thought by some that the group’s origins can be traced to some of the hundreds of families displaced from Chavez Ravine, now home to Dodger Stadium, and the Rose Hill area.
The group’s insignia, which many members have tattooed on their bodies, is a fedora-topped skull with a bullet hole in it. Various cliques claim Highland Park and parts of Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock as their territory. The gang is closely linked to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which demands that the Avenues and other Eastside gangs send a share of the “taxes” they collect from low-level drug dealers and others selling goods on their turf.
Diaz lived in Cypress Park, just three miles north of the neighborhood where he was killed.
He joined the LAPD two years ago and was assigned to the Special Operations Division, which conducts investigations into department personnel.
Friends and family said Diaz pursued a career in law enforcement to make a difference. He had wanted to be a cop since preschool, a family member told mourners at a vigil for the slain officer Saturday night.
His sister, Anahi Diaz, told the crowd that 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.”
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.”
Sgt. Manuel Hernandez, Diaz’s Police Academy sergeant, choked back tears as he remembered the cadet.
“I had no doubt that he was going to be a great police officer,” Hernandez said. “I even joked with him that I was sure I was going to be working for him one day.”
Diaz will be laid to rest Aug. 12.